Gangs, guns and the dark side of the knowledge economy: the traumatic turn of Montego Bay

With the per capita murder rate at 24 times New York’s at the height of the crack epidemic, the jewel in the crown of Jamaica’s tourist economy faces deep crisis going into 2018.

On Thursday 18th January, the UK Foreign Office joined Canada and the USA in updating its travel advice for Jamaica. “A State of Emergency has been declared in St James Parish which includes Montego Bay,” it cautioned. “This will lead to more intensive law enforcement activities in response to recent violence including shooting incidents.” Short of recommending UK citizens avoid travel all together, their advice for visitors was to “limit your movements outside of resorts in the area at this time, and exercise particular care if travelling at night.”

It was a blow the Jamaican government must have been expecting. Traditionally the island’s key tourist hub, in 2017 Montego Bay experienced a shocking wave of criminal violence – its per capita murder rate leaping above this week’s reported 29,168 killings in Mexico during 2017. The implications for Jamaica’s economy are worrying. But for local residents used to a modicum of security, the challenges presented are an immediate and heart-breaking twist in Jamaica’s decades long struggle with violence.

I know this. Not so long ago I walked in on my Montegonian wife on the phone to a friend back home in Jamaica. Slipping deep into patois, she was howling with laughter, beside herself. It was only later I found out what was funny. The friend, a raconteur of Chappelleian intensity, had been running errands in Montego Bay, only to find herself caught up in a drive-by shooting. This may strike some an unusual response to double homicide. But, like Dave Chappelle’s baby on the corner bit,[1] the story was loaded with pathos and grim absurdity; doomed humour wrung from the details of her flight into a gallery to avoid the bullets.

By Shawn Grant, from: Shawn Grant & Joan Williams, Original Dancehall Dictionary, 1993.

Jamaicans’ gallows humour runs deep with sublimated pain. There’s good reason that as dancehall music expanded into the late 1980s it seemed to reveal as many words for guns as Eskimos have for snow. In the 1970s, as Jamaica’s bi-partisan political rivalry devolved into internecine warfare, guns flooded into the island. It is difficult, of course, to assess reports (made by Covert Action Bulletin, among others) that the CIA channelled arms to Edward Seaga’s right wing JLP – or the provenance of those that said Cuban guns went to Michael Manley’s socialist PNP. Yet the “gangs of youths” CAB contemporarily described with few resources but sudden “vague ‘jobs’ getting $100 a week, motorscooters, and a gun” were real enough.[2]

“Jamaicans’ gallows humour runs deep with sublimated pain. There’s good reason that as dancehall music expanded into the late 1980s it seemed to reveal as many words for guns as Eskimos have for snow.”

The subsequent human carnage is well documented. The 800 deaths during the bloody 1980 general election resonate through books, popular memory and statistics as an appalling chapter for the island. But Jamaica’s folk history is in its music – the trauma evinced most thickly in literally hundreds of records that addressed the subject between 1980 and 81. There are those like Neville Valentine, whose only option seemed to be to beg, “Gunman… where you get your gun from?/You must’ve get it from Babylon/or you a get it from foreign land” – a coded allusion to CIA gunrunning. Black Uhuru, meanwhile, spoke for a good part of the island’s better off, when they sang: “Civilian warring among each other/only to achieve their coffin/I and I shall stay away, in the Big Apple.”

From: Peter Simon & Stephen Davis, Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica, 1979.

By 1982 the gunmen were putatively stood down and some kind of normalcy returned. Michael Thomas optimistically reported, “The guns are quiet now. The dust has settled… The lights are on in Montego Bay. All is forgiven.”[3] Yet what happened next helped shape modern Jamaica. Disposed of their duties and political benefactors, the posses transmogrified into transnational cocaine gangs – the infamous Spanglers and Shower Posses. Their legacy was to return an entrenched perilousness to Kingston life. By 1990 the island’s murder rate was back up to 543.[4] By 2017 it had risen to 1,616 – almost twice as many killings as 1980, the year Laurie Gunst described as an “undeclared civil war”.[5]

“Half a decade ago Montego Bay felt like a sleepy tropical backwater edged with vast suburbs of golf buggy serviced all-inclusive resorts. If anywhere was to be kept safe, this was it.”

Two things though have changed about this violence. First, its epicentre has moved north west from Kingston to once relatively safe Montego Bay. Second, its growth is no longer attributable to the drug trade. Half a decade ago Montego Bay felt like a sleepy tropical backwater edged with vast suburbs of golf buggy serviced all-inclusive resorts. There could be an edge, of course, like anywhere where poverty is allowed to stick. But this was a town, to the greatest extent, organised around the tourist economy that provides Jamaica with 50% of foreign exchange earnings and one in four jobs.[6] If anywhere was to be kept safe, this was it.

The latest statistics though tell a story of how ordinary Montegonians, like my wife’s friend, have all but lost any sense of security. Last year Montego Bay (population 110,000 – a fraction bigger than Worthing) accounted for almost all 335 murders recorded in the parish of St James.[7] That’s 24 times the per capita murder rate of New York at the height of the crack epidemic in 1988 (12.5 per 100,000).[8] This sudden violent aggregation is widely attributed, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, to Jamaican gangs moving away from drugs and into the knowledge economy. Montego Bay has emerged as the centre for new hugely remunerative lottery scams – some say in parasitic relation to the area’s tourist and call centre industries. What’s more certain, is that with scammers organised into gangs, and the most successful able to “earn up to $100,000 US a week”, [9] the conditions for violence are no less pressing than 40 years ago.

From: Adrian Boot & Michael Thomas: Jah Revenge: Babylon Revisited, 1982.

“Anybody who has visited a Jamaican supermarket has witnessed the riddle of the Jamaican economy first hand.”

To tackle the current crisis the Jamaican government has declared a state of emergency – though it is hard to see what long-term change this can bring. Anybody who has visited a Jamaican supermarket has witnessed the riddle of the Jamaican economy first hand. You might, as an affluent westerner, expect your currencies to take you further here than at home. But you’d be wrong. As Jamaican singer Half Pint complained 32 years ago – around the time, incidentally, the Jamaican economy began to flatline – “the cost of living is getting higher/more seller than buyer.”[10] In 2017 your imported milk will cost £1.52 per litre. A loaf of bread, £1.65. 12 eggs, £1.98. Chicken, £5.24 per kilo.[11] Over 50% of the Jamaican population, meanwhile, subsist on less than $2.50 US a day.[12]

While none of this makes the lottery scams rational, from these baffling aisles perhaps nothing is. In a society where the global imagery of hyperconsumption is as prominent as anywhere – in music videos, song lyrics, gossip rags, and so on – the attractions this volatile enterprise might hold for a small subsection of disenfranchised young Jamaicans aren’t hard to fathom. Even more so, when you figure in the inuring effects of decades of violence.

Part of the challenge for Jamaica surely then is economic. The degree to which the island is now dependent on imports[13] and foreign money is problematic developmentally. In the all-important tourist industry, the last two decades have seen foreign owned chains, like the Spanish Iberostar and Riu, emerge from nowhere to owning 60% of tourism assets.[14] Given their all-inclusive models, and dependence on international supply chains to stock their vast all-you-can-eat restaurants, feedback into the local economy is limited. That means if you are not directly employed in the hotel industry, tourism is unlikely to pull you out of your $2.50 a day struggle. At least not by legitimate means.

That those holidaymakers now are even less likely to leave their gated complexes seems both deeply understandable and a tragic missed opportunity – first, to experience the best parts of ordinary Jamaica and its resilient humanity. But also to take part in building a more equitable economy that might ultimately help Montego Bay find its own way back.


By Gloria Granger, from: Jamaica Around the World Program, Royal Geographical Society, 1961.


















DISCLAIMER: This blog is produced for educational purposes only. If you are the owner of any of the above images and object to their use in this post, please get in touch.

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