Support for crime boss 'Dudas' Coke still strong in Jamaica

'Dudas' Coke reportedly helped poor people in his neighborhood pay for food and school fees, making him wildly popular despite international charges of brutality, writes guest blogger Hannah Stone.

• A version of this post ran on the author's site, The views expressed are the author's own.

As the case against Christopher "Dudus" Coke drags on, with his sentencing delayed for the fourth time, reactions from Jamaica give an insight into the complex nature of the power wielded by him and other crime dons.

After a long struggle to capture "Dudus" Coke, the Jamaican drug boss was extradited to the US in June 2010. He made a deal with the authorities, pleading guilty to drug trafficking and assault charges in August, avoiding a possible life sentence. The prosecution asked for him to be given the maximum sentence of 23 years, arguing that he had committed horrifically violent acts, including cutting one victim to pieces with a chainsaw. On Friday, however, a New York judge ruled that prosecutors needed to produce more evidence to back their claims. There will be another hearing in May, with sentencing to follow on a later date, reported Reuters.

The news was greeted with euphoria by Coke supporters outside the court, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, with relatives and friends telling reporters that the delay was due to divine intervention.

There is still support and sympathy for Coke from some in Tivoli Gardens, the territory in west Kingston where his Shower Posse gang is based. A Jamaica Gleaner video report before the sentencing shows residents professing support for the jailed gang boss and calling on the judge for leniency, arguing that he had done good things for people in the community. One resident said that Coke had only committed his crimes in order to get money to help local people. The newspaper reported that many Coke supporters did not wish to be filmed, fearing reprisals from the police.

The Associated Press spoke to Kingston locals who said the area was far less safe than when the drug lord ruled over it, and called for his return. A group of residents signed a petition that was submitted to the judge, listing Coke’s good deeds in the community and appealing for leniency.

One of the arguments made by the prosecution was that public demonstrations in Kingston in support of Coke showed that there was a danger he would return to Jamaica and continue his criminal activities if he was not given the longest possible sentence. There were fears that the sentencing could spark protests in the city, and on Friday police imposed tight security measures in west Kingston, including curfews in some areas.

In another sign of the popular support for Coke, one of Jamaica's most popular singers, Kingston-based reggae artist Horace Andy, wrote a laudatory song about Coke for his forthcoming album, referring to the crime boss by his nickname of "Presi," for president, reports the Gleaner:

Dudus we know a you rule
Presi yeah
Presi we miss you
Things no calm since you gone
The people them nah live right
Every day them a fuss an' fight ...

These responses to Coke’s case are a sign of the complex nature of the power he wielded, which is closely tied to politics. As a recent Center on International Cooperation report sets out, Jamaican “dons” like Coke are used by the political class to exert control over poor neighborhoods. They receive protection and funds from the government in exchange for making sure the area votes the right way in elections. In some areas these gang bosses take over the functions of the state, holding a monopoly over violence, and providing security and services to local people.

Coke reportedly helped poor people in his Tivoli Gardens neighborhood to pay for food and school fees, throwing Christmas parties and keeping streets clean, while keeping the authorities out. Prosecutors in the case asserted that "Because Coke's heavily armed soldiers patrolled the Tivoli Gardens community, it was largely closed to Jamaican law enforcement.” The US indictment against Coke, meanwhile, described the area as a "garrison" community, "a barricaded neighborhood guarded by a group of armed gunmen."

When the police and army were sent in to Tivoli Gardens in May 2010, they did little to win over the population. The government forces faced massive resistance from Coke’s troops, with days of fighting which the Brookings Institute said “resembled urban warfare.” Seventy-three people died in the clashes, with claims that some were executed in cold blood by the police. More than 1,000 complaints of civil rights violations were submitted to the public defender after the incident.

Coke’s political power is one of the things that made it so hard for Bruce Golding – Jamaica's prime minister at the time of the extradition request – to hand him over to the US. Tivoli Gardens was in the constituency of Golding, and he resisted the extradition for nine months, even hiring a law firm to help fight it, as InSight Crime has reported. When the prime minister resigned last year he cited the Coke affair as one of the main reasons for his departure.

The case contributed to the heavy defeat of Golding’s Labour Party in December’s elections, with the rival People's National Party candidate Portia Simpson Miller winning. Coke’s lawyers asserted that political deal-making is to blame for his plight, telling reporters after the sentencing delay; "He left Jamaica; the ruling party was thrown out of office, and the Government hand-picked by the United States … There was a lot of politics by the US to have him extradited. He's never been charged with one crime in his own country." Indeed, the change of government may have brought better relations with the US. On a visit earlier this month, State Department officials expressed the US’s commitment to giving security aid to Jamaica, and announced plans to send a team of prosecutors to help the government build its capacity in the fight against organized crime.

Murders dropped sharply in the wake of Coke’s arrest in June 2010, falling in 2011 to their lowest rate in eight years, at around 41 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. In April of that year, the government attributed the drop to their policy of saturating gang territories with the security forces. However, NGO Jamaicans for Justice reported a rise in human rights violations following the arrest, warning that since the operation the security forces felt that they could disregard the rights of citizens without consequences.

After Coke’s capture, Golding promised to clean up Tivoli Gardens, bringing security to the population and breaking the control of the gangs. However, the continued expressions of support for Coke show how much work remains to be done for the authorities to bring the rule of law to areas like Tivoli Gardens, and win the trust of residents.

– Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.  Find all of her research here.

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