Jamaica
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Target: Nearby bushes

Whether to stave off police pressure or as a tactical hideout, gunmen are taking to the hills and bushes in several criminal hotspots, doubling the threat to the public and security personnel who pursue them.

The practice is nothing new, but with police pressure heaped on criminals from various enhanced security measures across the island, cops believe several of their most wanted have become lifelong campers. Like the wind, they soon disappear, leaving evidence of their long nights and rough days in hilly terrains and densely forested areas.

Last week’s find of six guns following a shoot-out between thugs and police that left a man dead opposite Dyke Road in Portmore, St Catherine, is but the latest of a string of deadly bush shootings this year.

“These bushy areas pose the most challenge to us. A lot of the men carry out their acts and then retreat to these bushes, and in many cases, these bushes lead to other parishes,” explained Operations Superintendent Erron Samuels, citing the hunt and fatal shooting of Delano Wilmot, otherwise called ‘Prekeh Bwoy’, who met his demise in July 2020.

Prekeh Bwoy left a bloody trail of murder and shootings in rural St James.

“He reigned in the hills of Cambridge for some time. Because of the ease of movement and the hilly terrain, he was able to hide. It really took some effort from internal and external sources and many operations over a period to get to him,” said Samuels, noting that night searches with flashlights easily give away the approach of the police in lush, steep hillsides.

“These areas are not as saturated by police officers as you would hope. They require tactical training and a lot of manpower to cover a wide area. These criminals have more knowledge of the ground than we do, and sometimes it will take a bit of time to understand and know the space,” he offered.

Last year, the police faced several of those incidents, most of them unreported. The killing of five men last March, who police identified as wanted for several crimes in and around August Town, St Andrew, made headlines and sparked public praise for law enforcement.

Seven guns were seized after the security forces combed sections of August Town afterwards.

Probably most notable in Jamaica’s criminal history, however, is the relentless hunt for members of the Warriors Gang, led by the now-convicted Joel Andem.

For the four years prior to his capture in 2004, Andem and his cronies kept one step ahead of the police, employing lookouts, while securing their forested camp in Rawley Hill Gully, in the hills overlooking Papine in St Andrew, with assault rifles.

The same tactics are being used today.

DANGEROUS TERRAIN

“One a scale of one to 10, those bush operations are certainly a 10 because of the unknown. It’s the playground for the gangsters, their sub-quarters,” one special operations member who helped in last week’s Dyke Road search offered.

“The areas are either poorly lit or there is no light at all. So we have to invest in flashlights to be placed on our weapons to have proper visibility. Also, being tactically trained helps. We have to know how to use the bushes as cover, and also to camouflage ourselves,” he explained, noting that some cops opt to purchase their own flashlights and other gear for such daring operations.

He shared that in his decade of service, he has witnessed several colleagues being shot in close-quarter combat with gunmen. He, too, was shot in the thigh last year, a painful reality that landed him in hospital and recovery for four months.

Redressing the wound is painful, but not as much as his anxiety to get back on the job, noted the cop, whose bravery has earned him a superhero moniker.

In those unfamiliar territories, it is about keeping each other safe, the lawman stressed; a testament one corporal from the St Catherine South police made as he recounted a recent incident. He, too, declined to identify himself as he was not authorised to speak publicly.

“The experience was horrific,” he told The Sunday Gleaner in confidence. “It was all dark with no form of light because of the thick vegetation. Even if there was a full moon, it still wouldn’t be able to penetrate through.”

Recounting another narrow escape, he noted that, “Each gun battle is never the same, especially at nights, worse when criminal elements know the area more than you.

“In one operation, as the police and military team went into the unknown in the bushes, we heard footsteps. We shouted, ‘Police!’ But before that word was completed, the criminals responded to the team with gunshots,” he recalled. “It’s really a horrible and horrific situation for anyone to leave his family at home and venture out not knowing if you will return home.

“In my time, I have seen several colleagues get hit. Naturally, a cause of concern and fear will take over, but the will to overcome and survive is greater. It all comes down to how well you apply your training,” offered the special operations officer.

CRIMINAL HOTSPOT

Last week, Senior Superintendent Christopher Phillips, who heads the St Catherine South Division, identified Dyke Road as a criminal hotspot where thugs cross the road with high-powered rifles to and from their sinister missions.

He is calling for increased debushing of the area, which was littered with camping equipment used by the criminals in their hideout.

It is said that that forested area leads as far back as Riverton City and its environs. Searching these densely vegetated areas across the island often requires aerial and canine assistance – costly and timely interventions, the senior cop said.

Debushing won’t work for sections of St James, one lawman said, as entire communities would have to be cleaned in order to clear suspected hideouts for criminal entities. Among some of the problematic bushy areas in the parish are Freemont, Maroon Town, Granville, Anchovy and Cambridge.

Senior Superintendent Howard Chambers, head of the St Catherine North Division, cited sections of Kitson Town, Brown’s Hall, Guanaboa Vale, Linstead and Red Pond as problematic hideouts for gunmen in the division. Many of these criminals are outsiders, he said, invited into the division by cronies offering refuge.

“Especially the Kitson Town belt, those rural parts of the division, and some areas just outside of Spanish Town. You find that there is a lot of bushy terrain. Sometimes it is not so much that they are camping out in the bushes, but that men from these rural areas are hosting them,” Chambers said, citing a double fatal shooting about 9 p.m. last Thursday of two gunmen who attempted to rob a bar in that area. They were surprised by an off-duty policeman. One firearm was seized.

“The colloquial roads in Kitson Town and Brown’s Hall are very difficult to traverse and they have a lot of off-roads that go in and out. These roads are often bushy, poorly lit and many times we have to walk a part of the way and then drive a part of the way on operations,” he said, also calling for debushing and the erection of street lights in his division.

“The primary message, though, is to the residents. We can’t be everywhere so we need their support. Whenever you see any strange faces, armed men walking in and out of these areas, please call the police immediately. We are willing and ready to check out these locations,” Chambers urged.

corey.robinson@gleanerjm.com