Jamaica sends army to quell politically charged violence that leaves 21 dead
KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) – Backed by helicopter gunships, soldiers deployed in a troubled Kingston neighborhood Tuesday, patrolling streets blocked with debris from days of gunbattles between police and government opponents that have killed 21 people.
Crouching low with machine gun at the ready, a trooper passed the body of an elderly man sprawled face down in a pool of dried blood, apparently from a bullet in the back. Residents of Tivoli Gardens, the besieged neighborhood, said the man was killed Sunday.
”Anyone who tried to move got shot at. It’s pure murder from both ends … the police and the gangs,” said Claudia McKay, a 23-year-old seamstress.
The violence has been concentrated in the capital, Kingston, in southeast Jamaica, though there have been isolated protests and roadblocks that police quickly dismantled in the northern resort towns of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
There were no reports of tourists leaving, but a new U.S. travel advisory against western and downtown Kingston raised worries the disturbances could hurt Jamaica’s vital $1.3 billion tourism industry.
Prime Minister P.J. Patterson ordered Jamaica’s entire army to deploy Monday night to reinforce security forces trying to put down fighting between gangs affiliated with the two main political parties.
”The government cannot stand idly by and allow criminal elements to hold this country to ransom,” Patterson said.
But the opposition Labor Party says authorities have been targeting only its followers in the crackdown launched Saturday. Since then, 21 people have been killed, including three police officers and one soldier. One of the police deaths came Tuesday when an officer was hit in the head by a rock thrown by protesters 40 miles from Montego Bay.
Britain, the former colonial ruler, said it was reviewing its travel advisory for Jamaica, though Prime Minister Tony Blair will still visit the island at month’s end.
Commerce is hurting since the fighting and roadblocks shut down banks, stores and other business, and a few shops were looted, police said. The nation’s blood bank is out of blood and the cemetery is closed by the unrest.
Anthony Chang, president of Jamaica’s Chamber of Commerce, predicted that the economy would be damaged. ”It’s too early to tell, you need some time to gauge these things, but this not good,” he said.
However, Carnival Cruise Lines said its tours to Jamaica would continue. Jamaican tourism officials advised the cruise line that ”everything is normal in Montego Bay,” spokesman Tim Gallagher said.
”It’s not affecting tourists in any way,” said Dawn Sharp, a Montego Bay resident who arrived in Miami on Tuesday. ”Everywhere you have ghettos so it’s just a specific location where you have problems.”
In Tivoli Gardens – a Labor Party stronghold – police Constable Cecil Walker described how he was walking down a street in plainclothes Sunday beside a girl of 7 or 8 who was killed when police opened fire.
”She got shot down and I had to run – I barely made it alive,” Walker said. ”The police were shooting at us.”
Hundreds of people poured out Tuesday into streets littered with burned-out cars and hundreds of bullet shells. They were taking advantage of heavy security surrounding a visit from opposition Labor leader Edward Seaga, a Kingston legislator.
”Shower! Shower!” they yelled, making the two-finger victory sign of the notorious Shower Posse drug gang, which the FBI blames for 1,400 murders on the U.S. east coast at the height of the 1980s cocaine wars.
Saturday’s police crackdown was launched after more than two months of fighting between gangs in western Kingston that killed 37 people. Police say the gang war was triggered by the killing of a Kingston gang leader.
Seaga has said the fighting is a plot by Patterson’s party to embarrass him. Patterson supporters charge Seaga is orchestrating the violence to force an early election while he’s ahead in the polls. General elections are due before the end of next year.
Jamaica, with 2.6 million people, has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with 530 this year. That does not include 75 people killed by police between January and last week – deaths police said were self-defense.
Patterson mounted a similar crackdown two years ago. Jamaica’s political history is intertwined with the gangs the two main parties helped organize and arm in Kingston’s poor neighborhoods in the 1970s. The gangs control the streets and intimidate voters at election time.
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