KINGSTON, Jamaica — Gunshots every night, burned-down businesses and corpses — up to a half-dozen a day — used to define the neighborhood of Mountain View on the eastern hillsides of Kingston, Jamaica's capital. But not anymore.
Now, the nights are filled with barefoot soccer matches under streetlights or block parties that bring together former rivals from local gangs. No one has been murdered in Mountain View for three years.
"The dark cloud is moving away," said Keith Nugent, 76, a tailor in the neighborhood who counsels former criminals. "Young people here are beginning to gravitate to a sense of life, and function."
Jamaica is emerging as a rare bright spot in the hub of the fight against drugs and organized crime that extends across South America and the Caribbean. After more than a decade fighting lawlessness, with limited success, this small island with a reputation for both carefree living and bloodshed has begun to see results. Jamaica's murder rate, while still high, has fallen 40 percent since 2009.
The situation here differs markedly from elsewhere in the region, where militarized, transnational drug cartels battle among themselves over the main smuggling routes into the United States. But experts and U.S. officials say that as drug traffic shifts back to the Caribbean, Jamaica has done far more than many other countries to protect itself by working transparently to strengthen weak institutions while welcoming assistance from outsiders.
"There's an awful lot of introspection that's been going on in Jamaica," said Pamela Bridgewater, the U.S. ambassador. As a result, she added, cooperation with the United States and other countries has "risen to a different level."
Since 2009, no other country has received more U.S. aid from the $203 million Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, yet relatively little of it has been directed toward the muscular, militarized efforts financed elsewhere as part of the war on drugs.
The new emphasis — on community policing, violence reduction and combating corruption — grew partly from crisis. In May 2010, Christopher Coke, one of Jamaica's most powerful drug lords, fought an attempt to arrest and extradite him to the United States, prompting a neighborhood siege by the authorities, which left at least 70 people dead.
His surrender a few weeks later helped break up gun and drug networks, according to Jamaican officials, and allowed the country to zero in on longer-term projects, with imported expertise.
The United States, for example, is about to set up a vetting center for the anticorruption bureau of the Jamaican police, complete with polygraphs and training for operators.
A report by the Government Accountability Office also notes that the Americans are giving Jamaican officers utility belts with only a baton and pepper spray in an effort to discourage deadly armed conflicts. The next weapons most likely to be delivered — Tasers — are more aggressive.
The positive results have been obvious in areas like Mountain View. For many residents there, the Coke affair still stings like lingering tear gas. Local gangs with ties to Coke resent what they describe as a police "incursion" characterized by officers killing civilians and other examples of excessive force.
But for Nugent, the tailor, and for many other residents, peace carries its own momentum.
"Light attracts light," he said. "Everything good must have a beginning."