Jamaican drug lord 'Dudus' Coke pleads guilty. Why did his arrest take so long?

While Coke's plea wraps up a long pursuit by US and Jamaican authorities, an examination of the efforts to prosecute him implicate several parties – including Jamaican officials and a US law firm.

By , Guest blogger

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    In this file photo taken Thursday, May 20, 2010, a demonstrator displays a cardboard with a message in support of Christopher "Dudus" Coke during a march in Kingston.
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Drug lord Christopher Michael "Dudus" Coke pleaded guilty to racketeering in US court this week, closing a dark chapter in Jamaica's history. But the efforts to prosecute him warrant more examination, for the list of guilty parties is long, and some wear white collars.

Mr. Coke and his gang, the "Shower Posse," made news in May 2010, when they barricaded themselves into the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, and fought off government attempts to arrest and extradite Coke to the United States. Over 70 died in clashes before Coke turned himself over to authorities the following month.

The Jamaican government had paralyzed the extradition process for months, and there was evidence that Prime Minister Bruce Golding and his Labour Party hired a US legal firm to help Coke fight the request. The party, and more specifically Mr. Golding, depends on votes from Tivoli Gardens to secure power, giving the matter added political weight.

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The connections between Coke, a career criminal, and Golding, a career politician, were explored after the extradition by a congressional commission, many of whose members were named by Golding himself.

Some interesting bits of information came from the commission's findings, which were released in June (download report at original post). Golding, for instance, told the commission that he met Coke in 2005.

"He was typical of what is called 'Dons,'" the prime minister testified, "wielding a considerable amount of influence and power, and being held in significant esteem by large numbers of persons."

In other words, Coke equaled votes despite – or possibly because of – his criminal activities. Indeed, one of Coke's nicknames was "President."

The commission says government intelligence reports talked of these criminal activities for years. This network stretched from South America to Mexico to the United Kingdom and United States, the commission says, and included trafficking in illegal narcotics to the United States; gun smuggling; money laundering; murder for hire; and extortion.

The US indictment (download at original post) which dates back to 1994, states:

Since in or about the early 1990s, Coke has controlled the Tivoli Gardens area. Tivoli Gardens is a "garrison" community, a barricaded neighborhood guarded by a group of armed gunmen. These gunmen act at Coke's direction. Coke arms them with firearms he imports illegally, via a wharf located adjacent to Tivoli Gardens.

However, the commission's report does not probe Golding's knowledge of these and other criminal activities that presumably were going on when he first met Coke.

Instead, the commission focuses on Golding's understanding that Coke was in the "construction business" and that he had, in Golding's words, received "many, many contracts" from the Jamaican government.

Nothing more about these contracts is mentioned, although it appears to be an obvious line of inquiry for the commission and judicial authorities in Jamaica wondering how Coke and his colleagues, who presumably still operate in Tivoli Gardens, launder their earnings.

What's more, after the US requested Coke's extradition in August 2009, Jamaica's Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Justice and Attorney General's Office (which are run by the same person), and the Solicitor General's Office began what appeared to be a systematic government-wide effort to stall.

Specifically, they began looking for ways in which the request violated Jamaica's constitution and pushing, via diplomatic channels, for an alternative. All of this was most likely done with Golding's knowledge, but both Golding and these government officials deny having any communication about the matter. The one piece of evidence obtained by the commission that suggests otherwise (a handwritten note titled "Michael Coke" to be typed into email and sent to the solicitor general) was deemed "incomplete."

These initial efforts did not work, and by September 2009 there was growing friction between the two governments over the Coke extradition request. That same month, a Labour Party consultant named Harold Brady visited Golding and advised him that the government should seek legal help in the United States. In October, Brady, acting on behalf of the Jamaican government, signed a contract with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips (MPP), a law firm with offices in Washington and New York City, among other places.

The initial payment for services was $50,000, according to the commission's report. The source of the money was never revealed, as Brady refused to testify in front of the commission, but there was speculation that it came from Coke himself.

MPP representatives told the commission that it spent the next several months lobbying the United States government to drop the extradition request, with the idea that it was working with the Jamaican government. Golding and the Jamaican government say Brady was acting for the Labour Party.

In one of many comic episodes of the commission's investigation, MPP refused to testify, stating that it would have to be released by its client, the Jamaican government, to do so. But since the Jamaican government does not accept that it hired MPP, it would not authorize any MPP actions.

Meanwhile, tension between the governments continued to rise until May 2010, when the government suddenly changed its stance. The ministries all fell in line, the extradition order was signed, and Coke's Shower Posse barricaded themselves into Tivoli Gardens for a prolonged battle that left dozens dead and untold amounts of property damage.

The fallout from this case continues in Jamaica. A May-June poll commissioned by the Jamaica Gleaner shows a complete lack of trust in the government: just 12 percent believed Golding told the truth to the commission; 8 percent thought his justice minister (Dorothy Lightbourne) did, with 15 percent saying they believed she had deliberately misled the public.

"It has now become clear that trust in government and the lack of confidence in the management of our society has become greater because of the poor Manatt, Phelps & Phillips commission of enquiry report," Dickie Crawford of Jamaicans United for Sustainable Development wrote in a stinging response to the commission's findings (get pdf version of response to the commission report here).

For its part, the commission found no one culpable, preferring instead to use terms such as "mistakes" and "errors of judgement."

"No one is to be held responsible and accountable for breaking time honoured traditions by engaging in an undercover act of paying an United States based law firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips to negotiate with American authorities to drop the Coke extradition request thereby debasing the power, legitimacy, and integrity of our government," Crawford added.

The United States is not innocent. It has long used drug policy and extradition as a tool to bully governments into compliance. As was illustrated in the Jamaica case (and Colombia many years prior, when that government did battle with Pablo Escobar), this policy can and does lead to bloodshed.

It also leads to controversial practices that sometimes cross the line. One issue that arose in the investigation was whether the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had made illegal use of wiretap evidence obtained in Jamaica to build the case. The commission found the use of this evidence unlawful, yet it had already been passed to the US and was cited liberally in the indictment.

Finally, there is the matter of the makeup of the Shower Posse itself. Longtime Jamaica watchers have pointed to the policy of the US and other governments of deporting convicted criminals back to their "home" country. These criminals often make for excellent recruits and teachers of other criminals when they land.

Just how widespread a problem this was for Jamaica during the years the Posse reigned in Tivoli Gardens was explored in a March 2007 World Bank report (get pdf version here), which said that criminal deportations from the United States to the Caribbean doubled between 1994 and 2004. For its part, between 1993 and 2004, Jamaica absorbed 1,200 criminals a year.

The Bank notes that 81 percent of the deportees from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain between the years 2001 to 2004 were "non-violent" offenders. But, it added, 224 were convicted murderers, not an insignificant number relative to Jamaica's population.

"In such small countries, it does not take a large number of offenders to have a large impact, particularly if they assume a leadership role in criminal gangs on their return or provide perverse role models for youth," the Bank report concludes.

"Specifically with regard to drug trafficking, their transnational connections and criminal experience could make criminal deportees well-suited for this role."

--- Steven Dudley is a director of Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.

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