International SOS routinely conducts country trips to gather information, assess the local security environment and vet logistics and security providers on the ground for our members and clients around the world. In September Brianna Petzak visited Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica along with my colleague Victor Martins (Security Specialist).
Getting ready to go
Whenever we are planning our country trips for the year we look closely at our clients’ needs in the related location. We needed to ensure that we had adequate time to meet with foreign government missions, security and logistics providers as well as to conduct evaluations at hotels where our members could safely accommodate during their travel. We spent several months in preparation coordinating these meetings and conducting background research on the travel and security threats our travellers may be exposed to. We also had to ensure we had a backup plan in place, as we were planning to travel in the midst of hurricane season.
We arrived at the city of Kingston where we took an official airport taxi directly to our first embassy meeting. The drive from Norman Manley International airport to the city centre gave us our first glimpse into the security environment of the country itself.
Along the way we travelled through the neighbourhood of Mountain View Gardens, which is known to have sporadic instances of gunfire linked to gang violence and is also known to flood quite easily during the rainy season, being at the bottom of the island. Along the road, there were people who would approach passing taxis as well as motorcycles that would drive close to our taxi, a common tactic employed by opportunistic criminals who are looking to conduct ‘snatch and grab’ muggings through the open windows of a vehicle.
Following our meeting with the embassy, we began our 3-hour overland journey west to Montego Bay. Our secure transportation picked us up at the embassy and the heavy rain began just as we exited the city of Kingston. We encountered extremely steep graded roads, rainfall that flooded surrounding towns and communities within an hour and caused landslides in the mountain areas, and multiple checkpoints set up by the security forces as part of the ongoing state of emergencies. However, we felt extremely safe in our vehicle with experienced drivers, who were knowledgeable in planning for various such potential disruptive situations and familiar with safe and best routes.
The resort area of Montego Bay feels largely unaffected by the ongoing state of emergency, and when you talk to the staff within the hotels, you can see that they have taken measures to ensure guests of their country feel safe throughout their stay. Resorts are guarded 24/7, official taxi drivers are well versed in local tourist locations and are happy to share lore and legend about the area, and most of all, are always ready to make their passengers laugh.
Upon return to Kingston, we were caught in a traffic gridlock that affected the entire city. The day before, fatal clashes between taxi and bus drivers caused a citywide strike. Our two-mile journey from the edge of the city to our hotel took over an hour to complete by car. The next day, tensions in the city had calmed and we were able to travel through the high-risk area of Trench town, accompanied by close protection officers, both having military background.
We were shown common grounds for shootouts between rival gangs as well as the notable presence of military and police that were in place to combat gang violence during the ongoing state of emergency. Where possible, it’s always a good idea to plan journeys bypassing high-crime areas to minimise exposure, even if it is to indirect risks from gang rivalry. Ultimately, relying on our local contacts and vetted security provider was invaluable in ensuring our travel was safe as well as rewarding.
For up-to-date news about International SOS, as well as engaging real-life stories about how we leverage our knowledge and expertise to help our clients, subscribe to our magazine.