Four years after Kingston’s “don of dons” was ousted in a bloody police/military operation, Jamaica’s firearm murder rate still ranks among the world’s highest.
Photos by Ruddy Roye
“Tell me is it worth it all? If one don rise then a next must fall.” —Damian Marley
Jesquan Spence was not quite two years old when he saw the police kill his father. “The soldiers come in and take ’way the phones and say everybody fi sit down,” says the child’s grandmother, Michelle Davis, recalling that fateful Monday, May 24, 2010. “Then some police come in. Them say, ‘How many man in here?’ And them point ’pon me son.”
Jesquan’s dad, Errol Spence, was 22 years old, the only adult male in the Tivoli Gardens household where 17 family members and neighbors had been waiting out a government-imposed state of emergency for a week. Michelle Davis and Jesquan’s mother Jesean Williams will never forget the cops’ chilling words: “Them turn to us and say, ‘You know the good haffi suffer for the bad.’”
“But me no badman,” Errol Spence protested as three heavily armed police officers ordered him out of his seat and walked him into the kitchen. “Dat you say?” one of them replied. “You gwan dead today.”
After ordering him to sit down against the kitchen wall, the officers lifted Spence to his feet, beat and searched him, swabbed his hands for gun-powder residue, and accused him of being a gunman loyal to Tivoli’s notorious “don of dons,” Christopher Coke, aka Dudus, who ruled Western Kingston so absolutely that he was widely known as “The President.” The state of emergency had been declared after Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding—also the Minister of Parliament representing Tivoli Gardens—reluctantly succumbed to nine months of increasing pressure from the United States government and signed a warrant for Coke’s extradition on charges of trafficking drugs and guns.
“Me no inna it,” Spence told the police. “Me no badman. Me a barber.” The police were not convinced. Like many Tivoli residents, Spence and his family had ignored orders to evacuate in ADVANCE of an epic gunfight (involving snipers, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, American surveillance aircraft, explosives, and electrified barbed wire) when security forces stormed the heavily fortified “garrison” community to apprehend Coke. Jamaican authorities said evacuation was the only way to ensure public safety, but Tivoli residents had to weigh these warnings against the difficulty of leaving the only home they’d ever known and the risk of provoking Coke’s infamous Shower Posse enforcers. “You a gunman,” one of the officers told Spence. “Bwoy, you ah go dead.”
Michelle Davis’ voice cracks with emotion as she recalls begging for her son’s life. “Something come over me, and me go to the police and say ‘Sir, him ah me only likkle bwoy, and me pickney ah no badman.’ And him walk away. Him no say nuttin’ to me.” Moments later one of the officers squeezed off five shots from his Glock 9mm pistol.
“Them just kill him,” says Michelle Davis. “And when we scream out, them say, ‘No make no noise or we ah go kill the likkle bwoy.” She covered Jesquan’s head and told the child to be quiet. Finally the police moved on to another home, and the family never saw them again.
Errol Spence was one of dozens of young men shot dead during the “incursion” into Tivoli Gardens. Although the official civilian death toll was 73 (plus one Jamaican soldier) former Jamaican prime minister Edward Seaga—the man who created the “model community” of Tivoli Gardens back in the mid 1960s by having the Rasta shanty-town Back O Wall bulldozed—estimated the real figure at twice that amount. Journalists and human rights observers were not allowed to inspect the immediate aftermath of the slaughter, which failed to capture Coke. Security forces did, however, seize some guns, although the exact number became a matter of debate.
Initial reports put the figure at just five or six firearms recovered—which made the amount of residents killed all the more curious. This discrepancy led to speculation that Dudus and his key henchmen fled before the long-awaited firefight. “How can you have a gun battle if the people with the guns have gone?” Seaga asked in a televised interview days after the raid on Tivoli. Amnesty International called for an investigation into the civilian deaths, saying that “evidence indicates that many of these killings are unlawful.” By the end of June 2010, police commissioner Owen Ellington announced that security forces had actually found tons of guns—40 pistols and 45 rifles and shotguns including several “Chiney Ks,” the Chinese version of the AK47—and more than 14,000 rounds of ammunition, plus numerous grenades and IEDs.
Young Kingston don poses in an alley with the gun he uses to defend his turf.
“This is the worst we’ve seen in Jamaican history, but they can’t just blame this on a particular garrison or a particular community,” said the dancehall artist Busy Signal—a former Tivoli Gardens resident—in the days immediately following the raid. “The bigger heads started all of this. Jamaica is a little island. We make no guns here. We make no bombs here. We make nothing here in terms of weapons. It’s a shame and a disgrace. Normal civilians can’t have the power to bring in and export weapons. They’ve got to have help from all these jacket and tie, all these police and bigger heads. We’ve got too much corruption that’s being exposed right now. This shit has been going on from ever since. The government and the politicians made the monsters and they can’t control them. And it’s just getting out of hand now.”
Dudus was arrested a month after the raid on Tivoli at a routine police roadblock. He was reportedly disguised as a woman and accompanied by Reverend Al Miller, a politically influential priest who said Dudus was afraid he would be killed by police and had decided to surrender directly to the American embassy. After being extradited to the U.S. he pleaded guilty to drug and racketeering charges, and is now serving a 23-year sentence in Federal prison. The Jamaican government’s investigation into the deaths resulting from the Tivoli incursion drags on to this day—Commissioner Ellington resigned in July 2014, reportedly to allow the Tivoli Commission of Enquiry to do its work more effectively. Critics charge that the whole matter could be settled quickly if footage captured by a U.S. surveillance plane that flew above Kingston on May 24, 2010 were made public. So far that has not happened. Meanwhile Jesquan Spence is growing up without his father and Michelle Davis has no explanation for her son’s death. “One man come and give me some form to fill out,” she says. “But we no inna them tings. You understand? The politician and them—we no inna them tings deh.”
Was it worth the cost? “We are in a bit of a watershed period,” Jamaica’s current National Security Minister Peter Bunting declared a few months after the incursion. “Since the security forces’ assault on Tivoli Gardens, the crime rate, and particularly the murder rate, has dropped dramatically. The assault came at the end of May, and in June our murder rate had dropped by 30 percent, and in July by over 50 percent.” But the decline proved to be short-lived. Two years later, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that Jamaica averaged 39.4 gun killings for every 1000 citizens, tied with El Salvador and Honduras as having the highest firearm murder rate in the world.
To read the full interview, subscribe to the magazine.