The New Middle Ages

GANGSTERS' PARADISE

You enter the ghetto through a warren of decrepit alleys crowded with locals seeking refuge from the hot night air of their cramped homes. Suspicious stares alert you that you have entered Kingston's gangland. But if the local don -- or "area leader," in the polite lexicon of official Jamaica -- has granted you permission to enter, you are safe. Here, news travels like dye in water.

The local gang maintains its own system of law and order, complete with a holding cell fashioned from an old chicken coop and a street-corner court. It "taxes" local businesses in return for protecting them, punishing those who refuse to pay with attacks on property and people. It provides a rudimentary welfare safety net by helping locals with school fees, lunch money, and employment -- a function that the Jamaican government used to perform. But over the last couple of decades, keen to reduce spending, it has scaled back many of its operations, leaving a vacuum. As one kind of authority has withdrawn, another has advanced.

Jamaica's gangs -- each a fluid but cohesive organization with a clearly demarcated territory -- fund their activities partly through their participation in one of the industries in the vanguard of globalization: the transshipment of illegal drugs. Although at first glance the gangs seem to be at odds with the government, the local police frequently cooperate with the dons, whose ruthlessly efficient rule can make the cops' jobs easier. The result is a tenuous quid pro quo: if the dons keep order, the police turn a blind eye to the drug trade. Besides, direct assaults on the gangs are often futile. Even when the police capture dons or their gunmen, convictions are next to impossible to obtain because potential witnesses remain silent out of loyalty or fear. Just as the rise of the modern state generated conventional symbols of loyalty -- flags, anthems, national heroes -- so does gangland culture reflect the new power structure. The dons patronize deejays who celebrate them in song, and huge crowds turn out for the gang leaders' funerals, waving flags that symbolize their rule.

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