Jamaica attacks: a legacy of ties between politicians and gangs

What do Dudus Coke, Jah-T, and Jim Brown all have in common? They're all related, connected to the ruling Jamaica Labour Party, and their Kingston gang ties have helped spark multiple Jamaica attacks.

By , Staff writer

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    Jamaica attacks: Alleged drug gang leader Christopher "Dudus" Coke is shown in this undated photo. Jamaican Police have an arrest warrant for "Dudus", who is sought by US authorities on drug and arms trafficking charges.
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When the US presses for the extradition of an alleged drug lord from Jamaica, it might seem a straightforward request.

But as the Jamaica attacks of the past three days have demonstrated, dealing with organized crime in Jamaica is full of perils, from gangs that have the muscle to stand up to the state, to gang-leaders who have helped put members of the political elite in office. And this sort of stand off has happened before.

Three days of violence since Prime Minister Bruce Golding said his government would abandon its nine-month fight to prevent the extradition of alleged Shower Posse boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke to the US have claimed at least 31 lives in Kingston. The US alleges (pdf download of US indictment) that Mr. Coke presided over a drug empire that imported tens of millions of dollars of cocaine and marijuana into the US between 1994 and 2007, and reexported both money and US guns to Jamaica.

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Most of the fighting has been in and around the Shower Posse stronghold of Tivoli Gardens, one of Kingston's so-called garrison communities, but has also involved an attack on a downtown Kingston police station by what Jamaican authorities said were Coke loyalists from the Shower Posse (so-named when it was founded roughly 30 years ago because it "rained bullets" on its enemies). Coke is believed to be holed up in Tivoli.

Jamaica's garrisons emerged in the 1970s when toughs in Kingston's poorest neighborhoods started turning out votes for one of Jamaica's two main political parties -- the People's National Party (PNP) or Mr. Golding's ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). They were given weapons and a free hand to run protection rackets in exchange, according to Laurie Gunst's 1996 book "Born Fi' Dead," about the rise of Jamaica's posses.

The Shower Posse in Tivoli has always delivered votes for the JLP, which is also part of Golding's parliamentary constituency. But when the cocaine transhipment business boomed in the late 70's and 80's, many gang leaders found they needed their political protectors less and less, the Shower Posse perhaps first among them. Money from eager US cocaine and crack consumers was pouring home, as were American guns purchased by gang associates living in the US. Many of the garrison leaders, known locally as "dons," became major power brokers in their own right.

So while politicians and gangsters still work closely in Jamaica, it's not as clear today who's in charge.

Golding's about face

Golding had fought Coke's extradition for the better part of a year, though Jamaican analysts and opposition politicians still argue over whether it was out of fear or friendship.

On the one hand, Golding's party has profited from its relationship with the Tivoli dons for 30 years. On the other, Coke had warned he wouldn't be extradited without a fight. The prime minister would have been well aware of what happens when you try to extradite a Coke – or any Shower Posse leader, for that matter – to the US.

In 1992, Lester "Jim Brown" Coke, Dudus' father, was sitting in jail fighting a US extradition request. At the time, another of his sons, Mark "Jah-T" Coke, was taking care of business in Tivoli.

When Jah-T was murdered by a member of a gang that supported the PNP, the Shower Posse went on a rampage.

The Shower Posse stormed the hospital in Kingston where Jah-T had died (on the theory that he had been denied medical treatment, since the PNP were in power at the time) and rampaged in the PNP garrison community of Hannah Town, leaving about 30 dead.

Jah-T was buried almost a month later, with many of Jamaica's leading lights in attendance, including former prime minister (and JLP leader) Edward Seaga. It was a powerful sign of how far the posses had come. It was "the equivalent of a state funeral,” said Ms. Gunst in her book about Jamaica's posses.

That same day, "Jim Brown" Coke, who had just lost his last appeal against extradition and had vowed to take down senior Jamaican politicians if forced to testify in the US, burned to death in his cell.

That murder has not been solved to this day though "everyone knew that Vivian Blake and Seaga wanted Brown dead" Gunst wrote. Neverthless, Mr. Seaga attended the father's funeral as well. Mr. Blake, who ran the Shower Posses' US operations, has since passed on. Golding replaced Seaga as head of the JLP. Dudus Coke replaced his father and brother as the don of Tivoli Gardens.

What happened this time?

The trigger for the current violent showdown was the Jamaican press. On May 17, Golding was forced to give a nationally televised speech after the press discovered he had hired a powerful Washington lobbying firm to help fight Coke's extradition. He offered his "deepest apologies" to the people of Jamaica but insisted, contrary to local press reports, that the $50,000 paid to Mannat, Phelps & Phillips LLC to lobby against Coke's extradition came from the JLP's pockets, not the government's.

The lobbying firm was founded by former Democratic National Committee Chair and US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic Charles Manatt, who was directly involved in lobbying on Jamaica's behalf, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing reported by the American Lawyer.

Golding's embarrassing television mea culpa was what forced Golding to finally give in to US pressure to extradite Coke, according to Jamaican press reports. Of course, the US had been hinting recently it was running out of patience with Golding, who came to power in 2007 and whose government relies on US aid and tourism.

"Delays in proceeding with the significant extradition request for a major alleged narcotics and firearms trafficker who is reported to have ties to the ruling Jamaica Labour Party, and subsequent delays in other extradition requests, have called into question Kingston’s commitment to law enforcement cooperation with the US," the State Department wrote in a March report. Jamaica's "ambitious anticorruption and anticrime legislative agendas announced in 2007 remain stalled in parliament."

Though Golding's party relies on groups like the Shower Posse to deliver votes – and a number of senior party members are believed to do business with the dons – Golding has repeatedly promised to end the gang impunity in the garrisons that have given Jamaica one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Most of the world found out this week how complicated that could prove to be.

"For a decade and half, Mr. Golding preached against the dangers of the nexus between criminality and politics in Jamaica and the zones of political exclusion, the so-called garrison communities, spawned by this relationship," Jamaica's leading daily, The Gleaner, wrote in an editorial today "But not only has he done little in office to break those ties, but for nine months his government resisted America's attempt to extradite Mr Coke... if Mr Golding is indeed serious about confronting those powers of evil, he will not only have to declare his personal renunciation, even if tangential, of any relationship with the hard men of violence and at the same time confront and sideline those within the ruling Jamaica Labour Party who gain, politically and otherwise, from their links with criminals."

[Editor's note: This story was edited after posting to correct a serious error. Mr. Seaga has not passed on, and the Monitor apologizes for its error.]

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