Nearly 50 Dead In Kingston Gang Battles

Guest

Vernon Davidson, executive editor of publications for The Jamaica Observer

Jamaican security forces have launched an assault on a suspected drug lord wanted in the U.S. The alleged gang leader, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, faces charges of cocaine trafficking and gun-running in the U.S. Complicating efforts, some residents defend Coke as a local hero.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

The Jamaican government confirms nearly 50 people killed this week in battles between police and gunmen in the capital city of Kingston. The battle centers on a gang leader named Christopher Dudus Coke. The United States wants him extradited to face drug and gun smuggling charges that make him look like a drug lord. In Jamaica, his defenders describe him as a Robin Hood who provides services and protection to the poor in West Kingston. He's also widely believed to be connected to the ruling party of Prime Minister Bruce Golding.

So who is Dudus Coke? If you're Jamaican, if you spent time on the island, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Vernon Davidson is executive editor of publication for the Jamaica Observer and joins us now on the phone from Kingston. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. VERNON DAVIDSON (Jamaica Observer): My pleasure. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you. Have the police and security forces taken some control over the area that they've been assaulting all this week?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes, they have. They have. Actually, the latest report I have also there is that things are returning to normal. The Tivoli Gardens, that area, is totally under the control of the police and the military.

CONAN: And did they...

Mr. DAVIDSON: (Technical difficulties) are actually starting to come out downtown. Vendors - a few vendors are back on the streets and some of the shops are open.

CONAN: Have they found Dudus Coke?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Not yet. Well, there have been some conflicting reports. There have been some - some people have been telling us that he actually has been captured but the information is being withheld. But the official word from the government is no, they have not.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about this man and his background. He, as I understand it, is the son of the man who was the founder of the infamous Shower Posse.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes, he is. His father, Lloyd - Lester Lloyd Coke is - he went under the appellation Jim Brown. He is the founder of the Shower Posse. Christopher Coke, one of his children, actually took over the leadership of the gang. And he has been accused of basically running a very sophisticated organization that has pushed exported drugs from Jamaica and imported weapons from the United States into Jamaica. He's been - he's a kind of very reserved person based on - because a lot of people have been trying to get interviews with him. None have so far succeeded. He kind of operates in the background, but obviously wields enormous power and respect.

CONAN: And addition - in addition to allegedly running guns and drugs, he provides services for the poor and health clinics and hands out sandwiches and that sort of thing.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, yeah, there a lot to tell you of his benevolence. Last week when there was a demonstration in support of him - and these were by mostly women from Tivoli Gardens - they (unintelligible) a journalist that he was the man responsible for sending their children to school, putting food on their table. And we have heard about those acts of benevolence in the past. He has a construction company and we have heard about how he has brought in youngsters from off the street, got them jobs. Basically it felt ironic. He basically has kept them from engaging in crime by giving them jobs from the contracts he has received from, surprisingly, the government.

CONAN: Contracts from the government.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes.

CONAN: Well, again, he is alleged to be very well connected to the ruling political party.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes. And - but - that is true, and these contracts - he was receiving these contracts not just from this government but from the previous government. There was always this fear that whenever he - that if ever - there came a time that he had to be taken away from - taken out of the system, extradited, that the order that persisted - that existed downtown would evaporate because his influence is so strong. If he's out of the system, then there's nobody there to control all the criminal elements that are there.

CONAN: When he was initially indicted here in the United States, in New York, the Jamaican government resisted his extradition. And indeed - well, it's now been confirmed, spent $50,000 on a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to try to have the extradition request denied.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes. The government claims that the evidence gathered by the United - presented by the United States were - was in breach of a the interception of communications act here. Apparently the Americans have wiretap information, telephone conversations. And that's what they said that was presented and breached his so-called constitutional rights. And that has been a point that the government has taken a lot of flak for here. I mean, social commentators, their political opponents, people in the media have all hauled the government over the coals for this.

And basically what people were saying was if that was the case, then it's the matter for the court. I mean, an extradition and hearing is brought - is mandated by law unless the person waives their rights to a court hearing. And the court would decide whether there was in fact a breach of the law. But the government was very stubborn about it and we all knew why they - it's because of his connection to the ruling party.

CONAN: There is - his father died in a prison cell facing extradition and there was long suspicion that the quote-unquote "accident" in which he was killed was no accident, but that some people were afraid that he - if extradited to the United States would say some very damaging things about politicians in Jamaica.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes. And that - I gather that that was his big fear as well, that he did not want to be held in a Jamaican prison. But a couple of people who know him very well have told us that he actually said that he would rather - we would rather be held by the Americans, but he didn't want to be captured by Jamaicans - by the Jamaican state.

CONAN: Better...

Mr. DAVIDSON: If that is true or not, I don't know. But that file is very suspicious. I mean, he was - I think it was on the day that he was supposed to have been extradited (unintelligible)

CONAN: Yeah. That he would be - everybody would be better off with a dead legend that a live witness.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Zensie(ph) is on the line calling us from Sacramento.

ZENZIE (Caller): Yes. I'm a Jamaican American. I'm here with my uncles and my father has recently passed away, but I know he would feel the same way that my uncles feel. They are very much rooting for Coke and the bad men there in Kingston who shoot everything up. My uncle is just laughing about it. Like, oh, they sent in the armored trucks and they shot at him. Because you have to remember, this is a Third World country. These kids grow up with nothing at all and to have somebody come in and give them jobs and to feed them and put shoes on their feet, that means so much to them.

CONAN: Even if this person does - runs a very violent gang and runs drugs and money.

ZENZIE: Even if - because you know what? They don't have anything else. That's all they have and that's all they know.

CONAN: So would you think most Jamaican people would be rooting for Dudus Coke?

ZENZIE: I think, honestly, yes, just because if you're in a Third World country and that's your only means of survival, then that's exactly what you're going to do to survive.

CONAN: Do they...

ZENZIE: You're going to root for the person that helps you out.

CONAN: Vernon Davidson, is that - do you think that's the opinion of many people there in Jamaica?

Mr. DAVIDSON: No. They - he does have wide support but the majority support is not in his favor. In fact, there has been widespread - over the last couple of days, the way the security force has handled this operation has gone down very well and there have been a lot of - an outpouring of support for the security forces. I mean, they give them all the opportunity in the world for him to surrender. They asked people in the community to please, to leave if you feel endangered, because there's history. There's a bad history with the security forces, and this community in particular, this community was developed, I'm sure, not with this in mind, but over time it became one of the most dangerous communities. And it's so ironic. I mean, when you go there and - before now, when you go there, people will tell you that they felt very safe inside there. And because it's because of the order that existed.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DAVIDSON: But there was no doubting that this - there was - it's a former chief of staff of the Jamaica defense force (unintelligible) garrison. People were upset. But he was not wrong. The organization (unintelligible) criminal organization was mind-blowing. And I - what we are seeing now is that a lot of people are so, so supportive of what was done and keep - although there are -they are not happy with the loss of life.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DAVIDSON: But they are basically fed up with what is happening because the crime level is just too high.

CONAN: Zenzie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ZENZIE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Vernon Davidson, executive editor of publications for the Jamaica Observer. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. And let's go next to Antonio. Antonio calling us from Cincinnati.

ANTONIO (Caller): Yes. I - good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

ANTONIO: I'm a Jamaican living in Cincinnati, Ohio. And you know, it's sad what's going on in my country. I think the Jamaican government, present government right now, is highly involved with this man. And I think he has damaging information that possibly would indict some of those people in the government. So I think they need to just release him, and so all the killing will stop.

CONAN: Release him, not pursue him, in other words?

ANTONIO: Release him to the American government...

CONAN: Release him.

ANTONIO: ...and go in and get him.

CONAN: And let the Americans go and get him. And, well, there's sovereignty issues there. I'm not sure that that would be very popular either. But nevertheless, I take your point. Vernon Davidson, is there - he said that he would not - did not want to be turned over to the Jamaican authorities. Is there any way that you can get him to the - some arrangement could be made to have him go to the American embassy, something like that?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, you know, it's funny. I just got a call just before I - we hooked up, Neal, that there was an arrangement being made for him to surrender to the U.S. authorities. And somehow the deal fell true. We're not sure what caused it. My reporter is checking that out now. But you see, the problem is that in this scenario there are so many rumors floating about.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And we're not sure what is the truth, and that's why we check and double-check all the information that we receive.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. DAVIDSON: But I - there are people here who believe that, as your caller just said, and not without good reason, that he has information that is very damning to the political, the present political directorate and also the people in the previous administration. And people here believe that both - people from both sides would rather him not be captured and extradited to the U.S.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Antonio.

ANTONIO: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. There was a U.S. State Department narcotics report this year that described what it says is pervasive public corruption in the government of Jamaica as well as at Kingston's ports that facilitated the movement of drugs and money through Jamaica. Quote: "Corruption remains a major barrier to improving counter-narcotics efforts." Is that description of Jamaica accurate, do you think?

Mr. DAVIDSON: I think it's a little bit exaggerated. I would not doubt that there may be a few people within the administration who are involved. And I think that's one of the reason why the Americans are so intent on getting Mr. Coke. I don't think it's widespread within the government, and certainly government and certainly not, it's not, it's not, it's not coming from the top of the government as well.

CONAN: All right. Let's get Andrew on the line. Andrew with us from Fort Atkinson in Wisconsin.

ANDREW (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen. I actually just came back from Kingston on Thursday morning. And I have one actual question, very important question for your guest. What a lot of people, regardless of their party, are talking about is this is the end of Bruce Golding, current prime minister's political career, because of how badly the whole situation was botched at that level.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes. Yeah, I think it's going to be very difficult for him to bounce back from this. He's been politically wounded. The whole affair, starting from last August when he - when it became clear that he was resisting this extradition, and then the recent revelation that he sanctioned this approach through the U.S. law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips to lobby on behalf of the fellow - of Mr. Coke. Surprisingly, there are some people in the know who have told us that he's actually just taking the blame because he didn't -he got a lot of the information after the fact.

Really and truly, that says quite a bit about his leadership, because if you have people inside your organization who are doing these things without clearing them with you first, it suggests that you don't have your hands firmly on the reins as you should. I think he's very, very wounded. I can't see the ruling party going back into an election with him as their leader. I think he's going to have to make some succession - some organization - some planning for succession and step down soon.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

ANDREW: Thank you.

CONAN: And Vernon Davidson, we thank you for your time. And of course our condolences on the tremendous loss of life there in Kingston and hopes that this can be resolved peacefully.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thank you very much, sir.

CONAN: Vernon Davidson, executive editor of publication for the Jamaica Observer, with us today on the line from his office in Kingston, Jamaica.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.