- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

SPANISH TOWN, Jamaica ecked out in a white silk suit and white square-toed shoes, Dominic Bennett was carried by pallbearers in a glass casket as thousands of onlookers thronged his funeral.

Mr. Bennett received a hero’s funeral, but he was a gang leader — admired by some, feared by many — who helped fuel a rash of killings that has made Jamaica one of the world’s deadliest places.

As Jamaica was headed toward its record of 1,669 homicides in 2005, Mr. Bennett himself became a statistic when he was killed in a shootout with police at his home in Spanish Town, west of Kingston.

Jamaica, an island of 2.6 million people that is best known for its white-sand beaches, reggae and gourmet Blue Mountain coffee, has a homicide rate 10 times that of the United States.

Poorly equipped and understaffed, police have been unable to stem the bloodshed, which occurs mostly in impoverished neighborhoods around the capital, Kingston, far from tourist attractions.

The police have developed a reputation for slipshod investigations and for being too quick on the trigger. Rather than help the police, people in the Spanish Town slum sometimes run when officers approach.

“There has been a breakdown in trust on the streets. Some people are just as scared of the police,” Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Shields said in an interview with the Associated Press. Commissioner Shields, a veteran of England’s Scotland Yard, was hired last year to become Jamaica’s No. 2 policeman and help cope with the soaring homicide rate.

The violence has its roots in the 1970s, when political factions armed gangs to intimidate opponents before the 1980 general elections. About 800 people were killed in election-related violence that year.

Twenty-six years later, the politicians have lost control of the gangs. The slums have become patchwork battlefields, the ever-changing front lines between rival gangs marked by barricades of old refrigerators, junked cars and burning tires. Mr. Bennett’s gang is called the Clansmen, and it is at war with the One Order gang.

“If someone lives here, I’m responsible. If someone dies, I’m also responsible,” said Andrew “Bunman” Hope, 27, leader of One Order, sitting in the back of a parked car outside his home for a rare interview. Gang gunmen kept a lookout for police or rival gang members from rooftops and intersections.

Police say Mr. Hope is an extortionist, but he denies it, insisting that the payments he receives from business owners are “gifts.”

Although the gangs do use strong-arm tactics, and even kill those who refuse to pay extortion, gang leaders, known as “dons,” at times act as ad hoc civic leaders.

Mr. Bennett, whose nickname was Bulbie, extorted money from businesses and ordered scores of rivals killed. But when he strode down Spanish Town’s pitted streets, merchants would walk out to talk with him and seek favors or loans.

Mr. Bennett was feared, but he also might pay the school fees for a promising neighborhood child, help provide hookups to electricity or work with politicians to get roads paved.

Many poor Jamaicans, with few opportunities for advancement, have joined gangs to obtain material goods and respect.

“If the government can’t provide basic service for the poor, if they can’t alleviate the poverty in Jamaica’s slums, the violence will never end,” said Monsignor Richard Albert, a Roman Catholic cleric and New York native who has mediated between Jamaica’s police and gangs for more than 25 years.

Mr. Bennett’s death in October was followed by more bloodshed as a power struggle within the gang erupted and killings were carried out by rival gangs attempting to muscle in on the Clansmen’s turf.

“Bulbie’s death was destabilizing for Kingston,” Commissioner Shields said. “The killing of a top leader always creates a power vacuum, which usually means a period of intense violence as people look to take the leader’s place.”

Monsignor Albert said that young men who venture into a rival gang’s territory risk being shot on sight.

“They grow up together, play football, go to school, but they can no longer cross the neighborhood line dividing the Clansman and One Order,” he said.

“No male between 15 and 35 can cross that line.”

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