Kingston manhunt for Dudus Coke continues as death toll hits 74

The Jamaican police manhunt for alleged drug lord Dudus Coke, which has 74 dead in Kingston fighting, continued Thursday. If Mr. Coke is caught, will it change the role of Jamaica's criminal dons?

Rodrigo Abd/AP
Residents gather outside their bullet-riddled home during a media tour organized by government authorities inside the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in Kingston, Thursday. The reputed drug kingpin who was the target of the raids may have fled the country. The raid left nearly 50 people dead in four days of gun battles.

Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding's about face on a US request to extradite alleged drug lord and Shower Posse gang leader Christopher "Dudus" Coke last week has so far left 67 dead in Kingston fighting, raised questions about the criminal ties of Golding's ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), and raised civil society demands for an investigation of police brutality.

Some flights to tourism-dependent Jamaica have been canceled and relations with the United States, a close ally and benefactor, have been strained. But the one thing the bloody manhunt has not delivered has been its object: Mr. Coke.

Jamaican media reported that Kingston's so-called garrison community of Tivoli Gardens, which was a war zone earlier in the week, was calmer today, amid rumors that Coke had slipped through the police cordon and escaped. Some 500 people have been arrested in the police raids.

Most of the dead so far have been presumed to be gunmen loyal to Coke, the unofficial leader, or don, of Tivoli, who is wanted in the US on drug dealing and gun running charges. But the Jamaican police have a history of firing indiscriminately when inside Kingston's tight, warren-like slums. The Gleaner daily newspaper reported that an unarmed brother of a former Minister of Commerce was killed by police in a botched raid searching for Coke overnight.

The human rights body of the Organization of American States expressed concern about the violence on Thursday, and called on Jamaica to "conduct a diligent, effective, and impartial investigation of these events." In a statement, the group hinted at concerns over the "excessive" use of force by Jamaican police and soldiers: "State agents may employ lethal force only in exceptional cases, in which direct or imminent danger... could cause the death of the agent himself or of another person."

History of police brutality

Jon Silverman, author of Crack of Doom, a book on the rise of Jamaica's drug gangs and now a professor of media and criminal justice at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom, recalls helping to film a BBC documentary in the 1990s in Kingston police stations. "They didn't seem particularly concerned to clean the blood from the floors and the walls before we showed up," he says. "My understanding is, not much has changed."

Kingston has had outbreaks of bloodshed like this before, with police incursions into poor neighborhoods like Tivoli greeted with hostility and defiance. Dozens of mostly unarmed civilians were killed in a 2001 police raid in Tivoli, say local residents.

Behind the violence is a nexus between the ballot box and gunmen in Jamaica that has developed since the 1970s. Both the JLP and its main rival, the People's National Party (PNP), developed relationships with gunmen who could guarantee the delivery of votes and safe seats in parliament. In exchange, government contracts were funneled their way, their communities were placed at the front of the queue for government services, and the dons were given a relatively free hand to run protection rackets and deal drugs.

Tivoli Gardens is a JLP "garrison" (the garrisons get their name for both their fortress like support for their political patrons, and for gangsters' ability to control their residents and protect themselves inside them); as Mr. Silverman pointed out in a piece for the BBC today, Tivoli delivered 99 percent of its votes to Mr. Golding's JLP in the country's 1993 elections.

On Wednesday, Golding issued a statement denying any personal ties to Coke.

Why did Golding turn on Coke?

Golding's government had fought a US extradition request for the past nine months. But after it was revealed earlier this month that Golding had paid a US lobbying firm with ties to the Democratic Party $50,000 to try to persuade the US to drop its extradition request for Dudas Coke, he changed his tune. Last week, his government signed an extradition order for Coke, and when the police went to find him in Tivoli, violence ensued.

It could also be that protecting Coke was becoming simply too politically embarrassing for Golding, both inside Jamaica and with the US.

To be sure, Golding will now have to deal with the fallout of turning on a community that was a reliable vote bank -- and one that is in his own West Kingston constituency. "You'd have to expect there are feelings of betrayal in Tivoli," says Silverman.

]He says this case has striking similarities with a US attempt to extradite Lester "Jim Brown" Coke, Dudus' father, in 1992. Coke Sr. was already in a Jamaican jail when he lost his last appeal against extradition. Another of his sons, Mark "Jah-T" Coke, was running Tivoli in his fathers absence. When Jah-T was gunned down by a rival gangster, it unleashed a paroxysm of violence in Kingston like that witnessed this week.

Shortly thereafter, Jim Brown Coke, who had vowed to take down senior politicians with him if tried in the US, burned to death in his cell. That crime has never been solved. "Maybe it was the Seaga government afraid about what he could say about politicians. Or it might have been the PNP, which perhaps had a friendly guard inside, that were simply killing an enemy. No one really knows," says Silverman.

Why the dons are so powerful in Kingston

Golding has repeatedly said that he's determined to clip the wings of the dons. But that will be difficult, not only because of their armed followers. Over the past 40 years, the dons have become the only real providers of social welfare in poor communities largely abandoned by the Jamaican state. If you're poor and your house is washed away in a flood, you go to the don. If you're looking for a government job, you go to the don. And if you can't pay your child's school fees, you go to the don.

I was in Jamaica last year, and spent a few days with a young man and former gang member who was then working on community peace initiatives in the Kingston garrison of Mountain View. But there had also been a flood along the gully on which the poorest houses precariously cling, and he was handing out small amounts of money to the neediest we came across that day. I asked him where the cash came from. "A don," he said, though he wouldn't tell me which one.

I asked him if it wasn't hypocritical to be working against gang violence, on the one hand, and to be taking money from a man behind it, on the other?

"When someone is hungry, or they need cloths, they're not interested in being told they need to starve because of a principle," he said. "The dons are here, and they're what we have to work with. If you want to make these places less violent and improve people's lives, you work with the dons. There isn't anybody else to work with."


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