Thibault Ehrengardt: Gangs of Jamaica

"Out in the street, they call it murder ... ” Damian Marley's opening words from 2005 album, Welcome to Jamrockecho the violence in Jamaica’s capital city. The album’s subject links Damian's generation to his father Bob's with a blood-red through-line of bodies dropping in Kingston's poorest regions, and the gangs who rule there. 31 years earlier, in his song “Natty Dread,” Bob talks of a block-by-block stroll up to the Seventh Street border between Wilton Gardens (or "Rema") and Arnette Gardens (or "Concrete Jungle"), the front line of a politically-charged gang war. Today, American and European tourists rarely walk those neighborhoods—preferring Kington's more-manicured paths, and the pristine beaches of Montego Bay, to the swaths of Jamaica that exist as a Third-World nation. 

French investigative reporter Thibault Ehrengardt knows the music of both Marleys well. He ran reggae magazine,Natty Dread, from 2000 to 2010, before turning his attention to publishing books about broader Jamaican society. 2014 saw him publish Jamaican Greats: Lives of Famous & Notorious Jamaicans. Those include names like Bob Marley, Edward Seaga, Johnny Too Bad, and Vincent “Ryghin” Martin. The last was Jamaica’s public enemy #1 in the late 1940s. Yet his gunslinger heirs make him seem quaint by comparison. Ehrengardt has traversed Jamaica’s ganglands, and writes in his book, Gangs of Jamaica, of the small nation’s "disastrous economic situation”—the product of both political corruption and unchecked criminality. To back up his assertion, Ehrengardt highlights some damning math, writing how "in 2009, Violence Protection Alliance Jamaica estimated that organized crime was responsible for the loss of 4% of the gross domestic product every year. More recently, Professor Antony Clayton from the University of the West Indies affirmed that had Jamaica followed the regular curve of growth, it would be 10 times as prosperous as it is today." Digging for the root of that stunted growth will take you back at least 50 years. Since the 1960s, Kingston's gangs have battled for turf around the city (and far beyond), centered on housing projects that were built as garrisons by Jamaica's political elite to ensure loyalty and votes. Meanwhile, gang leaders appropriated Italian-American Mafia power structures and took the title of "Don.” Over the decades, some dons attained great power and wealth, with political connections and profits from the Caribbean drug trade that flowed north into the US. But in 2010, the most powerful don on the island (Christopher "Dudus" Coke), dwelling in its most notorious garrison (West Kingston's Tivoli Gardens) was arrested, and extradited to the US. This, after Jamaican army and police battled with armed supporters of Dudus in a days-long running gun battle that left over 70 dead and plunged West Kingston into a state of emergency. Then-Prime Minster Bruce Golding's attempts to block Dudus' extradition led to his own September 2011 resignation. The shift in leadership at both the top and bottom of Jamaican society has been reported on extensively by the island's two largest newspapers (The Gleaner and The Observer)—keeping Jamaicans informed with honest investigative reporting that was edited to avoid political blow-back. Yet it is the independent reporting of two non-Jamaicans (Ehrengardt and American,Laurie Gunst) that has impacted off-island perceptions of Jamaica's continuing gang problem, and the capital city that serves as the island's spiritual center of badness. 

Ehrengardt has met Jamaican dons on their own Kingston turf. While publisher of Natty Dread, he covered both Jamaica's music, and the culture it reflected. He has now transitioned to a book publishing business, Dread Editions. His Jamaica Insula series includes the 2010 French-language edition of Gunst's landmark 1995 memoir Born Fi' Dead: A Journey Through The Jamaican Posse Underworld, which happened to be published on the eve of the '10 Tivoli raid. Ehrengardt had already traveled to the island several times, building local connections and gaining access to Kingston gangs. After Dudus' arrest brought worldwide attention, Ehrengardt was hired by a TV production company to help document Jamaican crime, and conduct interviews with dons. He gathered his findings into a 2012 book, Gangs of Jamaica: The Babylonian Wars, followed by a 2013 e-book English translation. It begins with an author's note, telling the reader of the death of Tallawah Town don, "Duane Waxteen" (changed to protect his identity). Waxteen had been a fugitive, after shooting at police looking to question him about a homicide. Ehrengardt notes in Gangs, "Nobody really expected him to resurface alive. His body, stabbed and shot, was eventually cast up by the sea on a Kingston beach, so decomposed his family could hardly identify him." Waxteen, 37, had killed his first man at 17. Up until then, he had expressed enough musical talent to briefly consider pursuing the path of a performer, rather than a gun-wielding badman. But when another man molested his sister, the teenaged Waxteen shot him 13 times in the middle of a main avenue—so badman it was. When I talk to Ehrengardt about that choice, he brings up the example of Trevor Wilson—part of Jamaican band, The Slickers, and the subject of their biggest hit, "Johnny Too Bad.” It’s on the soundtrack of 1973 Jamaican film The Harder They Come (whose story is inspired in part by Ryghin’s exploits), and Ehrengardt noted the song’s similarity to the film's violent climax. "It’s about a singer who could sing, and who could kill. He chose to kill, and he got killed."

To a certain degree, Ehrengardt’s reportage picks up where Gunst left off. In Born Fi' Dead, she notes how "between 1980 and 1990, 213,805 Jamaicans came to the United States. 9% of its 2.4 million people. Other countries sent higher numbers, but Jamaica had the highest percentage of population." Some of those were posse members, and her memoir begins with the 1986 murder of one 17 year-old Norman Allwood—American member of a Jamaican gang. The place is the basement of a derelict building on Pacific Street in Brooklyn, and the killers are five of Allwood's fellows from the Renkers posse—a small gang transplanted from the Southside area of Kingston. Once paid by elements of the Jamaican Labor Party to outgun their People's National Party neighbors during the bloody elections of 1980 (won by the JLP)—the Renkers now make money slinging "rocks" in NYC at the crest of the 1980s "crack wave.” Gunst recounts the results: "a dozen booming drug spots, a fleet of new cars, and an arsenal of fine guns. The Renkers cleared as much as $50,000 on a good day, with special two-vials-for-the-price-of-one deals on busy Saturday nights and holidays.” Allwood has angered his don, Delroy "Uzi" Edwards by shorting him on cash and stealing from the gang's crack stash. As punishment, Edwards orders him beaten, doused with boiling water, then chained to a beam where Allwood is left to hang and die—his skin peeling away. But that is not the last indignity. Edwards then orders his men to shoot the body, and dump it on the East New York turf of rival Jamaican posse, the Forties, to make it look like their doing. Sprung from the PNP-dominated Rockfort area of Kingston, the Forties battle the Renkers for Brooklyn drug corners. But their old Jamaican political loyalties die hard. 

For 20 years, two men commanded the loyalties of Jamaica from the office of Prime Minister. From 1972 to 1980 (and again from 1989 to 1992), it was the PNP's Michael Manley. From 1980 to 1989, it was the JLP's Edward Seaga. The periods leading up to their elections were marked with upticks in violence by party-loyal posses. It was a tradition going back to the '60s, and helped institutionalize crime on the island. As Ehrengardt writes, "For the sake of electoral success, politicians gave weapons to their followers, taught them how to kill, protected them from the wrath of Justice, and even enabled the most loyal of their pawns to grow rich." Few dons in the '80s were wealthier, or had more blood on their hands, than JLP loyalist Lester Coke—better known as "Jim Brown" (for the iconic NFL halfback). Brown and Vivian Blake co-founded the Shower Posse, which made landfall in the US during the '80s, and made a mint muscling its way into the booming cocaine-trafficking market. Ehrengardt adds, "From New York to Philadelphia and to Miami, the US authorities blamed it for 1,400 murders in less than ten years of activity." Sure enough, in February 1992, Brown found himself in a Jamaican prison cell awaiting extradition to the US, and the real possibility of being questioned in open court about his political enablers back in Jamaica. Brown's predecessor as don of Tivoli, Claudius Massop had been killed by a shower of police bullets in February 1979. Brown took over in time to throw his weight behind the JLP in the pivotal elections of 1980. Thirteen Februarys after Massop's death, Brown's cell mysteriously ignited in flames, killing him. Weeks earlier, his son and heir-apparent, Mark (or "Jah T") was attacked and killed while out riding his motorcycle. He had been making arrangements for an annual dance in Tivoli that honored Massop. Family power now passed to adopted son, Dudus. The Coke family's loyalty to the JLP, and its longtime (1974–2005) leader, Seaga, had been reported on by island journalists before Born Fi' Dead. Gunst recounted plenty of Gleaner articles about Seaga's political tenure, and his longtime rivalry with Manley. But her outsider reportage still resulted in a lawsuit by Seaga. Yet when it came time to publish a French translation of Born Fi' Dead in 2010, Ehrengardt told me such legal matters weren't a concern. "Of course Seaga knows it has been translated into French. But he is, I guess, intelligent enough not to give any publicity to a book like that. So he keeps a low profile, which I guess is the best thing to do."

Ehrengardt accompanied the Jamaican Defense Force in their battle against Jamaica's most high-profile export: marijuana. He cites Jamaica's Minister of Security Peter Bunting and Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington as being responsible for the rare access granted to foreign journalists. This included fly-alongs with the Mobile Reserve on their search-and-destroy helicopter missions against pot fields spread about the island. Armed with machine guns and body armor, police work here more closely resembles going to war -- and that war-zone dynamic has spawned several Jamaican "super cops.” One of them was Renato Adams, a long-time advocate of updating crime-fighting laws to allow for methods like greater electronic eavesdropping, which met with political resistance. The Superintendent of the trigger-happy Crime Management Unit from 2000-2003, Adams retired in 2008 after 60 years of police service, and a fearsome reputation among even the most fearless badmen. Gunst writes about the dark reflection of Adams—“Keith Gardner, the killer cop known as 'Trinity'" (after the Spaghetti Western gunman), who acted as Seaga's bodyguard during the '80 elections. Gunst notes, "Trinity reckoned that he had been in a total of ninety-seven shootouts, but he modestly claimed not to be counting anymore.” Gunst told me in an interview that the wave of violent American Westerns in the 1960s, like Sam Peckinpah's Ride The High Country and The Wild Bunch, had a lasting cultural impact on both sides of Jamaica's law. An example was gangs referring to themselves as "posses", and cops like Trinity shooting first and asking questions later. Yet Ehrengardt is quick to point out, "Some policemen might be trigger happy, but there are no such thing as death squads in Jamaica. Even the thriving private security companies such as Guardsman or King Alarm do not appear to resort to unnecessary violence despite their impressive armaments." The guns that gang members wield in shootouts, though, are often tied to marijuana's journey across the Caribbean.

America's fight against drug smuggling along the Mexican border has shifted the "cocaine road" from South America to the US back east, hitting Jamaica and its territorial waters in transit. Bunting tells Ehrengardt, “We had reduced the flow of the traffic, but since the US closed their frontier with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration, the balloon effect has sent back a lot of cocaine our way.” But marijuana is still Jamaica's drug of choice, and the economic driver for its gangs. When they need guns, they can take a fishing boat 160 kilometers to neighboring Haiti, and trade ganja for them. Bunting told Ehrengardt of a dangerously strong ganja-for-guns trafficking situation between Haiti and Jamaica, adding “in fact, the guns stop in Haiti on their way from the Bahamas and above from Florida." Despite that root source, the fact that Jamaica's national waters are some 25-times larger than its landmass, and a severe lack of resources, means the US is entirely relied upon to police the sea-born guns-for-ganja trade with drones conducting daily surveillance. Something not flowing near enough to-and-from the island are legal goods to drive the Jamaican economy.

Ehrengardt paints an ominous picture of what the future holds for impoverished Jamaican youth looking for a way to survive in such an environment, writing, "as the international crisis sweeps over the small island in the sun, kids wake up every day in a furnace, with no job, and no future. They sit down in small yards, drinking rum and smoking ganja, stirring up the steam until a friend, or a relative, proposes some illegal venture or another—or until a violent mood gets the better of them." So, welcome to Jamrock, circa 2014. Unless prosperity comes to the poorest quarters of the capital, and just off the pristine beaches of Montego Bay, Ehrengardt says to expect more crime … and then, expect more blood.

A long-form interview with Thibault Ehrengardt conducted by Christian Niedan can be read on his blog, Camera in the Sunby clicking here

Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.