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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

July 2006

Power of the ‘Shotta Dons’ in Jamaica

An analysis of power relations in urban low-income communities.

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | |

The conflict:

Jamaica’s political landscape is based upon a dichotomy between friend and foe. The political climate is determined by two the animosity between two political parties, the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). This two party system has been able to manipulate communities, especially low-income communities in urban areas in particular where the relationships are clientelistic and divisive. The political party system has been able to inscribe friend/foe differences onto geographical spaces. Therefore, “enemy imaging” would occur and these differences are then reinforced through song, color, party conferences, dances, popular music etc. Therefore communities are divided into people who are “labourite” (supporters of the JLP or live in a JLP area) or as “PNPite”, not as Jamaicans. The heights of such politically induced violence spiral around election time. Those involved are not specifically fighting for a job, a house or any scarce benefit, rather they claim to be fighting about party, community, self-defense and warriorhood, where communities are constructed and organized (historically) along party lines; and where if one’s party came to power economic opportunities would flow. With the strains of the neoliberal model, old patron-client relations between party and community could not be upheld in the same way.

Area leaders, who belonged to a political party, are the middle men between community members and the party machinery including the Member of Parliament. With the phenomenon of drug gangsters and primarily deported Jamaican-American gangsters who have been sent back to Jamaica, leadership figures mmuted. With no reintegration mechanisms in place, they came and filled a vacuum and ‘provided’ in the absence of ‘economic opportunities’ and a new type of leader emerged – the Shotta ‘Don’, primarily male, and primarily ruling with authority and force, using his power as drug dealer to carve out a new form of politics which organizes communities outside the constitutional and judicial norms of the nation-state. Thus the structure of such organized conflict began to change, those who had new and more immediate economic power and influence, in terms of distributing wealth and goods in communities to members. In economically depressed communities, where poverty is rampant and opportunities are scarce commodities, their economic needs are easily manipulated.

Violence (gun warfare between men on lanes, streets, or other divisions of small communities) erupts over drugs and territorial power over communities, and the recruiting of young men between the traditional Area leaders and the new Shotta Dons. Generally the latter of which have no political loyalties is concerned with ruling by force, a commanding figure of vengeance, reprisal fighting, and the threat of death to facilitate drug trade and arms sales. The former is concerned with maintaining control over traditional areas of control along party lines but with little economic opportunities to offer and un-matched fire power. The Shotta Don does not seek to legitimize his social location to any logic of helping the ‘black sufferer’ or assisting the poor, even manipulatively. The police force is often reluctant to enter these communities, and when violence erupts, days often go by, weeks in a few cases before any kind of law enforcement goes in to stop the violence or attempt a peace accord. Peace accords, led by NGOs, have failed in the 1990s and since 2000 - these are poor urban communities, whose members have limited education, high prevalence of teenage parenting, female-headed households, high participation of young men, under 20 participating in crime and drug trading etc. the fundamental structure of how the communities are organized were not dealt with - economic opportunities, or sustainable economic alternatives, have not been afforded alongside peace accords. Thus peace accords end up being temporary cease-fires.



Power and the abuse of power have become more complex. The positions of power brokers have changed. Where as before, the area leaders were working with political parties through the provision of scarce benefits in exchange for party vote, this position could no longer be supported with the reduction of public expenditure and thus, ‘additional’ funds to sustain these kinds of relationships are sought. The traditional actors were affiliated with the state, the party machinery and violence occurred along those lines. When this was happening, community members who were not aligned would have been caught in the crossfire and relatively often received no justice in the court system or no assistance from the police. This has not really changed. More victims die and funerals are more common place than weddings. Socially marginalized groups have turned in on themselves. Those who might be poor and not involved, and living in a particular community, are caught in the middle of it. While the primary actors in this conflict would be the area leaders and the shotta dons, the secondary actors would be the arms of the state, such as the police force or members of parliament, who remain at arms length and are often reluctant to intervene. The police force in particular, are not interested in dying, as one officer stated (that it has become popular), he refuses to go in such communities, because “the salary that government pays is not worth the risk”.

This case presents us with group violence within certain urban communities in Jamaica. The violence is also cultural, to some extent, because the state turns a blind eye to making any serious attempts and preserving peace. Third parties that came in, were concerned NGOs, but attempts failed because it could not be sustained without strategic economic alternatives for community members. The expression of these new forms of power and disturbing conflicts in inner city communities in Kingston, presents us with a profound crisis – new wounds being inflicted upon old wounds that had not been healed or resolved. There is despair, and hopelessness, as days can pass where gun warfare erupts and continues without local police intervention. When they do go in the pictures are grim - what we see (news cameras go in after the shooting stops) are pictures of the dead, bodies piled high lying in the sun in the streets, being nudged by dogs looking for dinner. The police that go in are only for ‘clean up’, not for investigation or judicial follow up. There is no justice for the victims and no measure put in place to prevent reoccurrences. Because so much of it is social implosion, middle and upper classes dismiss it as ‘those people’ killing off themselves. The kind of violence is not one that people wish to confront in these social circles, even if their employees might actually live in one of these neighborhoods.


In this paper the author analyses the political situation in Jamaica and how deeply rooted the Friend-Enemy Dichotomy is in its society.


  • The author of the file is : Taitu Heron.