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Crime Focus of Jamaica Election

October 15, 2002 GMT

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KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) _ In a land known more for reggae and sun-splashed vacations, general elections could make or break this nation as it struggles to stem spiraling crime and revive a sluggish economy.

Three people were shot dead Tuesday in the gritty outskirts of Kingston, the capital, including an elderly man hit outside his tin-roofed home in Trench Town, the run-down neighborhood where reggae legend Bob Marley lived.

``Most of these shootings are about money or drugs, not politics,″ said Petunia Williams, 30, as her sobbing toddler clasped her legs and police fanned out in search of the unidentified man’s killer. ``But you can’t help being scared sometimes. It’s become a fact of life.″

Former President Jimmy Carter and 59 observers are part of an international delegation monitoring the parliamentary elections scheduled for Wednesday. Carter, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, said the violence is troubling, but things have improved.

Last year 1,300 people were killed compared to 780 this year. Out of nearly 50 killings in the weeks leading up to the vote, few were politically motivated, Carter said. The toll is a sharp drop from the near 800 killed during Jamaica’s 1980 elections.

``The leaders of Jamaica understand that a great factor in the economic progress of Jamaica is tourism and international investment, and general economic progress will depend to a great degree on the integrity and safety of this election,″ Carter said when he arrived Monday. ``Anyone who does perpetrate violence will be hurting the country.″

Prime Minister P.J. Patterson of the People’s National Party wants to curb crime by hanging killers.

Jamaica, with 52 people on death row, executed its last prisoner in 1988 but still hands down mandatory death sentences for crimes like murder. The London-based Privy Council, which acts as the highest court of appeal for most former British colonies in the Caribbean, has rejected many death sentences.

Patterson’s opponent, former Prime Minister Edward Seaga of the Jamaica Labor Party, said the country’s living conditions must be improved. He blamed political bickering for blocking progress.

``None of the political parties have the answers for what Jamaica needs,″ said Willing Able, 36, a Rastafarian guard at Marley’s old home. ``They give us asphalt and pavement, but don’t give us land and knowledge to feed our children. That’s the real problem.″

Political parties created Jamaica’s street gangs in the 1970s, to rustle up votes. Since then, the gangs have turned to drug trafficking. But they remain staunchly and often violently loyal to their parties and live in politically divided poor neighborhoods called ``garrisons.″ As a result, the line between drug-related and political violence often is blurred.

``There may be a plan afoot to void certain marginal constituencies by infringement and violence,″ Seaga said Tuesday. ``It’s a last hard play to try to secure a victory that is slipping away from the PNP.″

Both Seaga’s and Patterson’s motorcades were shot at during recent campaign tours. Neither was injured.

A poll released Tuesday showed a close race, with 40.6 percent of the vote for Patterson’s party and 36.4 percent for Seaga’s party. The Gleaner-Don Anderson poll sampled 782 people across Jamaica and reported a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.

Jamaica, which depends on tourism and bauxite, had been on a slow road to economic recovery, expanding its economy by .8 percent in 2000 and 1.1 percent in 2001.

But the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States _ coupled with tourist fears of steady crime _ caused a 10 percent drop in visitors to the island known for its white sand beaches, turquoise waters and lush mountains.

Vacationing in the north-coast resort town of Montego Bay, 38-year-old Mark Marcus of Phoenix said he and his wife Liz aren’t the least bit worried.

``This is a gorgeous place and we’ve had no problems,″ he said. ``We would definitely come back.″