Jamaica imposes widespread state of emergency to fight surge in gang violence

Jamaica's prime minister has declared a widespread state of emergency to fight a surge in gang violence on an island, with one of the highest murder rates in the Caribbean.

The state of emergency applies to specific communities in the capital of Kingston, along with six of the country's 14 parishes, including popular tourist spots like Montego Bay.

It will also allow authorities to arrest people and search buildings without a warrant - something which has been heavily criticised by political opponents and activists, who have warned against a repeat of the police abuse and mass detentions that occurred under previous states of emergency.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness dismissed critics, and said his priority was to save lives.

"That is all the government is trying to do," he said in a televised address, adding that Jamaicans "have to hide under their beds, hide their daughters, can't go to church, and they see their sons and their boyfriends and husbands killed. That's the reality."

He said the nation has "some really criminal threats facing us, and we have to use all the powers at our disposal".

So far this year, the island of 2.8 million people has reported 1,421 killings, surpassing the 1,374 killings for the same period last year.

Gangs known as "posses" that have been linked to major political parties have been blamed for the vast majority of killings on the island, who rely on extortion, drug trafficking and lottery scams to fund their crimes.

Jamaica has enforced a number of states of emergency over the past few years in response, which have been condemned by human rights activists.

But the island's Supreme Court has ruled several times that the detention of Jamaicans for months at a time without a trial is unconstitutional.

An expert on emergency powers and former professor at Howard University, Jermain Young, says states of emergency deliver only marginal results and have worrying consequences.

"Jamaica has a sordid reputation for abusing emergency powers," he wrote in an essay this month.

He said the police and military "have engaged in practices that include arbitrary and unlawful mass extended detentions, extrajudicial killings and internal renditions".

But authorities in Jamaica are defending the measure, with Police Chief Maj Gen Anthony Johnson noting a 64% decline in killings during a smaller, two-week state of public emergency in November.

The prime minister said he is aware of the concerns.

"It is not the intention of the government to abuse these powers," Mr Holness said. "As long as it is needed, this government will use states of public emergency."