The growth of Jamaican phone-scamming caused a crime-wave and martial law in Montego Bay

In the late 2000s, Jamaican authorities launched a crackdown on drug dealers, extraditing the country's most notorious crime-bosses to the USA; the power-vacuum was filled by telephone advance-fee fraud (419/Spanish Prisoner/etc) scammers who targeted American victims, bringing an estimated $300,000,000 to Montego Bay and its region, the epicenter of the scam.

The crime syndicates that run the scams are in open war with one another; three of Jamaica's largest districts have been under a state of emergency since January, occupied by armed soldiers. The soldiers arbitrarily detain and brutalize young men, and have collaborated with law enforcement in schemes to rob the scammers and keep the money — one group was convicted of stealing $5.6 million this way.

Montego Bay has a storied history as a tourist destination and Jamaican tourist authorities continue to promote it as a tranquil holiday spot.

One of the founding fathers of Jamaican lotto scamming exemplified the corruption. Kenrick Stephenson, otherwise known as Bebe, was facing several lawsuits for fraud while also serving as vice chair of the People's National Party constituency in his home area of Granville. Bebe had a highly unusual lifestyle. Not only was he a lotto scammer-cum-politician – he was also openly gay in a country notorious for rampant homophobia. But he wielded the power to rearrange some of the country's norms. He dressed femininely and threw wild drag parties, an unheard of thing to do in Jamaica. He was murdered in 2014 at the gates of his mansion in the upper-class area of Ironshore, in a suspected gang-related killing. Prominent politicians, gay rights activists, and community members all attended his funeral, where rumors circulated that his casket was made of gold.

The bloodshed reached crisis point earlier this year. On January 16, outside Sangster International Airport, next to the Friendly City billboard, three men wielding AK-47s strolled across the main road and, in broad daylight, unloaded more than 70 bullets into a silver Nissan Tiida car. One man died, and another three were injured in what was believed to have been a gang-related attack. Two days later the government declared the state of emergency.

How Phone Scamming Has Fueled a State of Emergency in Jamaica's Tourist Capital [Summer Eldemire/The Intercept]