Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding angrily struck out at media reports that described him as an associate of reputed drug lord and Shower Posse leader Christopher "Dudus" Coke, even as he promised to use a Jamaica state of emergency to root out the powerful gang leaders, or dons, that control large swathes of Kingston, the capital.
Jamaica's public defender said Wednesday that 44 deaths have been confirmed in the fighting in Kingston so far. Most of the dead are civilians. The fighting has centered on the Shower Posse stronghold of Tivoli Gardens in western Kingston, though Jamaican press reports said that Mr. Coke, who Jamaica has vowed to arrest and extradite to the US, had slipped out of the area.
Mr. Golding's fury was ignited by two reports. An ABC News report cited unnamed officials saying that the US views the Jamaican prime minister as a business partner of Coke, who's wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges. An article in The Independent described the Shower Posse as an annex of Golding's ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
"Both publications, by seeking to link (Golding) personally with the alleged drug kingpin, were clearly part of a conspiracy to undermine the duly elected government of Jamaica," Golding's office said in a statement. "The Prime Minister said the reports have made damaging and libelous assertions and he repudiated the scurrilous and malicious reporting, which he said must be dismissed with the contempt that it deserves."
The US has not publicly accused Golding of anything, but its public communications have grown more forceful toward the ruling party. Golding only agreed to extradite Coke last week after fighting US efforts for nine months. He also publicly apologized to Jamaica for having paid $50,000 to a powerful law firm to lobby the US government to drop its extradition demands over Coke.
"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 said in a report on narcotics trafficking in March.
The ruling JLP has longstanding ties to the Shower Posse and the dons that rule many of Kingston's poorest neighborhoods. The gang's home base of Tivoli Gardens is practically the prototype for the so-called garrison communities that both the JLP and its rival, the People's National Party (PNP) have set up with the help of gunmen to deliver large blocks of votes and safe seats in parliament.
Tivoli was built as a public housing project in the mid-1960s by then JLP Prime Minister Edward Seaga. Mr. Seaga had a slum in west Kingston, inhabited mostly by supporters of the rival PNP, destroyed and replaced with new housing for loyalists of his party – some were gunmen used by the party to intimidate voters come election time. That helped establish a pattern in Jamaica politics, with the PNP developing neighborhoods for its own supporters and allied gangsters when in power.
Tivoli has solidly supported the JLP ever since, and is part of Golding's own constituency. Lester "Jim Brown" Coke, a former Shower Posse leader, Tivoli don, and Dudus Coke's father, was burned to death in his cell in 1992 while awaiting extradition to the US. Mr. Seaga -- Golding's predecessor as head of the JLP and a former prime minister -- attended the funeral.
This reporter spent a week in Kingston meeting with former and current gangsters in June 2009, many of whom described the ways in which politicians rely on the dons for electoral muscle. The dons, they said, in turn became government patronage conduits to voters and were allowed to run protection and other rackets. The impunity of dons like Coke have given Jamaica one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. But to many of their followers in Jamaica's slums, they are protectors -- power brokers who can be turned to for help securing a government job, paying a debt, or simply putting food on the table in tough times.
Nevertheless, Golding is now vowing to bust up the gangs. While the state of emergency declared in Kingston is temporary, and has been focused on the violence of Coke's followers as he fights extradition, both the prime minister and opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller of the PNP said the military should be used to go after more dons and their followers.
"During this period of public emergency, a concerted effort will be made to go after the criminal gunmen in whatever community they may be ensconced," Golding told legislators. The state of emergency will not be restricted to dealing with Coke "because there is a general pattern of criminality, lawlessness and the kind of criminality that is not unwilling to confront and challenge the institutions of authority in the State."