Jamaica Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 2.7 million (World Bank, 2013)

Capital: Kingston

Languages: English, English patois

Major Ethnic Groups: black 92.1%, mixed 6.1%, East Indian 0.8%, other 0.4%, unspecified 0.7%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 5,095 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 9,530 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 2,830 (Military Balance, 2014)

Small Arms: the estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians is 180,000; the defence forces of Jamaica are reported to have 6,500 firearms; and Police are reported to have 9,000 firearms (Gun Policy, 2015) 

Military Expenditure: 0.8% of GDP (World Bank, 2013)

Executive Summary

Jamaica has been one of the Caribbean’s most violent nations thanks to a complex criminal landscape involving local groups and larger, transnational gangs. The larger and more organised among the local groups have a history of ties to the country’s major political parties and have enjoyed political protection in the past.

Adding to the problem of a thriving gang scene is an inefficient and corrupt justice sector and a police force with a history of criminal ties and extrajudicial killings. This makes the public highly sceptical of both institutions’ trustworthiness. 

Jamaica has been the recipient of aid from a number of international agencies and foreign governments in an effort to tackle these problems, pointing to opportunities to engage and instigate significant reform measures, particularly within the judiciary. It still has strong ties to the United Kingdom and has proven open to cooperation with international agencies in the past.

Security and Justice Context

2011 saw a drop in homicides, registering 40.9 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. This was a significant fall from the previous year when the country, with a murder rate of 52.2 per 100,000 (see Figure 1.), was the fourth most violent in the world and the most violent in the Caribbean.


Fig. 1 Jamaica Homicide Rate 1999-2011

The country is a transit point for cocaine on its way northwardsand is a supplier of marijuana to the United States.

According to the figures released by the Jamaican police, in 2010 there were 268 gangs active in Jamaica, with total membership estimated to be 3,900.These gangs are thought to be responsible for up to 80 percent of all major crimes in the country. The larger, more transnational of these groups are referred to as “posses”and have their roots in the violent political conflict between the left-wing People’s National Party (PNP) and the conservative Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). To begin, the gangs were recruited and armed by politicians during the 1960s and 70s as an urban armed force to secure votes in certain inner-city areas known as “garrison communities.” In the 1980s, however, the posses began to involve themselves in the international drug and arms trade, something they have continued to the present day, having developed networks in the United States, Europe and Canada.

Despite the shift from political armed groups to being primarily transnational criminal gangs, these organisations still focus heavily on embedding themselves in impoverished communities. In these areas they are often able to operate as a de facto government, providing services to community inhabitants. A key example of the degree to which possescan be integrated into communities is the neighbourhood of Tivoli Gardens in Kingston, an area that is emblematic of the garrison communities who agreed to support one political party in exchange for political patronage. In May 2010, Christopher “Dudus” Coke and his Shower Posse gang used Tivoli Gardens as a stronghold to fight government attempts to arrest and extradite Coke to the United States; over 70 people died in the ensuing violence between the gang and security forces before Coke eventually handed himself in[1] .

Though Coke has since been found guilty of international drugs and weapons smuggling, and sentenced to 23 years in a US jail, he still enjoys strong support from residents in Tivoli Gardens thanks to his work helping alleviate poverty in the area[2] .

In addition to running narcotics and arms trafficking networks, posses are also engaged in extortion, money laundering and robberies. Below these larger organisations are community and youth gangs, far less organised, which engage in petty theft and are focused more on asserting their control over a small area[3] . Violence from these small gangs is primarily related to territorial control.

Violence in Jamaica is less overtly political than it used to be thanks to the increase in criminal activity in the country. However, it still exists, as the case of Christopher Coke and his alleged ties to the government attests to.

Jamaica is widely considered to have an active illicit arms trade, and there are a number of illegally held guns on the island. Based on the most recent estimate, there were just over 200,000 firearms in civilian hands; however, only 65,000 were actually registered. The Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police (ACCP)[4] estimated that there are some 1.6 million illegal weapons circulating in the whole Caribbean.

Firearms are used in approximately 75 percent of all homicides in the country, well above the global average of 42 percent.

The US State Department stated in 2012 that Jamaica—a key source and transit nation in the international trafficking of people—does not fully comply with international standards to eliminate human trafficking, but noted that it is making efforts to do so[5] .

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), the perception of insecurity in Jamaica has fallen since 2006 from a score of 38.4 points[6] . In 2010 the level was 32.6 points and dropped again in 2012 to 28 points (See Figure 2.). This gave Jamaica the third best ranking in 2012, behind only by Canada and the United States.

Fig. 2 Jamaica Perception of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

Jamaica has an independent judiciary and an accusatory legalsystem. Given its colonial history, the system is based on British practice, though certain differences do exist.

The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases. There are also Resident Magistrate Courts located in each of Jamaica’s fourteen parishes. These have limited jurisdiction and cannot hold a trial for crimes such as murder or rape. Appellate jurisdiction rests with the Court of Appeal which is above the Supreme Court, though the final court of appeal is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in London, United Kingdom.                                 

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has pledged to switch appellate jurisdiction from the JCPC to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), inaugurated in 2005as the judicial institution of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)[7] .Jamaica also has a special Gun Court to try cases involving the illegal use and possession of firearms.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is the principal prosecution authority in the country, able to undertake or stop any criminal proceedings. It is an independent body, unlike the role of the attorney general—the government’s principal legal advisor—which falls within the Ministry of Justice. The position of attorney general was only separated from that of justice minister in 2011 to ensure that the attorney general not be a member of government.

The justice system has a serious backlog of cases with evidence of inefficiency and corruption. Former Justice Minister Delroy Chuck admitted in 2011 that the system was in a dire state and plagued by corruption. In the 2010 UNDP Citizen Security Survey, over half of respondents (57.3 percent) said the justice system was corrupt and 57.8 percent believed politically connected criminals could walk free. Convictions are only handed down in five percent of homicide cases, indicating a very high level of impunity.

Control of the penitentiary system comes under the Department of Correctional Services (DCSJ) which is an arm of the Ministry of National Security. The DCSJ operates Jamaica’s 12 prisons which in 2011 were 11 percent over capacity. The head of the DCSJ called for modernisation of the system in 2012 and for new prisons to be built due to security breaches in the country’s penal system. He also cited corrupt prison officers as being a major hindrance to efforts to clean up the system.

Security Institutions

Citizen security is primarily handled by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) which numbers up to 9,000 officers and comes under the Ministry of National Security. This is supplemented by the Island Special Constabulary Force (ISCF) which has around 1,500 officials.

The JCF has a history of corruption and inefficiency. Police officials make arrests in around 44 percent of homicide cases annually and have been found to be involved in the illicit arms trade through supplying weapons and ammunition to criminals from government stockpiles. They also have a history of protecting prominent gang members and allowing them to run their illicit networks in exchange for bribes.

In addition, the force is believed to have carried out extrajudicial killings, with Jamaica having one of the highest rates of police killings in the region; 45 people were killed by police in the first three months of 2012, among them a 13-year old girl. Compounding the problem is the lack of justice police face for these acts; cases languish in the court system for years and it is rare for a conviction to be handed down, again suggesting high impunity rates. Between 2000 and 2010, two officers were convicted despite there being 2,200 fatal police shootings.

In the UNDP’s 2010 Citizen Security Survey, the police fared badly with respondents showing an extremely low degree of confidence in the force. Only 15 percent,believed that the police respected citizens’ rights, while only 23.4 percent had confidence in the police to control gang violence.

The JCF has its own Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB) which is responsible for investigating and arresting corrupt police officials, and raising public awareness on police corruption. It also has an intelligence branch, the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB).

The Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), a force of 3,466, helps the police to carry out joint patrols in the country though its role in law enforcement is secondary to the JCF and it does not have powers of arrest. The JDF has its own Military Intelligence Unit. The Jamaican public generally have a more favourable view of the JDF, with 65 percent believing the military should be relied on more in fighting domestic crime[8] .

US, Canadian and British agencies (particularly the Department for International Development–DFID) are all key donors to Jamaica’s security and justice institutions.

The Ministry for National Security developed a National Security Policy, published toward the end of 2012. The policy outlines eight strategic goals to help improve citizen security. Among these are aims to dismantle gangs and reduce violent crime; strengthen the justice system; and, to strengthen the integrity of the country’s institutions. In order to achieve these aims, the Ministry identified the need to develop effective intelligence for security operations, and to increase public awareness and education on security issues.

Strategic reviews of the JCF and JDF will also be conducted, according to the policy.

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

Unilateral efforts by the government to reform the country’s justice system have been taken in recent years. In 2006, the Jamaican Justice System Reform Task Force (JJSRTF), a body comprised of 27 Jamaicans from various sectors of society and led by the Ministry of Justice, was created to carry out a year-long review of the judicial system and submit recommendations for reform initiatives. The body successfully submitted its final report in June 2007, recommending several measures required to be taken by the government over a 10-year period to ensure modernisation of the justice system. However, action on these recommendations has been slow. Security Minister Peter Bunting highlighted in early 2012 how the serious backlog of cases in the courts was still an obstacle in efforts to combat crime.

Promising initiatives have been undertaken with the aid of international bodies. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is funding Justice Undertakings for Social Transformation (JUST), a collaborative effort with the Ministry of Justice to strengthen and reform justice institutions. This began in 2009 and is due to run until March 2016.The European Union is currently funding a Security Sector Reform Programme (SSRP) that began in 2009 and is set to run until 2014. €33 million are due to be delivered in this time frame to support Jamaica in the reform of its police force, the JCF, and strengthen justice institutions.

Security Sector Reform and Initiatives

The JCF have also been aided by DFID and the British government, with the former running a €4.5 million reform program from 2008-2011 and then following it with a €9.2 million accountability program that runs from 2011 to 2015. High-ranking British police officers have also been sent over in the last decade to help root out corruption in the force, the most notable being Mark Shields who served as deputy police commissioner from 2005-2009.

Regarding domestic-led efforts to clean up the police, the JCF’s Anti-Corruption Branch rolled out its Anti-Corruption Strategy for 2012-2015 aimed at creating a “zero tolerance culture towards corruption and unethical behaviour.” The strategy involves refining the security vetting of police officials, including submitting certain officers to polygraph tests, so as to increase the force’s capacity of ridding itself of corrupt elements.

Under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), a US government-funded program, Jamaica has received aid to help increase the capacity of its police through training programs and technical assistance, as well being the beneficiary of aid to assist reform measures in the justice sector, among other initiatives.

One of the major developments in the security institutions in recent years was the creation of the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), a body created in August 2010 and charged with investigating alleged abuses by the security forces. In 2011 INDECOM had 724 cases under investigation, up from 377 the previous year. This increase is a promising sign of the body’s independence in being able to hold the police and military accountable. In October 2012 the unit received technology to help it carry out detailed ballistics forensics analysis and also began training investigators in forensic examination. This should go some way to combating what has been a significant obstacle to investigations; the slow pace with which forensic submissions were processed by laboratories.

DFID and the International Development Bank (IDB) have been instrumental in funding the so-called Citizen Security and Justice Program (CSJP) which, in addition to increasing institutional capacity, engages with non-government organisations (NGOs) to work on community development and creating economic opportunities for youth as part of its crime prevention strategy. 

In 2011, the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS) adopted the Declaration on Small Arms and Light Weapons, a regional initiative aimed at reducing gun crime in the region and improving regional cooperation in the field of arms trafficking.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

By the government’s own admission, there is an imbalance between the executive and the legislature, with parliament lacking the capacity to provide effective oversight. There are a number of Joint Select Committees (JSC) but these need strengthening so that proper oversight of government policy can be implemented.

Security and Justice Opportunities

Jamaica’s gangs, both domestic and transnational, are an enormous concern for the country given that they are the primary drivers of violence. Institutional weakness and corruption is only helping to exacerbate the problem and prevent Jamaica from dealing with its current security issues.

Corruption within the government means engaging on reform measures should be approached with caution. However, the array of international organisations and governments currently involved in providing aid to the country show that there is an avenue for such engagement and an apparent willingness within government to tackle these problems.

Justice Sector Opportunities

Judicial reform presents perhaps the best opportunity for this. The DPP has stated its desire to modernise the justice sector and bring down impunity and corruption rates, making this arm of government one of the primary actors that should be worked with. The NGO Jamaicans for Justice should also be consulted on this matter.

Given the continued relationship between politicians and gangs in certain communities, efforts should be aided to root out criminal infiltration of government officials. Though by no means at the level it once was, it is still a concern and presents an obstacle to combating some of the stronger criminal groups in the country.

Security Sector Opportunities

Police reform is equally pressing, though thanks to the high level of involvement of the British government and DFID, along with the CBSI and other agencies, this appears to be receiving help.

Civil Society Actors for Engagement

Jamaicans for Justice[9] (JFJ) is the leading NGO on security and justice issues, advocating citizens’ rights and pushing for justice and an end to state abuse, particularly in the form of police abuse and corruption. Families Against State Terrorism (FAST) is another key organisation engaged in this area.


Government of Jamaica: Cabinet Office Public Sector Modernisation Division, “Accountability Framework for Senior Executive Officers,” January 2010

Government of Jamaica, “National Security Policy for Jamaica: Towards a Secure & Prosperous Nation,” November 2012

Jamaica Constabulary Force, “Anti-Corruption Strategy 2012-2015,” August 2011

North American Congress on Latin America, “Hypocritical Justice: Police Killings Rattle Jamaica,” March 2012

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012

Small Arms Survey, “Confronting the Don: The Political Economy of Gang Violence in Jamaica,” November 2010

Small Arms Survey, “Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving Targets,” August 2012

Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, “Jamaica–Gun Facts, Figures and Law,” Data retrieved from http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/jamaica

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” January 2011

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” November 2012 (Preliminary Version)

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

United Nations Development Programme, “Caribbean Human Development Report 2012: Human Development and the Shift to Better Citizen Security,” February 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment,” September 2012

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume I: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report 2012,” June 2012

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Jamaica 2012 Crime and Safety Report,” March 2012


[1] Evidence emerged that the then-Prime Minister Bruce Golding (2007-2011) and his Labour Party hired a US law firm to help fight the extradition request for Coke, raising the possibility that Golding relied on Coke’s power in Tivoli Gardens to secure votes for his party, as was endemic in the 1970s and 1980s.

[2] Coke was the “don” of Tivoli Gardens, a gang leader who exploits the lack of government presence in an area to become the community leader, often acting as the local arbiter. Politicians who still engage in working with gangs to gain votes in constituencies will seek out the don for support.

[3] This area could be as small as a block or one street.

[4]  The ACCP has a membership of 24 Caribbean nations and is designed to facilitate cooperation between the region’s police forces and help with the development of officers’ technical skills and professionalism. 

[5] The country received a Tier 2 Watch List ranking. Tier 1 is the best possible ranking, followed by Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, and Tier 3.

[6] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity.

[7] CARICOM is an organisation comprised of 15 nations and aims to promote economic integration and cooperation between its member states.

[8] This figure is from the UNDP’s 2010 Citizen Security Survey.

[9] More information at their website: http://www.jamaicansforjustice.org/

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.