nicketa_cameron_web.jpgKINGSTON — Security personnel armed with M16s and machine guns manned roadblocks and detained dozens of young men March 8 as part of a crackdown in a Jamaican ghetto where a 13-year-old girl, two elderly men and three others were killed during reported shootouts between police and gunmen.

Residents of the Denham Town slum in West Kingston blame officers for the March 5 killings and the gritty area was placed under curfew amid a security operation to seize illegal guns and fugitives.

Human rights groups accused police of trigger-happy tactics across the country that have caused 45 deaths in the first 10 weeks of the year.  A total of 21 people were killed by police in the first six days of March.

The slayings, particularly the crossfire shooting death of Nicketa Cameron, a 13-year-old from Denham Town who loved to dance and hoped to become a soldier when she grew up, have outraged residents and activists here and abroad.

“The problem is that police continue to enter marginalized inner-city communities as if everyone there were a criminal suspect,” said Chiara Liguori, Caribbean researcher for Amnesty International.

Rights group Jamaicans for Justice said it was “untenable in any society that the police force should be resorting to that level of violence in order to control crime.”

At their warren-like apartment building in Denham Town, Nicketa's mother and aunts pointed to bullet holes in the eight-foot-high sheet metal fence and say police indiscriminately fired through it during the March 5 operation. Another patch of metal fencing with more bullet holes was taken away as evidence.

Nicketa was standing by a washing machine in a narrow hallway facing the street when she was killed by a bullet to the head during a roughly 40-minute gun battle. The family insists the bullets were fired by police.

“They were just shooting crazy. They say they were getting shot at from here but how come all the bullet holes are going into our house? There's no bullets on the house across the street,” said Tanisha Stewart, the slain girl's aunt.

Nikita's mother, Beverly Kennedy, stared off into space, holding photographs of her daughter near the spot where her blood was mopped up off the wooden floor.

Police said that three of those killed on March 5 were wanted for various crimes, while the girl and two others were apparently caught in the crossfire. They said an AK-47, a .357 revolver, a 9mm pistol and a .22 pistol were recovered in the operation.

Two other apparent bystanders, 60-something George Edmonson and Wesley Simpson, also were shot and died. Authorities said two other people were injured but residents insist the number of injuries was higher.

London-based Amnesty International and local agencies are calling on authorities to investigate police operations, alleging a culture of impunity has allowed police to serve as judge, jury and executioner.

There were 211 reported police killings last year, though that was 69 fewer than the official tally of 2010 on the island of 2.8 million people.

National Security Minister Peter Bunting said the circumstances of the Denham Town shootings were still unclear but he reminded police to use deadly force only if it is justified and necessary.

Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said Jamaican officers are threatened by the enormous number of illegal guns on the streets.

“If we're going to be protecting the citizens it means we're going to be confronting these individuals so some of the time these things will occur. We would love to minimize the incidents,” he told Television Jamaica.

Some Jamaicans said the killing of bystanders is tragic but that security forces need to beat back criminal gangs.

“If the gangs win, then this country is finished,” said Kingston taxi driver Ronald Wright.

Denham Town is in a part of Kingston that gave birth to some of the country's most notorious gangs.

Photo: AP Photo/David McFadden

CROSSFIRE: Beverly Kennedy holds an old photograph of her slain daughter, Nicketa Cameron, standing left, in the Denham Town slum in Kingston, Jamaica, Thursday March 8.