Looking back, it sounds insane. In the late 1980s, I traveled to Jamaica with a friend of mine, rented a couple of 50 cc Honda motorbikes, and traveled all over the country, intentionally avoiding the resort areas.
I saw a Jamaica that bore no resemblance to the white-sand beaches of tourist renown. We rolled through desperately poor villages in the interior, like the place called Rat Trap, where half-naked young men in rags blocked our way, hollering and gesturing at us to stop. I’m guessing that the sudden appearance of two young women, obviously from somewhere else, represented the tiniest hope of escape.
We ate in local restaurants that appeared to double as brothels, with exotic dancers and dimly lit corridors upstairs. We talked to street children, continually fended off marijuana sellers, sexual propositions, and hustlers of every kind, and saw up close the poverty that most of the nation’s residents are stuck in.
We also found many warm, hospitable people, doing their best to make a living and come up with enough money for books and uniforms to send their kids to school. They looked out for us, warning us away from trouble spots and trouble people.
Back then I loved dancehall reggae, with its rubber bass lines and goofy lyrics (the little I could understand), so I snatched up seven-inch records by Tiger, Lt. Stitchie, Chicken Chest, and Shelly Thunder—popular artists of the day.
We had no premonition of the storms to come.
My friend and I flew out from Kingston in September 1988. Just a day later, Hurricane Gilbert made landfall as a Category 4 storm, killing 45 people in Jamaica, destroying agriculture, temporarily wiping out the tourist industry, and leaving nearly one-fourth of the population homeless.
But as much as Jamaica’s worst-ever natural disaster would bring change, something a lot deeper was going on that we didn’t know enough to recognize.
In the slums of Kingston, Jamaica’s utterly non-touristy capital, and reaching out to every urban community on the island and beyond, drug gangs were taking over, stepping into the breach created by poverty and pervasive government corruption. Jamaica had become a major trans-shipment point for cocaine produced in Colombia and elsewhere, and Jamaican gangs were infiltrating Brooklyn, Miami, and even Dallas, bringing a piece of incredibly lucrative technology: how to cook cocaine into crack rocks.
Crack cocaine would destroy inner-city U.S. communities, leaving what resembled bombed-out ruins and incalculable human misery. I ended up covering the wreckage as a newspaper crime reporter, following the trail of the incredibly violent Jamaican drug gangs that took over South Dallas and East Oak Cliff in the late 1980s and early 1990s until federal authorities busted them up.
Back on the island, an entire culture swiftly degraded, with blood money corrupting rich and poor alike. Even my beloved dancehall turned from a party-hearty niche genre to the sex- and violence-obsessed version that holds sway today, without a wisp of the wordplay and wit that characterized old-school guys like Tiger, Stitchie, and Papa San.
What we’ve seen unfolding in the streets of Kingston this week is just a bit of the blowback, a tragedy that’s been in the making for 25 years or more. Security forces stormed the compound of Jamaica’s top drug lord, Christopher “Dudus” Coke, leaving at least 73 civilians dead in a roiling gun battle from which the dust has yet to settle. The U.S. is seeking extradition of Coke—ah, the pleasure of simple irony in that name—to stand trial on drug trafficking and gunrunning charges. Jamaica’s prime minister, Bruce Golding, stalled on the extradition for months and recently decided to give way.
Meanwhile, some of the poor residents of Tivoli Gardens, the Kingston neighborhood where Coke and his cohorts were supposedly holed up (Jamaican authorities are engaged in a massive, island-wide manhunt for Coke as I write this), are standing behind the gangster, who provides jobs, school supplies, protection, and a sort of upward mobility, however perverse. The violence started on May 23 when Coke’s supporters set fire to police stations in protest of his possible extradition.
What does God have to do with any of this, apart from the fact that in some quarters, “Dudus” holds near-godlike status?
You’d have to explore the connection between Coke and his gang, the so-called Shower Posse—named for the shower of bullets it drops on its opponents—and Jamaican politics. Coke is supposedly hooked in with the Jamaica Labour Party, Jamaica’s ruling party, and has obtained government favors and protection through his alliances.
Laurie Gunst, an American author and ethnographer, wrote about the politician-gangster dynamic in her outstanding 1995 book, Born Fi’ Dead. (If you’re interested in the least, find yourself a copy and read a brilliant piece of first-person investigative journalism. This isn’t some boring sociological treatise; Gunst can write.)
“Even as I sat in rum shops and tenement yards,” Gunst says in the introduction, “watching young men light glass pipes of crack instead of the ganja [marijuana] they would have smoked in a mellower time, I was already hearing the first rumors of an outlaw exodus to the American promised land.”
The gangs that controlled Kingston and got out the vote for politicians in the ruling Jamaica Labour Party were filtering out of the island ghetto and into the U.S., metamorphosing into multi-city, multimillion-dollar drug posses.
“This,” Gunst wrote, “is a story without an end.”
And so it is.
Jamaica’s poor reel from the injustices and evils of a government that’s rotten from the top down. Though the nation reaps billions in tourist revenue, somehow the vast majority of the people remain in poverty.
None of this should surprise us, because the Bible offers vivid depictions of the consequences when the authorities themselves practice and propagate evil. In the books of Kings, God holds the unfaithful kings of Israel and Judah—and there were a lot of them—personally responsible for the people’s sins.
“Jeroboam enticed Israel away from following the Lord,” one representative passage says, “and caused them to commit a great sin [idolatry]. The Israelites persisted in all the sins of Jeroboam and did not turn away from them until the Lord removed them from his presence, as he had warned through all his servants the prophets.”
The people of Israel were snatched from their homeland and hauled off to exile in a faraway land, the writer of Kings continues, “and they are still there.”
I thought about that as I viewed a photo of a blood-soaked man being pulled away from the wrecked and burning streets of Kingston this week, and read the accounts of innocent people barricaded into Tivoli Gardens amidst the gunfire.
I recall the people I met in Jamaica’s interior, so kind and hospitable, speaking wearily about the struggle to live life with a modicum of dignity.
And they are still there.
Julie Lyons is the editor of MannaEXPRESS. She lives in Dallas with her husband and a son.