An exclusive article for the montlhy newsletter “En la mira – The Latin American Small Arms Watch.” Click here for subscriptions and for previous issues.
While Jamaica is one of the countries with the greatest incidence of armed violence in the world, it is also one of the least known cases in terms of policies and initiatives to alleviate the situation.
The history of armed violence in this country is linked to a political dispute which has precedents going back to confrontations in the 1940s between the followers of Norman Manley (founder of the People’s National Party) and Alexander Bustamante (founder of the Jamaica Labour Party).
The building of suburbs based on the geographical separation of political allegiances was common in the forties and fifties. This politically motivated segregation is one of the main causes for the development of organized crime in Jamaica. Organized crime is linked to drug-trafficking - mostly marihuana or "ganja," a local variety - and also to arms trafficking (the most important route being that from Miami via the ant trade of small shipping vessels).
In subsequent developments, there was a rapid transformation of crime; ordinary delinquency became confounded with political crime leading to a considerable increase in the rate of armed violence. Between 1960 and 1976, the incidence of illegal possession of arms rose from 8 per 100,000 inhabitants to 90 per 100,000 inhabitants. 1 Until the ‘80s, there was a great deal of mutual dependence and cross-relationships between Jamaican politicians and the dons of Kingston. In exchange for local votes, the politicians returned the favor with jobs for public works, or government benefits such as subsidized housing.
Although some specialists believe that politically motivated violence has diminished in the last few years, recent months have seen a notable increase in the number of homicides in light of the June, 2007 election celebrations. While the total number of persons assassinated in Jamaica in 2006 was 1,674, in the first three months of 2007 alone, 595 people were killed using firearms. 2
From this perspective, Jamaica has one of the most interesting initiatives in the world for dealing with the proliferation of small arms and light weapons: The establishment of special Gun Courts for dealing exclusively with cases involving arms.
The Gun Court was established on April 2, 1974 as an extension of the Supreme Court; with a decentralized structure, it has four provincial courts, as well as being present in the capital, Kingston. The Gun Court was created with the objective of making dealing with arms-related cases more agile and effective, in order to combat the incidence of armed violence which was increasing at a galloping rate.
The Gun Court operates without a jury, thus making it much swifter than an ordinary court. The court has authority in cases of illegal possession of arms and munitions, as well as in cases of armed attacks and shoot-outs. The only exception to firearms related acts are homicides since according to Jamaican law, these trials must be by jury.
One of the most striking aspects of the Gun Court is that the illegal possession of arms can carry an obligatory life prison sentence.
In July, 1975, the Privy Council of London 3 ruled that the Gun Courts were constitutional, ruling in favor of the law that permitted their establishment. Nonetheless, the Privy Council ruled as unconstitutional life sentences of forced labor administered by Gun Court judges.
A 1983 amendment (the Gun Court Amendment Act), again modified the original law, enabling the possibility of bail during appeal for the accused (the Privy Council also being the appeal court). The 1983 amendment also abolished mandatory life sentences, and removed hundreds of cases involving minors under 14 who had been previously been sentenced to life terms; many such minors got parole.
Although there are no systematic statistics on the number of cases heard by the Gun Court, the number is thought to be high because the Kingston Gun Court alone hears an average of six cases daily.
At any rate, the Jamaican experience demonstrates a creative example that could be adapted and considered by many other countries. Cases of illegal possession of arms and munitions mean a heavy burden for the judiciaries of many Latin American and Caribbean countries, in addition to creating other related obligations such as storing the arms and maintaining warehouses.
Even though the Anglo-Saxon judicial tradition is different from the Roman tradition - predominant in Latin America – this doesn’t mean that these special courts can’t be replicated throughout the region - assuming the existence of a legal framework that would permit the illegal possession of arms as being a considered an offense. Similarly, several countries have recently established special courts to deal with cases of domestic violence and child abuse (since these types of offenses require a rapid response on the part of the justice system, since in many cases there is collusion between the victim and the perpetrator). A similar response is also required in the case of illegal possession of arms and munitions. Those possessing illegal arms are already committing an offence: it is better to try them quickly than to wait until they commit some more serious crime such as homicide.
Practical measures facilitate the support of sentences, and make justice preventive and thus more nimble. Such measures are, without doubt, effective and contribute to the fight against the proliferation of illegal firearms.
1 Harriott, Anthony: Understanding Crime in Jamaica. New Challenges for Public Policy, The University of the West Indies Press, Kingston, 2003.
2 Health Promotion and Protection Division: Report on Injuries (2005), Ministry of Health of Jamaica, Kingston, December, 2006.
3 The Privy Council is the ultimate judiciary body for Commonwealth member countries, and is based in London. The Jamaican constitution and parliament permit that certain cases be retried as a last resort by this court which was created in 1833 to act a supreme court of appeals for the colonies of the British Empire.
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