MAKING OF A GANGSTER
At 11 years old, he held his father as the elder choked on injuries from a gunman’s bullet. At 13, he and friends made their first two ‘duppies’, and by 17, that body count had tripled.
Now, after countless run-ins with the law, serving time only for the pettiest of his crimes – a robbery – the young adult is plagued by an ensuing cloud of guilt that he must either live with or take up with the legal system.
Turning himself in behind a confession is admittedly not an option, he told The Gleaner, but a desperate yearning to stay away from crime is. And for the past two years, that desire has been serving him well.
But Mark*, a confessed one-time teenage gangster, said he sees much of his former self in the youth in and around his St Catherine community, especially since they have been away from face-to-face school interaction and love.
Many, he said, are not attending online classes, instead choosing to engage in criminal acts. This, he theorised, happens while their hard-pressed parents are preoccupied with finding a meal for their households.
“I used to go school two, sometimes three times out of the week until I passed my tests, and that was when I really started skipping school more than anything else,” he said, adding that his schooldays were clouded with thoughts of avenging his father’s death.
His mother tried but could not control his rage and deviance, he said.
None of his murders involved any of his father’s suspected killers. In fact, his first murder, on the cusp of adolescence, was in defence of a female who he said was beaten by men in the area. After that, he revelled in the ease, pleasure and power of his crimes.
His victims ranged from other teenagers to men in their early 20s, who showed resistance to how he and friends governed the ‘grung’. This all happened while he was slinging his knapsack over his back, tricking those around him that he was attending school.
Now, he is seeing the misdirection of some of the youngsters in his former stomping ground, some of whom he believes may have already taken up positions in St Catherine’s many deadly criminal enterprises.
It is the harsh reality of youth in the garrison with whom Mark tries to reason, albeit pointlessly at times. At those times, the pain of causing a sibling’s death due to his gang-running actions stings deepest. Three years after, that thought still haunts him, as fresh as some of his victims’ screams.
“Sometimes I see these little youths on the streets, and before them go take up them book and learn something, they are thinking about badness. But the reason why this happen is that the youths are not getting the right learning and guidance, I think,” he surmised, noting the pandemic’s impact on the education system.
“That’s what happened to me. They don’t have the right people to hold them up and show them love, and tell dem that (crime) is not the right road to be on.
“Some youth just want to hear, ‘Your future is bright. You can do good, youth. Don’t make police take your life.’ Many times they don’t have someone to take them up in hand and show them love,” Mark said, citing the unfortunate death of five young men killed by police in an operation in August Town, St Andrew, earlier this month. Four of the men were between 20 and 24 years old.
Head of the Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Division, Superintendent Anthony McLaughlin, has highlighted the prominence of teenagers and young adults in investigations, particularly those related to cybercrimes since last year.
“These were persons who would otherwise be working or in school and the fact is that they are home now and are not engaged or gainfully employed. A lot of them are youngsters,” said the superintendent, telling The Gleaner that the perpetrators were as young as 14 years old.
“We have youngsters who are going to school who are involved in some of the criminal activities. If you look at lottery scam, a lot of teenagers are involved in lottery scamming. There are persons involved from as early as about 13 or 14 years old,” he added.
Gleaner efforts to get more recent data proved futile, but last year, the Court Administration Division said that in the first six weeks after suspension of face-to-face classes in March, 44 children were remanded for criminal offences and 16 were detained at places of safety in welfare matters.
“Eighteen new children cases were brought before the court during the period for offences such as murder, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, [and] sexual offences such as sexual intercourse with persons under 16,” it said.
Promising students missing out
The reality is not lost on Otis James, president of the James and Friend’s Education Programme, who two weeks ago bemoaned the railroading of the education of many of Jamaica’s promising students due to economic concerns, specifically those brought on by the pandemic.
Many of these children are not in class because of a lack of electronic devices and other challenges.
“There are many talented youths in Clarendon, many across Jamaica at that, but they are not being given the opportunity. Many of them don’t have the right parenting, so they don’t even want to go to school. That is when they will get mixed up into things,” explained James, adding that he has had personal experience of otherwise criminal-minded teens who have transitioned through his programme.
In the meantime, there have been concerns among some teachers last week that some of their students may have become truants to online classes in order to work or beg on the streets.
Two years ago, the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) commenced an islandwide study into the number of street children and the implications on their future. That study was aimed at examining the involvement of street children in crimes, their reception of social intervention entities, and identifying best practices.
Representatives from the CPFSA have indicated that the study has been completed and is now before Cabinet for perusal, a process which could take months.
Its findings, however, may already be dated as the coronavirus disease strikes some of the hardest and long-lasting blows at the island’s children, their education and future.
NB: *Name changed.