Decoding Jamaica’s National Security Policy

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Most discussions of security in the Americas tend to focus on the Colombian peace process, gang crime in Mexico, and the deteriorating socio-economic situation in Venezuela. Rarely do the Caribbean countries draw much attention or concern. However, Jamaica, which is otherwise regarded as an idyllic tourist destination, saw 1,192 murders in 2015 alone. In 2005, Jamaica experienced 1,674 murders, attaining the highest murder rate in the world even as the United States and its coalition partners struggled with insurgencies across Iraq. Given this context, as well as Jamaica’s status as the largest of the Caribbean states, it is worthwhile examining the defence policies pursued by successive Jamaican governments.

The National Security Policy (NSP), entitled “Towards a Secure and Prosperous Nation“, was introduced in 2006 under the left-leaning People’s National Party government of Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and has remained in place across a succession of governments, including the current centre-right Jamaica Labour Party government of Prime Minister Andrew Holness. The document contains several moralist pronouncements about the “erosion of social and moral values” and how “many define social status by the amount of wealth that one possesses”, which the reader is encouraged to believe are important factors in the rise of armed violence in Jamaica. However, the substantive portions of the strategic document offer valuable insights about how the Jamaican security apparatus is employed.

In particular, the NSP identifies organized crime and terrorism as Jamaica’s most prominent security threats, noting that there are no challenges to Jamaican territorial integrity. The document does not make any reference to the territorial disputes over the Bajo Nuevo and Serranilla Banks in the western Caribbean Sea, the former of which is disputed by Colombia, Jamaica, and Nicaragua and the latter of which has been claimed by Colombia, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, and the US. Since the rival claims to these uninhabited islets are not explicitly mentioned in the NSP, it can be assumed that Jamaica does not anticipate any escalation in these long-standing disputes.

Police patrol near the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood of Kingston, turf of crime boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke.

Police patrol near the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood of Kingston, turf of crime boss Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

The focus on organized crime and terrorism is well-deserved. According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Jamaica has emerged as the largest producer and exporter of cannabis herb in Central America and the Caribbean, accounting for approximately one-third of the region’s marijuana exports. Jamaica has also become an important transit hub for cocaine trafficked from Colombia and elsewhere in Central America to the US and Canada. The INCB attributes the attractiveness of Jamaica as a transit hub to “corruption, along with porous maritime borders”, noting that Jamaican authorities seized 1,230 kilograms of cocaine in 2013 but that significant volumes continue to pass successfully through Jamaica bound for North America.

There have been several past incidents involving pirate attacks on cruise ships, though these have taken place in the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Malacca. In November 2005, Seabourn Spirit came under fire from rocket propelled grenade launchers and automatic weapons 115 kilometres from the Somali coast. In April 2008, the French luxury yacht Le Ponant was hijacked by Somali pirates. Oceania Cruises’ Nautica also had a close scrape with pirates off Somalia’s coast in November 2008. Clearly, a cruise ship could be a “soft target” for a terrorist group targeting tourists from the United States and other countries opposing the terrorist group “Islamic State” (ISIS) or some other extremist cause. The NSP is careful to mention that Jamaica does not have a terrorist presence, but the lack of domestic intelligence and surveillance capabilities also presents a risk that a determined terrorist network could establish and train a cell in Jamaica for the sake of launching an attack on a cruise ship near Jamaican territorial waters.

Both threats discussed in the NSP are of concern primarily due to the poor maritime capabilities of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), the combined military branches of Jamaica’s Army, Air Wing, and Coast Guard. The JDF Coast Guard currently can only boast three County-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), each manufactured by Dutch-based Damen Shipyards Group and with a displacement of roughly 250 tonnes. These unarmed patrol vessels have also been shared with the Jamaican Fire Brigade since 2012 in order to fill in for a lack of fireboats. Beyond this, the JDF is believed to have four more fast patrol craft, small in size and similarly unarmed.

Two of the Jamaican County-class offshore patrol vessels.

Two of the Jamaican County-class offshore patrol vessels.

With more than 1,000 kilometres of coastline, these seven vessels are insufficient to conduct effective patrols. To partially mitigate this, the JDF Air Wing offers some aerial surveillance of the coastline and territorial waters. A fleet of seven helicopters, of various Bell designs, mostly offer search-and-rescue capabilities but can also provide some other forms of support to the Coast Guard. Two Diamond DA40 and two Diamond DA42 propeller-driven planes are the main source of any JDF aerial surveillance at the time of this writing. This underscores how vulnerable Jamaica is and reveals why the island country has become so attractive to the region’s traffickers. With such a lack of equipment and personnel available, the JDF can only offer a token deterrence for traffickers seeking to use Jamaica as a link in their supply chains into the American and Canadian markets. Yet the NSP does not draw much attention at all to the lack of equipment, mostly focusing on the socioeconomic factors that lead individual Jamaicans to participate in organized crime networks.

Fortunately, there seems to be a renewed interest in investing in JDF capabilities. In May 2016, Prime Minister Holness spoke of an “expanded role” for the military. In 2014, the Jamaican authorities also initiated a procurement program for new aircraft to expand the Air Wing. One can only hope that Jamaican policymakers will also seek a deeper relationship with regional institutions in order to preserve Jamaica’s security. The NSP fails to describe how Jamaica will leverage these bodies in order to cultivate “soft power” and obtain assistance in countering security threats. For example, Jamaica enjoys membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), among others. Although these bodies have limited involvement in security matters, effective engagement in each could elicit international support for Jamaican efforts to combat narcotics traffickers and secure its coastline. Although Jamaica’s littoral-focused fleet would be unable to participate meaningfully in most Central American maritime exercises, it is unclear why Jamaica has not seized on the opportunity to participate in the annual Inter-American Naval Conference (INAC) – which draws participation from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, and the US – in order to develop institutional contacts.

It is important that Jamaican policy-makers and defence planners return to the drawing board and develop a new strategic document that realistically assesses the JDF’s current capabilities, identifies ways to close any gaps between what the JDF has and what it needs, and mandates Jamaica’s diplomatic service to pursue a more active role for the country in the inter-American system. The murder rate remains extraordinarily high a decade after the original NSP was introduced. Evidently, the issue of organized crime requires more than rhetoric about “materialism” and an alleged propensity among youth toward “selfishness”.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

This entry was posted in English, International, Jamaica, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy.

One Response to Decoding Jamaica’s National Security Policy

  1. Sebastien Roblin says:

    Really informative read, thanks!

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