Moving on from the “Culture of Violence” Myth

Alexander Causwell

CAPRI’s 2020 landmark study on Jamaica’s violent gangs, Guns Out: The Splintering of Jamaica’s Gangs , repeated the commonly held premise that Jamaica suffers from a “culture of violence.” Ongoing work in the security field has since prompted a reexamination of that hypothesis. A closer examination of the available evidence yields no indication that a distinct cultural propensity is responsible for Jamaica’s high rates of violence, particularly with respect to homicides. Rather, it is the enabling environment produced by specific policy decisions of the Jamaican government since at least the early 1970s that facilitates the extraordinary prevalence of homicidal behaviour, along with other forms of violence. On this basis, CAPRI is currently working on research and policy recommendations that are better grounded in an understanding of our murder problem as an outcome of a logic of violence, rather than a culture of violence.

The “culture of violence” myth is so pervasive that Jamaica’s preeminent sociologist, Orlando Patterson, apparently endorsed it in the Inaugural Rex Nettleford Distinguished Lecture in February 2023. He characterised local trends in murder, domestic violence, and corporal punishment of children as manifestations of a distinct, endemic cultural phenomenon likely rooted in the historical practice of chattel slavery. Patterson’s utterance is ironic since it contradicts his own earlier reflections. In his 2019 book The Confounding Island, Patterson describes witnessing, as a government advisor in the 1970s, the then-administration install housing schemes in low-income areas that “transformed into what became known as armed ‘garrison’ communities, a major factor in Jamaica’s descent into chronic violence.” The high level of violence, he admits here, is of recent origin, and traceable to identifiable government policies. With respect to murder in particular, this observation is supported by the available statistics from before the 1970s that shows Jamaica experiencing homicide rates on par with other countries.

The advent of garrisons is critical in understanding the evolution of Jamaica’s path to being among the most murderous countries in the world, as they fostered the germination of organized criminal groups. These communities provide the support necessary for gangs to operate, and successive generations of young men to recruit. As enclaves, semi-isolated from mainstream society, they function as safe havens for gangs, who require a buffer between themselves and state authorities to hide and plan operations. As such, communities metastasised across the country over the ensuing decades, and gang violence increased and spread in tandem. Currently, Jamaica has around 250 active street gangs. Their existence, facilitated by the persistence and spread of garrison-like communities, directly accounts for approximately 70 to 80 percent of homicides committed annually

Gang killings, generally, are not sporadic acts of violence, but rather tactical decisions made by competing criminal organisations. Gangs use violence to maintain a degree of control over their territories and to reinforce the marginalisation of their respective communities. Violence is also the means through which they extract resources from the community, fend off competing gangs, carry out reprisal killings to deter future attacks, and deter cooperation with state authorities by punishing or eliminating suspected informers.

Indirectly, the prevalence of gang violence facilitates acts of seemingly unrelated violence, as represented by the remaining 20 to 30 percent of murders annually, along with other statistics on violent crime, through a second-order consequence we call the “impunity effect.” Extreme gang violence overwhelms the justice system, leading to low clear-up rates and a popular impression that it is relatively easy to get away with murder in Jamaica. This perception weakens the deterrence that law enforcement would otherwise have on the minority of individuals who are wont to commit murder for more personal reasons. In addition, “veteran” perpetrators of gang violence also readily offer such individuals their services in exchange for compensation or as favours, further lowering the cost and perceived risks of resorting to violence. This availability of murderers is exacerbated by Jamaica’s low incarceration rate, which is the second lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean according to 2022 data—only Haiti has a lower rate.  We can infer from this that a greater proportion of individuals with a propensity for violence in Jamaica roam freely compared to our neighbouring countries.   

Absent gang violence, with its second-order effects, there is no indication that Jamaica would stand out as a particularly violent county. The “culture of violence” hypothesis would be moot.

Ultimately, the “culture of violence” premise had no material bearing on the analysis, conclusions, or recommendations in Guns Out, but dispensing with the “culture of violence” hypothesis is essential to a more informed discourse on violence prevention and reduction. The hypothesis is seductive in its simplicity, but it lends itself to policies and interventions largely targeted at reforming the characters of individuals who may be or become violence producers. Out of such a misguided framework comes attempts to arrest chronic violence through initiatives such as vocational trainingcognitive behavioural therapy, and conflict resolution programmes. It is unsurprising, then, that successive Jamaican administrations have poured billions of dollars into social interventions that collectively have failed to suppress homicidal behaviour.

Recognizing that what appears to be endemic violence experienced in Jamaica is, at its core, a chronic gang problem, suggests that our violence prevention efforts should focus on reforming the urban landscape to make it less hospitable to those violent organizations, in addition to, or perhaps rather than, the plethora of other interventions that have thus far failed to yield measurable and/or sustained decreases in the number of murders.