The death toll from the battle between Jamaican security forces and supporters of alleged drug lord Christopher Coke that erupted over the weekend reached 30 on Tuesday with no end yet in sight. But whether or not Jamaican authorities succeed in apprehending Coke, who faces extradition to the U.S., the mayhem threatens to bring down Prime Minister Bruce Golding a shake-up that would be welcomed by many crime-weary Jamaicans.
As a front-page editorial Tuesday in the daily Jamaica Observer put it, "For a long time we have been heading for an explosion as those who have held the reins of government have given succor to criminals in their blinkered thirst for political power ... The upshot is that we now live in a society that accepts as normal the blatant disregard for the law and respect for the rights of others a society in which it is considered good to be bad and bad to be good. It has to stop."
The drama that led to the government declaring a state of emergency in Kingston this week started in New York City last summer, when a grand jury indicted Coke, 41, the reputed top don of Jamaica's most powerful drug-trafficking organization, the Shower Posse, for alleged cocaine distribution and arms smuggling. Coke denies the charges, but key evidence against him includes wiretapped conversations between Shower Posse members in the U.S. along with damning chatter recorded by law enforcement in Jamaica. Still, despite Jamaica's usually trouble-free extradition treaty with the U.S., Prime Minister Golding claiming unspecified "breaches" in the gathering of the U.S. wiretap evidence balked at arresting Coke and handing him over.
Golding, in fact, has acknowledged approving the idea of contacting a U.S. law firm to lobby the Obama Administration to drop the Coke extradition request. Golding says he only authorized his Jamaica Labor Party (JLP), not his government, to contact the firm. But earlier this month, Golding's Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Ronald Robinson resigned after admitting to contacts with U.S. attorneys that "could have been inappropriate."
With the allegations casting a scandalous light on his country, Golding finally agreed to Coke's extradition late last week. That prompted heavily armed Shower Posse members in Tivoli Gardens, their base neighborhood on Kingston's poor west side, to lash out at police and soldiers who went hunting for the don on Sunday.
Why did Golding and his ministers show such lavish concern for Coke's legal rights in the first place? David Rowe, a Jamaican-American attorney in Miami and an expert on extradition law, says the affidavits in Coke's case "clearly show that Golding did not have a valid argument" in casting doubt on the U.S. wiretap evidence. But what Coke does have, say Jamaican political observers, is a long and close relationship with the ruling, center-right JLP one of whose most prominent Senators was until recently Coke's own attorney.
Although the U.S. State Department has complained that "pervasive public corruption" is obstructing antidrug efforts in Jamaica, Golding and JLP leaders deny any corrupt ties to Coke. But in communities like Tivoli Gardens which Golding represents in Parliament Coke's nicknames include "Dudus," a Jamaican term of affection, and the "President," marking him as a populist hero to thousands of residents who regularly receive food and other gifts from his hand. Even after Coke's U.S. indictment, Golding's government continued to award his construction company, Incomparable Enterprise Ltd., millions of dollars in contracts.
And that revenue, say U.S. authorities, is a pittance compared to the money that drug trafficking earns the Shower Posse (named for the hail of bullets it's famous for showering on rivals). The gang's founder and Coke's father, Jamaican drug lord Lester "Don Dadda" Coke, died in a fire in his jail cell in 1992. His son took over, turning the Posse into a farther-reaching and more violent cartel that traffics cocaine and marijuana all along the U.S. Eastern seaboard and even to Alaska. It then buys heavy weapons in the U.S. and other countries, including AK-47 assault rifles, and ships them back to Jamaica via ports controlled by the gang.
Yet, despite its Robin Hood image in pockets like Tivoli Gardens, most Jamaicans today decry the Shower Posse's power and its role in saddling their country with one of the world's highest homicide rates. Its debasement of women is especially disturbing: in communities the Posse lords over, girls who turn 14 are often sent to lose their virginity to local Posse dons, and female gang members are forced to ferry drugs to the U.S. concealed in their genitalia.
As Jamaican authorities continue to fight off the Shower Posse this week four of the dead so far are members of the security forces Golding is fending off widespread calls for his resignation. He and his ministers "simply did not want [Coke] sent up" to the U.S., says Rowe, "and Golding has left the impression among many Jamaicans that it's because Coke may testify against him if he is." Such is the sordid situation in Kingston, on Jamaica's southern coast, far from the placid northern shores where U.S. tourists hang out. But unless the bond between the Posse and politicians is dissolved, the ugliness may spread even there.