Fighting continues in parts of Tivoli Gardens, the sprawling west Kingston slum, or "garrison," which is the stronghold of a gang known as the "Shower Posse" — gunmen loyal to reputed drug boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke.
Fighting continues in parts of Tivoli Gardens, the sprawling west Kingston slum, or "garrison," which is the stronghold of a gang known as the "Shower Posse" — gunmen loyal to reputed drug boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke. AP
After nearly four days of street battles, Jamaican security forces say they have gained control over much of a Kingston slum, but they haven't achieved their goal of capturing an accused drug kingpin.
Jamaican officials say the death toll in the fighting has risen to nearly 50, many of them civilians. Witnesses say gunfire is still being heard from at least two neighborhoods in the capital city.
The crisis has tarnished Jamaica's government and threatens the Caribbean island's crucial tourist industry. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert for Jamaica, which normally attracts about 1.8 million vacationers each year, many of them from America.
Much of the fighting has taken place in Tivoli Gardens, the sprawling west Kingston slum, or "garrison," which is the stronghold of a gang known as the "Shower Posse" — gunmen loyal to reputed drug boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke.
The United States is seeking to have Coke, known in Jamaica's underworld as "Dudus" and "Shortman," extradited to New York to face charges of drug trafficking and gun smuggling.
On Wednesday, the Jamaican government said Coke may have fled the country.
The violence has disrupted some air travel in and out of the capital city, but tourism experts say the real threat is that popular resorts on the north side of the island will be perceived as dangerous.
Jan Freitag, vice president of STR Global, a travel-business research company, says Jamaica's high-end resort hotels were hit hard by the recession in 2008 and 2009, but that they were starting to show improvement this year. In part, he says, that's because hotel operators have been offering discounts.
Dudus Coke has built a loyal following and turned the neighborhood into his stronghold. U.S. authorities say he has allegedly been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York City.
Dudus Coke has built a loyal following and turned the neighborhood into his stronghold. U.S. authorities say he has allegedly been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York City. AP
Freitag says that if the crisis keeps up, it could do serious damage to Jamaica's tourist sector.
"It's a communications problem" for Jamaica's tourist industry, Freitag says. "People worry about safety, and they worry about being able to get in and get out."
Prime Minister Bruce Golding told Parliament that the government regrets the loss of lives, "especially those of members of the security forces and innocent, law-abiding citizens caught in the crossfire."
Coke, 41, is a popular figure in the poor sections of Kingston, where he is known for helping needy people with money for groceries and school fees. One of his legitimate businesses throws free street parties and music events in the capital.
Larry Birn, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says in that respect Coke is like the late Colombian drug boss, Pablo Escobar.
Among poor residents of the garrison, Birn says, Coke is known as the man "who buys your daughter a school uniform, or pays the $3 a week education fees."
Birn says Coke also has support from members of Jamaica's middle and upper classes, who get some benefit — direct or indirect — from the drug economy. "There are just a lot of people who are worried this fighting is going to kill the golden goose that lays the corrupt egg," he says.
Coke is alleged to have ties to Golding's ruling Labour Party. The Tivoli Gardens garrison is a reliable source of votes for the party, and Golding himself represents the area in Parliament.
Until recently, Golding has resisted U.S. efforts to extradite Coke. Last fall, his government is alleged to have hired a prominent Washington law firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, to lobby the U.S. government to quash the extradition.
When Jamaican opposition leaders protested the deal, Golding's government denied that it ever hired the firm. The Kingston lawyer who signed the contract with Manatt on behalf of the government later said it was a misunderstanding.
Golding's political opponents say the flap shows that Golding was acting at the behest of a notorious drug gangster and probably financing the effort with Coke's money.
Coke is the son of convicted drug boss Lester Coke, the founder of the Shower Posse. The gang's name is said to come from a Labour Party election slogan promising to shower Jamaicans with benefits, but it also is said to be a reference to the gang's ability to shower enemies with bullets.
Lester Coke died mysteriously in 1992, burned to death in his prison cell as he was awaiting extradition to the United States. Christopher Coke, whose age is variously given as 40 or 41, is reputed to have said that he would never suffer the same fate.