KINGSTON, Jamaica — Gunshots every night, burned-down businesses and corpses — up to a half-dozen a day — used to define the neighborhood of Mountain View on the eastern hillsides of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. But not anymore.
Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Keith Nugent, 76, a tailor who also counsels former criminals, praises the police for spending more time getting to know the community and for starting youth clubs for teenagers. More Photos »
Now, the nights are filled with barefoot soccer matches under streetlights or block parties that bring together former rivals from local gangs. No one has been murdered in Mountain View for three years.
“The dark cloud is moving away,” said Keith Nugent, 76, a tailor in the neighborhood who counsels former criminals. “Young people here are beginning to gravitate to a sense of life, and function.”
Jamaica is emerging as a rare bright spot in the hub of the fight against drugs and organized crime that extends across South America and the Caribbean. After more than a decade fighting lawlessness, with limited success, this small island with a reputation for both carefree living and bloodshed has begun to see results. Jamaica’s murder rate, while still high, has fallen by 40 percent since 2009, and a respected study recently reported that “Jamaica has fallen from one of the more corrupt countries in the Americas to one of the least.”
The situation here differs markedly from elsewhere in the region, in Central America and Mexico, where militarized, transnational drug cartels battle among themselves over the main smuggling routes into the United States. But experts and American officials say that as drug traffic shifts back to the Caribbean — because of intensifying enforcement elsewhere — Jamaica has done far more than many other countries to protect itself, by working transparently to strengthen weak institutions while welcoming assistance from outsiders.
“There’s an awful lot of introspection that’s been going on in Jamaica,” said Pamela E. Bridgewater, the American ambassador. As a result, she added, cooperation with the United States and other countries has “risen to a different level.”
Since 2009, no other country has received more American aid from the $203 million Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, yet relatively little of it has been directed toward the muscular, militarized efforts financed elsewhere as part of the war on drugs.
The new emphasis — on community policing, violence reduction and combating corruption — grew partly from crisis. In May 2010, Christopher M. Coke, one of Jamaica’s most powerful drug lords, fought an attempt to arrest and extradite him to the United States, prompting a neighborhood siege by the authorities, which left at least 70 people dead.
His surrender a few weeks later helped break up gun and drug networks, according to Jamaican officials, and allowed the country to zero in on longer-term projects, with imported expertise.
The United States, for example, is about to set up a vetting center for the Anticorruption Bureau of the Jamaican police, complete with polygraphs and training for operators.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office also notes that the Americans are giving Jamaican officers utility belts with only a baton and pepper spray in an effort to discourage deadly armed conflicts. The next weapons most likely to be delivered — Tasers — are more aggressive, but still a far cry from the helicopters, boats and Special Forces troops the United States is pushing into Central America.
Jamaica, though, has a different historical relationship with the United States and the war on drugs.
The Caribbean was the main trafficking route for cocaine heading to the United States in the ’80s and ’90s, which means Jamaica was among the first countries in the region to join international efforts against transnational crime. Jamaican and American officials say that as a result, sensitivities about foreign intervention are less intense here than in Central America and Mexico, and there are fewer institutional rivalries or disagreements about when the police or the military should intervene in the fight against traffickers.
“As long as we are aligned in the fight against organized crime, I’m willing to work with anyone,” said Peter Bunting, Jamaica’s minister of security.
Jamaica, as a longtime hub of marijuana production and consumption, has generally been more open about its weaknesses. Officials acknowledged the need for new levels of help nearly a decade ago, even putting foreigners in charge of the national police.
“Jamaica was on a precipice; it was about to become a narco state,” said Mark Shields, a former British police officer appointed deputy police commissioner in 2005.
The government also created or strengthened anticorruption commissions to keep a close watch on elected officials, contracts and the police. Forensic audits became required annually, for senior officials and beat officers alike. And laws have been toughened so that those found with suspicious windfalls must prove how they obtained the money or else be fired or prosecuted.
The goal, Mr. Bunting said, is to focus less on drugs and more on ill-gotten gains. “The kingpins are not the ones on the go-fast boat,” he said. “They’re usually closer to their money, so we’re going after the money.”
Jamaica’s murder rate is still relatively high, but it is down. More Photos »
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Eduardo A. Gamarra, a professor of international relations at Florida International University, said Jamaica’s approach had taken hold only because the arrest of Mr. Coke forced residents to see their country at rock bottom. A tipping point was reached, he said, as Jamaicans witnessed the power of Mr. Coke (nicknamed Dudus), who avoided extradition for nearly a year with the help of well-connected political allies, and as bodies piled up from the conflict between his supporters and the authorities.
“You have to have these momentous events to transform societies,” Mr. Gamarra said. “What is it that produced the change in Jamaica? Dudus Coke.”
The positive results have been obvious in areas like Mountain View. For many residents there, the Coke affair — which took place a few miles away in the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood — still stings like lingering tear gas. Local gangs with ties to Mr. Coke resent what they describe as a police “incursion” characterized by officers killing civilians and other examples of excessive force.
But even the angriest Mountain View residents say they have chosen calm over chaos. Oswaldo Kemp, 34, who spent two years in prison in connection with the shooting of a police officer, now worries mostly about work. “I’m just trying to get my little farm running again,” he said, standing between a fattened pig and a row of vegetables.
Around the corner, Kachif Benjamin, 27, shirtless and wearing a pink backpack, said many gang members and drug dealers also decided they had had enough of the bloodshed. “We’ve been there, done that,” he said.
Violence remains a significant problem. On July 22 in Montego Bay, a teenager was stabbed to death by an angry mob in what appeared to be an antigay attack, and Jamaica’s murder rate is still 40 per 100,000, compared with 22 per 100,000 in Mexico and 87 per 100,000 in Honduras.
Bruce M. Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami, said it is still not clear if the improvements here and in other parts of the Caribbean are enough to withstand the increase in drug trafficking that experts are predicting. “The underlying socio-economic problems, the institutional problems and the rerouting of drugs back through the Caribbean are a very powerful combination,” he said.
But for Mr. Nugent, the tailor, and for many other residents, peace carries its own momentum. Gaunt and goateed, standing near a faded sticker on the wall of his home reading, “Celebrate forgiveness,” he said he sees hope in all the people asking him to mend clothes for work, and in the young men who seek guidance or help paying for school. Praising the police for spending more time getting to know the community and for starting youth clubs for teenagers, he said the future looked more bright than dark.
“Light attracts light,” he said. “Everything good must have a beginning.”