Jamaica Police Gain Hold On Drug Lord's Stronghold

At least 30 people have been killed in street battles in Kingston, Jamaica, between masked gunmen and police backed up by thousands of troops. The gunmen are fighting to prevent the arrest of reputed drug kingpin Christopher Coke. He's wanted in the U.S. on drug charges.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

In Jamaica at least 30 people have been killed as authorities carry out a manhunt for an alleged drug kingpin. Hundreds of Jamaican police and soldiers have been fighting street battles with residents of several West Kingston slums. The residents have vowed that they will not turn over Christopher Dudus Coke, who faces drug and weapons trafficking charges in the United States.

The clashes have shut down schools and businesses in Kingston and intermittently closed the airport in the Jamaican capital. NPR's Jason Beaubien managed to get to the north of the island, yesterday, and he's been following the situation and joins us on the line.

Jason, hello.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Hello. Good morning.

GREENE: Can you tell us a little bit about this alleged drug lord, Christopher Dudus Coke?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, according to a U.S. indictment, he is a major drug kingpin in Jamaica. He's wanted for smuggling marijuana and cocaine out of Jamaica into the United States and for smuggling weapons back into Jamaica. He's viewed as something of a Robin Hood figure, however, inside the country.

He's very powerful. He is got close ties to the ruling political party. He's known for passing out school fees, helping people with medical expenses. So he's someone who's very revered and who people are now defending in Kingston against this attempt to extradite him to face drug charges in the U.S.

GREENE: So one of those cases we see, where someone can sort of maintain power by giving to the needy, in a play(ph)?

BEAUBIEN: Correct. Correct.

GREENE: This has, so far, been I guess a three-day offensive by the Jamaican government into the slums around the capital Kingston, allegedly controlled by Mr. Coke and what he calls his Shower Posse Gang. I mean, is there a sense the authorities are getting any closer to finding him and bringing him in?

BEAUBIEN: No. It's not even clear that he's inside the Tivoli Gardens area, which is where most of this offensive has taken place. The prime minister yesterday said that the actual operation against him might be expanded to go into other areas. So it isn't clear that the government is making any progress in this.

It should be pointed out that the Shower Posse was founded by Christopher Coke's father Lester Coke. And it was called the Shower Posse because allegedly they would shower gunfire down on their enemies. And Lester Coke was wanted for drug trafficking and murder, also by the United States, and he died in a mysterious death in 1992. He was actually burned to death in a prison cell while he was awaiting extradition to the United States. And Christopher Coke has vowed that he's not going to meet the same fate as his father.

So it seems like there is really a long way to go in terms of bringing some resolution to this. And certainly Christopher Coke has said he's not going to go quietly

GREENE: I guess the Coke name has been around in Jamaica for a while. How much of a threat is he, Christopher Coke, to the country?

BEAUBIEN: I mean, at this point he's basically brought this country to a crisis. This country has been brought to a standstill in terms of, in the capital - I'm in Montego Bay trying to get into the capital and things are going on as normal here. This is a resort town and that's normal. But Kingston, the capital, has been brought to a standstill by this crisis.

The prime minister, Bruce Golding, has admitted that his party - the ruling party - paid $50,000 to a high powered Washington lobbying firm to try to keep Mr. Coke from being extradited to the United States. So it has shown the depth of the connection between very powerful drug gangs and the ruling party in Jamaica. And it's certainly brought Jamaica to a crisis at this point.

GREENE: And real briefly, Jason. This drug trafficking operation that Mr. Coke allegedly runs, how significant - how widespread is it?

BEAUBIEN: The Jamaican drug trafficking operation is huge. And it's not just Christopher Coke's operation. As Mexico has been squeezed by the Mexican government, a lot of that drug trafficking has flown into the Caribbean, including into Jamaica.

And obviously, this operation was in place long before the Mexican government launched that offensive. But there's really a concern that Jamaica and other places in the Caribbean could be even greater transit points, particularly for cocaine, as the Mexican cartels come under more pressure.

GREENE: We've been listening to NPR's Jason Beaubien talking to us from Jamaica. Jason, thanks.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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