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Political violence wanes in Jamaica

But questions rise about politicians’ link to drug gangs

SHARE Political violence wanes in Jamaica

KINGSTON, Jamaica — With sharpshooters stationed on rooftops, troops leveling guns from sandbagged windows and armored vehicles rumbling under the protection of a hovering helicopter gunship, Jamaica's opposition leader surveyed the scene.

Days of gunbattles between police and his supporters had stained the streets with blood. Burnt-out vehicles stood abandoned Tuesday and the heat-bloated body of an elderly man, shot in the back, sprawled face down.

Suddenly, hundreds of people, frightened into hiding for days, flooded the street.

"Shower! Shower!" they yelled, in praise of the notorious Shower Posse, a drug gang the FBI blames for 1,400 slayings on the U.S. East Coast at the height of the cocaine wars of the 1980s.

Edward Seaga, Jamaica's Labor Party leader, called back to them through a bullhorn. He told them police had killed the elderly man over the weekend, as part of a crackdown on communities loyal to Seaga's opposition party.

The man was one of at least 22 people killed since Saturday, a streak of violence that could hurt an ailing economy, especially the $1.3 billion tourist industry. Police moved into a tough Kingston neighborhood Saturday to disarm gangsters who had waged two months of shootouts that had already left 37 people dead.

Politicians disavow ties to Jamaica's ruthless gangs, but their histories are intertwined.

The fearsome gang culture developed in the 1970s when politicians armed criminals to intimidate voters as the two main parties fought for supremacy. The gangs, made financially independent by the drug trade, now have evolved into a virtually uncontrollable force.

"The politicians say they do not support these people, but the links between politicians and organized crime are very much alive," said Monsignor Richard Albert, an American who has lived in Jamaica for more than 20 years.

"It's dangerous for the survival of a democracy," he said. "The power isn't the ballot box, it's the gun. That's the scary part."

Seaga's party and Prime Minister P.J. Patterson's People's National Party have accused each other of orchestrating the violence ahead of next year's general elections.

Seaga and his backers say most who were killed since the weekend were innocent victims, slain by police targeting opposition strongholds. Labor Party supporters have raised roadblocks of burning tires, bags of garbage and blazing vehicles.

"We're tired of the killing. We don't want them no more. We want them to leave," a man screamed into a Jamaica Television camera late Tuesday.

The violence has highlighted the plight of the poorest Jamaicans, most of whom depend on allegiance to a drug gang or the party it supports for jobs. Jamaica is slightly smaller than Connecticut, and about a third of its 2.6 million people live in poverty. The island has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Many stores have closed and police say shops have been looted. The nation's blood bank is out of blood and the cemetery is closed by the unrest.

Analysts and business leaders worry about the economic effect.

"Our main industries, like tourism . . . can't handle this kind of news," said Peter Moses, head of the Private Sector Organization, a group for manufacturers, distributors and exporters.

Travel agents insist tourists are not alarmed. Flights into Montego Bay, a popular resort about 80 miles northwest of Kingston, were packed Tuesday. Jerry Helwig, a 42-year-old retired doctor from Chicago, said the protests "might be interesting" for his vacation.

Royal Caribbean cruise line said its Voyager of the Seas ship would dock Wednesday at Ocho Rios, a northern port about 40 miles east of Montego Bay.

"Most of our travel is into Montego Bay, which is nowhere near Kingston . . . so we haven't had any cancellations," said Joanie Waskevich of the Caribbean Travel Network.

But there has been sporadic violence near the northern resort towns; a police officer was killed Tuesday when he was struck in the head by a rock at a protest outside Montego Bay.

As Seaga toured Kingston's battle-scarred Tivoli Gardens neighborhood, veteran police Constable Cecil Walker described how he was walking in plainclothes Sunday beside a little girl who was killed by police fire.

"She got shot down and I had to run — I barely made it alive," Walker said. "The police were shooting at us."

Patterson deployed Jamaica's entire army — more than 3,000 troops — on Monday. Seaga called the move "a state of emergency under another name." Sporadic fighting remained Tuesday.

With a heavy security presence, more than 1,500 people marched through downtown Kingston late Tuesday, calling for peace.

"The devil has infected souls on both sides," said Violet Williams, 45, who was singing a hymn as tears streamed down her face.

Claudia McKay, a 23-year-old seamstress in Kingston, said she tried Tuesday — without luck — to get food for the four children she'd locked into her home. The farmers' market was abandoned and she felt it was too dangerous to leave the neighborhood, despite the security presence.

"Anyone who tried to move got shot at," she said. "It's pure murder from both ends . . . the police and the gangs."