ICYMI in Jamaica, January 26, 2021: The Mystery Plane Edition

This year is going to be warming up, according to my friends who do weather. It seems to be warming up in more ways than one. Our yard is turning into a dust bowl. We have had no rain since Christmas in Kingston. Other things are warming up too – the gently rising COVID-19 cases and the steeply rising tide of crime and violence, to mention just two. I don’t know where 2021 is going, but the first three weeks have not been very encouraging. The horrifying news of the attacks on several homeless people knocked us for six. And then there was the mystery plane. Here’s more…

Caribbean: As the border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela persists, some parts of Guyana are experiencing an influx of Venezuelan immigrants, apparently as a result of attacks by a local gang. Guyana’s Region One authorities say they can barely cope. Meanwhile, twelve Guyanese fishermen were detained by Venezuelan navy vessels and appeared in court on charges of illegal fishing, although the Guyanese say this took place in their waters. An International Court of Justice decided on December 18 last year to assert jurisdiction following an application by Guyana for a juridical settlement of the longstanding border controversy with Venezuela.

I haven’t read it yet, but “The Mermaid of Black Conch” by Trinidadian-British writer Monique Roffey, published by Peepal Tree Press, has won the prestigious 2020 Costa Book Award in the UK.

Children: The UNICEF office in Jamaica works extremely hard and is involved in many projects to help our children. Now the agency has donated a range of equipment to the Department of Correctional Services – desktop computers, laptops, tablets, headsets, webcams and Wi-Fi devices – to be used in programs to help children in correctional institutions deal with psychological problems.

Corruption: There are ongoing investigations into serious irregularities at both the Jamaican Urban Transit Company (JUTC) and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. In the latter case, around J$3 billion has allegedly been lost or misused in the past two years, through the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), according to the Auditor General’s past two reports. My problem is that similar issues are raised year after year at the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, and a huge fuss arises. Then…nothing much happens. Where is the accountability? Today, two Ministry officials were “no shows” at the Public Accounts Committee meeting.

And…another scandal? This time there are reports of fake university degrees being sold at the University of the West Indies. Chairman of the University Council of Jamaica (UCJ), Professor Errol Morrison does not seem particularly surprised; apparently it’s nothing new, just that the technology is better.

Crime: An academic (social anthropologist) at the University of the West Indies named Dr. Herbert Gayle claims that UN agencies are putting out “propaganda” regarding domestic violence. In fact, he asserts (from his own research, which we are not privy to) 65 per cent of femicides in Jamaica are – you’ve guessed it – “gang-related.” “We have no such figures anywhere else in the world,” added Dr. Gayle. Is that so? Where are those figures, I wonder – in a publication? In a newspaper article Dr. Gayle asserted “It may be surprising to some that women are playing serious roles in the planning of violence. We found that eight per cent are involved in this fashion. They are behind the scenes and have been effective.” So let’s turn around the crime problem and blame it on the women (albeit that they are not the perpetrators, but frequently the victims).

Neither he nor another political commentator were surprised at a survey released recently by the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), a government agency, in which an overwhelming majority of respondents said they felt safe in their homes and on the streets. However, they did not interview many residents of inner city areas. I still don’t believe that the residents of Norwood, St. James, Maxfield Avenue or Trench Town feel safe in their homes right now – let alone walking the streets. And when you see daily headlines such as “Murder, Arson Drive Fear Into Content Residents” it makes you wonder who they interviewed.

It has been a long time coming, but now the Major Organised Crime and Anti-corruption Agency (MOCA), established in 2018, will be legally designated an independent agency of the Ministry of National Security, effective April 1. This is definitely a good move.

The mystery plane.

Drama erupted on Saturday evening, when a small plane suddenly appeared on the coast at Rocky Point, Clarendon, and apparently crash-landed on their white sand beach. Now Rocky Point is a place known for its fishing (and some less law-abiding activities, at times). Residents were “quick on the scene,” as the saying goes, and there are reports of either two or three men exiting the aircraft – some said in jacket and tie and with brief cases. Unfortunately, the police were not so quick on the scene, arriving after residents had clambered over the plane, removing items and even parts of the plane itself. They have not been prevented from doing so, and now parts of the plane are either in the hands of the residents, or floating out to sea. And they are still looking for the occupants, who are presumably hiding somewhere (or are they still on the island)? Were the police afraid to go into the mangroves for fear of crocodiles? Where were the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) and Marine Police? Who knows. Just asking!

Interestingly, most of the seats had been removed from the plane, which had a Mexican flag on the side; was it carrying cargo (already offloaded)? Mystery now surrounds the plane and the whereabouts of the “Caucasian-looking” or “Hispanic-looking” men. It is believed that the plane was heading for Vernamfield, a disused wartime air strip, which the local Member of Parliament, Mike Henry, has been talking about developing into some kind of industrial park for years. Mayor of May Pen, who is the Councilor for Rocky Point, Winston Maragh, appeared concerned about the slow response of the security forces (although he didn’t say that in so many words) and said he has called for a police post there before. Rocky Point has a dubious reputation.

Rocky Point businessman Nicholas Graham was furious (and says he has hired a lawyer) after he said the police were targeting him and searched his house while he was out, causing damage and taking some cash. He is now being detained on suspicion of narcotics trafficking according to one television report, and residents are angry about this. The way this matter has been handled seems remarkably inept and security officials seem strangely quiet.

Monday morning was a horrific one as news arrived that six homeless people had been attacked and four killed in several Kingston locations. These are the people ignored by the public on a daily basis – huddled in shop doorways, dragging themselves along the street. People don’t just ignore them – they avoid them. I have seen people stepping over them on the sidewalk. Now, however, the general public is deeply distressed. Now, the Prime Minister is promising greater protection for the homeless. Perhaps some of you are too young to remember Montego Bay’s “Street People Scandal” of 1999.

Westmoreland-born Sevana has done a Tiny Desk concert.

Culture: Do you like Tiny Desk Concerts? I do. Jamaican soul singer Sevana is featured on one of NPR’s latest (although it was actually recorded last year). Take a listen!

Education: Kudos to the Sean Paul Foundation, which distributed 100 tablets to schools, with data pre-loaded by the Flow Foundation. A local manufacturing and services company, Jacden Group of Industries, also donated J$250,000 to buy tablets for schools. So lovely!

A half-expected setback? Eight schools that had been approved on COVID-19 protocols have since had confirmed or suspected cases, and have closed, Education Minister Fayval Williams announced in Parliament. 292 schools have so far been approved to resume face-to-face classes, with 216 of them reopened so far.

Health: STATIN and other Government agencies continually talk about “recovery” and “pre-COVID” – as if we are over that, already post-COVID, and moving right along, in 2021. With around 100 new cases daily, I am wondering where the optimism is coming from. According to STATIN, however (I cannot find a copy of the full survey) close to half of households report they are back to “pre-COVID” income levels. If that is the case, why the loud calls for another economic “stimulus package” and assistance for individuals and businesses at the moment? Am I missing something? STATIN itself is reporting a drop in employment and the Bank of Jamaica projects an 8 – 10 per cent decline in the economy up to March 2021, followed by an improvement later in the calendar year. I am trying to figure all of this out. I need help! As a Gleaner editorial noted, “It won’t get too far if the “blue skies” which, according to Don Anderson, businesses and consumers are having a glimpse of, fall behind the clouds.” It all seems a bit contradictory.

Human Rights: The police shot dead two men who they said were “on their way to commit a murder” in Caymanas Drive in Portmore, St. Catherine. Their names were Oral Nelson and Jodane Coure.

Work on the South Coast Highway by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) was put on hold again today, when residents of the community of Redberry in Manchester protested furiously for three days at the dust, noise, and damage to homes. There has apparently been little response from officials, but at last it seems there will be a meeting with stakeholders. CHEC has promised to make amends.

(left to right) Marilyn Facey, Damion Mitchell and Dionne Jackson Miller at the PAJ Public Forum. All are journalists at the RJR Gleaner Communications Group. (Photo: Twitter)

Media: There were two major media-related seminars in the past few days. One was the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) annual public forum (which was dominated by one media house, it appears) on “Does Jamaica deserve its high press freedom ranking?” Jamaica is ranked at #6 in the world in 2020, up two spaces from 2019. If you missed the discussion, it is on YouTube here. The Commonwealth Foundation also held a forum on press freedom today headlined “The People’s Voice: Protecting Media Freedom Throughout the Commonwealth.” You can find details and a recording of the programme here (it’s shorter than the PAJ’s).

Money: COVID-19 has been a “monumental shock,” said our Finance Minister Nigel Clarke in Parliament today. The path to get out of it is “a narrow one,” he stressed. “We cannot do everything, we must make deliberate and informed choices,” added our astute young Minister.

There is no doubt that, alongside the huge blow to the tourism industry, Jamaica’s events/entertainment and creative industry is suffering daily. We think of the usually thriving “party scene,” but as Kingston Creative’s Andrea Dempster Chung has pointed out, COVID-19 restrictions, curfews and so on, have impacted events such as the organization’s monthly Art Walk and Meetups, book launches, and a slew of other events. Meanwhile, Scott Dunn is the promoter of “Dream Weekend,” a party marathon in Negril (they are advertising the event for August, 2021 by the way). He wrote a letter to the Jamaican Government asking for guidelines and protocols for the entertainment industry as “The Government is killing a multi-billion dollar industry and starving its dependents.” Minister of Local Government Desmond McKenzie’s response was rather sour, suggesting that in the past such protocols have been agreed on and not observed; and he is still having to deal with enough illegal parties, where violent incidents have taken place (on Sunday night in Denham Town, there was a drive-by shooting at a bar where a gathering was taking place, inexplicably yards away from a Zone of Special Operations security post. There is a “deficit of trust,” said the Minister. For now, I think Mr. Dunn’s please are going to fall on stony ground.

Meanwhile, at certain restaurants and bars in uptown Kingston, gatherings continue without any police raids on them. One wonders why.

Agent Sasco (left) touches elbows with Recycling Partners of Jamaica Marketing and Public Relations Manager Candice Ming at the signing of their agreement.

People: I was delighted to hear that Agent Sasco (real name Jeffrey Campbell), a DJ of some repute (he’s really good) has signed up as a Brand Ambassador for Recycling Partners of Jamaica (RPJ). Great move! He will be participating in the opening of the next depot in St. Thomas soon. NB Agent Sasco also has his own charitable foundation called Banks of the Hope (also the title of one of his songs).

We had some very sad news on Friday: the popular Jamaican footballer Luton Shelton passed away at the age of 35. He was our all-time leading goal scorer. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (a rare disease affecting the nervous system) in 2018. It is actually called Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) but was named after a baseball player who was diagnosed with the disease. There is no cure and it is not quite known what causes it, either.

Former Editor-in-Chief of the Gleaner, Ken Allen.

More sad news: The former Editor-in-Chief of the Gleaner newspaper, Ken Allen, passed away at age 87. I remember him serving as Opinion Editor for some years. He was a kind man and an excellent journalist.

Sadly also, Ronnie Nasralla, a well-known figure in the entertainment business, passed away. The businessman and record producer helped boost the careers of many great Jamaican musicians.

Retired sprinter and Olympic medalist Yohan Blake has started a new business in Kingston: the Yohan Blake Rehab & Wellness Centre, which will focus on physiotherapy for sports people.

Yohan Blake at the opening of his Rehab and Wellness Centre. (Photo: Twitter)

Tourism: The new travel measures announced by President Joe Biden this week are truly necessary – but are going to have an impact on Jamaica’s tourism. Yet another blow, really, especially taking into account that the United States supplies three quarters of our tourists. I quote from the U.S. Embassy website:

Effective January 26, all airline passengers to the United States ages two years and older must provide either a negative COVID-19 viral test taken within three calendar days of travel or provide a positive test result and documentation from a licensed health care provider or public health official of having recovered from COVID-19 in the 90 days preceding travel.  Passengers must also attest, under penalty of law, to having received a negative qualifying test result or to recovery from COVID-19 and medical clearance to travel.  

Women’s Issues: I have not been very impressed by recent media reports about the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). I just have a niggling feeling. Now a case emerged recently of a woman soldier who was charged (and punished for) “fraternizing” with a male superior officer. The officer has not yet been charged. Opposition Spokesman on National Security Peter Bunting is calling for a proper investigation and for the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) to probe the matter (they say it is not in their remit to do so). I was unimpressed by the evasiveness of a JDF representative during a radio interview last week. The whole matter needs further investigation. Retired JDF Colonel Allan Douglas is deeply concerned, noting: “Sexual harassment can’t be condoned, even (sic) in a military — no way. It’s the end of everything. Trust, confidence, morale, the whole thing comes tumbling down.”

The Brookings Institution has just published a report entitled Gender-based Violence in Primary Schools: Jamaica. You may find the link here.

It is really painful to record these names every week. My deepest condolences to all the families who are grieving, and to all those injured who are suffering mental and physical trauma.

Four homeless people were chopped to death in downtown Kingston overnight on Sunday. A man has been held in connection with the murders – reportedly a deportee (I don’t know what the relevance of this is).

Adrian Lewis, 38, was shot dead at a shop in Bluntas, Treasure Beach in St. Elizabeth. The police later arrested two men and a woman in a car on the main road.

Also in St. Elizabeth, 62-year-old Rafael Robertson, a farmer, was shot dead allegedly by a security guard in Barton district, during an altercation.

41-year-old John Boulin, a fisherman of Black River, was shot dead in Barton, St. Elizabeth.

53-year-old Lorraine Foster was shot dead and her house set on fire in the “usually quiet” neighborhood of Simon, Content in St. Catherine.

43 year old Latoya Alaindar was found stabbed to death at her apartment in Runaway Bay, St. Ann on Thursday evening. She was a Canadian citizen.

Gregory Yates, 33, was shot dead at a shop in Aldon, Windsor Castle, Portland, which is a generally peaceful parish. This was its first murder this year. The residents in the quiet neighborhood are deeply shocked.

47-year-old Cleon Keen was found with gunshot wounds in Catadupa, St. James.

In Kingston, Richard Riley, 45, was shot dead just a short distance from his home on Balmagie Avenue.

Also in Jones Town, Kingston, a brother and sister were shot dead: Janelle Thomas, 24, and Omar Jarrett, 29.

Not far away on Second Street, Trench Town, Tyrone Brown, 25, was shot dead.

Just round the corner on Collie Smith Drive, Tyrese Montague, 21 and Steve Beckles, 25, were shot dead.

The parish of Manchester recorded its first murder – that of a shopkeeper, Everton Ranglin, 55, who was shot dead in Hatfield.

There are plenty of informative and interesting events going on, online. Here is one you might like to tune into.

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