Cracked up to be bigger

Kim Shillinglaw finds plenty of reasons for trouble among gangs in Kingston, Jamaica. The least of them is the drugs trade
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The Independent Culture
Last summer, I went to Jamaica to make a documentary for ITV about the notorious Yardies - Jamaican criminals reputed to control the international crack cocaine trade. We had read in the tabloids that they were the new Mafia, organised criminals exporting vast amounts of drugs from the ghettos of Kingston to the streets of London. We found a rather different story.

Kingston, Jamaica's capital, is circled by cool green hills dotted with luxurious mansions. This is where wealthy "uptowners" live and most tourists stay. Looking downtown from the hills, you see a jumble of crowded streets and narrow alleys, corrugated iron shacks and noisy markets.

Kingston is a divided city. Downtown, it is a patchwork of warring territories known as garrison communities, with names like Jungle, Tel Aviv and Tivoli. Everyone knows the boundaries and nobody crosses them lightly.

Jamaica's capital is a remarkably violent place. It has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Last year, Lloydie, who we filmed with in August, was one of 600 people killed in a population of only two million. But we found the causes were poverty and politics rather than the drugs trade.

The city has been carved up between Jamaica's two political parties. It is like Belfast with sunshine. Their supporters nurse a murderous hatred towards each other and an election year will see the murder rate double. It has been this way since the early 1970s, when Jamaica's uptown politicians started arming ghetto youth to circumvent the democratic process.

A British police officer who has studied the Yardies closely explains: "Corrupt politicians saw an opportunity to manipulate the street culture of Kingston. They actively encouraged partisanship, distributed firearms among supporters and reaped the benefits of violent gang enforcement."

The links between Jamaican politicians and the ghetto gangs endure even today. When Jim Brown, the "don" of Tivoli and one of America's most wanted men, died in 1992, former prime minister Eddie Seaga was among 40,000 mourners. Imagine Margaret Thatcher attending a Kray funeral, or George Bush mourning a Mafia godfather. "The community revered Jim Brown as someone who could give them protection," Seaga said a year later: "While not condoning his mode of life, I can certainly associate myself with the work he did in his community."

But there are signs now of that alliance breaking down. The guns are one reason. Having been given the toys, the boys want to play on their own. Cocaine is another. Jamaica is a transhipment port, and off-cuts from this lucrative business have given the ghetto kings a measure of independence.

Not surprisingly, Jamaican politicians aren't happy about losing control of the ghetto and the past 18 months have seen a new enthusiasm for cracking down on crime. The government has set up a Special Anti-Crime Detachment, popularly known as ACID, whose heavy-handed tactics and 24-hour presence in the ghettos have made them notorious. "We're the most respected squad to be formed in Jamaica. We have the bad guys under siege," Sergeant Derek Powell told us.

It didn't look that way to me. In the space of six weeks, I went on 30 raids across Kingston with the boys from ACID. They broke down the doors of reputed crack dens, busted up "dances" where "dons" were meant to be and hauled in up to 20 ghetto youths a time. Yet in all these raids, I never saw ACID seize cocaine, only small amounts of ganja and knives. The only big drugs haul was in a plush, empty house in the hills. Nobody was arrested.

The most farcical moment came when ACID thought they'd found an automatic weapon hidden beneath a corrugated iron house. It turned out to be a child's toy.

While some ghetto violence is certainly linked to the drug trade, there seems to be little evidence that downtown Kingston is the heartland of the international drugs business. Father Richard Alben, who has served a tough Kingston community for nearly 20 years, says more of the violence is geared towards individual survival than organised crime. "There are few Al Capones or Dillingers here," he says, "though many would like to see themselves that way."

The same unproven link between violence and organised drugs also crops up with the British media closer to home.Britain's National Criminal Intelligence Service, though reluctant to give figures, admits the amount of cocaine entering Britain via Jamaica may be as low as 5 per cent.

The Jamaican ghettos do send their frustrations to London, but frankly, reggae, rasta and Red Stripe are bigger exports. Like the Krays, the Yardies have a reputation out of proportion to their real power. If authorities on both sides of the Atlantic really want to crack the international cocaine trade, they will have to concentrate their efforts elsewhere than Brixton and Kingston. Medellin and even Mayfair might be better starting points.