‘The Iron Lady’ closes fists
Peaceful St Bess wary of migrant criminals seeking cover in parish
Heightened police-military activities in the killing fields of St James, Westmoreland and Hanover have placed communities along the St Elizabeth border on high alert for undesirables seeking refuge in their villages.
The three western parishes have accounted for 288 of the 1,288 murders committed in Jamaica this year up to November 20, and are among the country’s seven most murderous police divisions that were under a two-week state of emergency that ended yesterday.
The island had up to November 20 recorded 128 homicides – or 11 per cent – more than the 1,160 committed for the corresponding period last year.
Migratory criminals have been a long-standing concern for divisional commanders, particularly those in the more peaceful parishes, such as quiet, unsuspecting rural villages like Berkshire in St Elizabeth, where Jamaica’s most wanted, Ryan ‘Ratty’ Peterkin, was killed during a shoot-out with the security forces two years ago.
Peterkin led the notorious Ratty gang, comprising men and women, which reigned with terror in Retrieve and Cambridge in southern St James in 2018.
“There is still a stain on the community from that decision. Putting up Ratty was a bad decision, and I am concerned that that association could still give birth to something ugly here,” reasoned a senior citizen in Berkshire last week. “We have a lot of young people here. Sometimes, they are quite peaceful, but other times, they join with their outside friends and have jollification and discharge guns.”
Long-serving justice of the peace Pusey Burchell was reluctant to speak on the harbouring of felons in his community, but is hoping that frequent visits from the Bethel Town police will deter a repeat of the 2018 incident.
Like Berkshire, farming is the lifeblood of Springfield in St Elizabeth and residents will resist any attempt to disrupt the peace.
“From they come here and mention the word gang, we contact the big police, so they will never stay here,” said the no-nonsense Alphonso Ferron, who was even cagey of The Sunday Gleaner team. “Strangers have to give account, so no crime can succeed here … . We are police informers.”
CLOSE TO KILLING FIELDS
Dubbed the breadbasket of Jamaica, St Elizabeth is located in the southwest of the island, bordered on the north by St James and Trelawny, with Westmoreland to the west and Manchester to the east. The major towns are Black River, Santa Cruz, Malvern, Junction and Balaclava. There are also developed communities such as Treasure Beach, Bull Savannah, Southfield and Siloah.
Southfield resident Everton Josephs declared that criminality is not tolerated by residents, and is convinced that he resides in one of the safest communities in Jamaica.
“Southfield – and, I dare say, south St Elizabeth – is very safe,” he told The Sunday Gleaner, while reaping produce from his farm, “… and we are self-independent. The men are mainly farmers, people just work, so no one would need to involve themselves in criminality, so a state of emergency is not necessary in this parish. All the police need to do is enforce border control.
“We have no time for lottery scamming; there is too much land to work,” added Josephs, who was deported from the United States in 2007. “They say I bribe someone and I would have to be locked up to fight immigration, so I came home, because I was coming back to paradise – a crime-free space.”
In Flagaman, melon farmer Clayville Bent noted that a lack of water is of greater concern than crime.
“Most crops will not do well, but melons will flourish with very little water, so I am still able to feed my family, but we don’t have a crime problem. It’s just who we are – very peaceful,” he said.
But this was not the case in 2013, when concerns of domestic disputes heightened in St Elizabeth; 2014 started with two separate double murders in less than 24 hours.
Last year, the parish was dubbed the robbery capital of Jamaica, but such incidents have declined significantly. Overall, serious crimes are trending downward.
For the period January 1 to November 20 this year, all serious crimes were down, including robbery, which saw incidents slashed to 24, or 64.7 per cent less than the corresponding period last year (68). Murders fell by 23.1 per cent, or six fewer than the 26 committed in 2020. There were 12 reported shootings for the period this year, 16 fewer than last year (28); and break-ins dipped to 48 fewer than the 133 in 2020.
However, 18 allegations of rape were reported this year, two more than the 16 reported up to November 20 last year.
Yet divisional commander, Superintendent Narda Simms, is not ready for the plaudits, noting that there is still a lot more work to be done.
“Migration of criminals will always be a concern, when you are bordered by St James and Westmoreland,” she said. “The people of St Elizabeth have been very supportive. We have been doing a lot of public order and we are getting the cooperation in places like Santa Cruz; although some might not like it, they comply.”
At the start of her tenure last year, the 22-year veteran crime-fighter pledged to provide clear communication to the citizenry to establish partnerships and sound tactics in the drive to maintain law and order in the parish. A more tactical and increased deployment of the men and women under her command were among the immediate strategies.
Simms said that her officers have been performing above and beyond to curb crime and violence in the parish, attributing the decline in lawlessness to strategic planning.
“All major crimes are trending down and we want that to continue,” the superintendent said. “We are doing well. The only issue we have is aggravated assaults, but we have managed to pull down the figures to where we were last year … . I am proud of my men and women; they are dedicated.”
Called ‘Margaret Thatcher by her staff for her hard-nosed policing and management style – a nod to the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century famously called ‘The Iron Lady’ – Simms said that one has to be prepared to do what it takes to get the job done.
“The leader sets the pace, and I manage with an iron fist, but people enjoy success, and we thank God for the results so far,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.
Businesswoman Vanessa Montague, operator of the popular MQ Variety Bay Store in the parish capital of Black River, has high praises for the police, but argues that more resources would reap greater results.
“We can invest comfortably because the police are visible in the commercial areas,” she stated. “We feel safe, but we are calling on the authorities to provide even more resources, because with more support, our numbers can be reduced to zero,” she said.