A man holds his son's hand while soldiers patrol the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in Kingston on Thursday. More than 70 people have died during several days of gun battles, the government said, but the reputed drug kingpin who was the target of the raids may have fled the country.
A man holds his son's hand while soldiers patrol the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in Kingston on Thursday. More than 70 people have died during several days of gun battles, the government said, but the reputed drug kingpin who was the target of the raids may have fled the country. Rodrigo Abd/AP
Officials in Jamaica said Thursday that at least 71 people have died in five days of violence as government forces searched Kingston slums for an alleged drug lord.
But local human rights activists say the number may be even higher. The target of the search, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, appears to have eluded the authorities. The interior minister denied rumors that Coke had been captured or killed.
Maj. Ricardo Blackwood of the Jamaican army said soldiers are still carrying out block-by-block searches of homes in the embattled, trash-strewn slums of west Kingston, particularly in one known as Lizard Town. Significant sections of the Jamaican capital are now controlled by the military.
Under a tightly controlled tour organized by the Jamaican army, journalists were allowed to walk briefly through one part of the slum called Tivoli Gardens that had already been cleared by security forces. Blackwood stressed that journalists were free to interview residents, but only when and where his troops allowed.
Several women residents were eager to describe how security forces stormed into the neighborhood, shot up their houses and rounded up all the young men.
"They took them all. They took my 16-year-old from Monday," said Katharine Bennett, who pointed to the bullet holes in her windows and the grenade pockmarks on her neighbor's cement steps.
Tivoli Gardens residents gather outside their bullet-riddled home during a media tour organized by government authorities in Kingston on Thursday.
Tivoli Gardens residents gather outside their bullet-riddled home during a media tour organized by government authorities in Kingston on Thursday. Rodrigo Abd/AP
Bennett says the soldiers burst into every house.
"They told everybody to come outside. They started hounding us like animals. Told us to lay down on the floors. Everyone was held in that house over there, [held] on the ground," she said.
Bennett says she has no idea where her son is or even if he's all right.
The unrest began over the weekend. Residents started barricading the neighborhood when the government announced plans to arrest Coke. U.S. prosecutors accuse Coke of running a multimillion dollar drug and weapons smuggling operation.
Hundreds of Jamaican soldiers and police who stormed the area were met by burning ramparts and gunfire from the boxy tenements.
After days of intense confrontations, soldiers now dominate the streets.
The barricades at least in this part of Kingston have been bulldozed to the sides of the roadways, and there was a heavy presence of armed soldiers and police.
Despite the massive operation, police say they have only seized six weapons.
Bennett says the government's operation against Coke has been terrible. She says he is respected in the neighborhood.
"He's done a lot of things for the community," she said.
This is Coke's home turf. Since the 1970s, Kingston's slums have been divided politically into garrisons. A particular garrison supports a particular political party.
Fighting in the Jamaican slum of Tivoli Gardens was set off by a U.S. extradition request for reputed Jamaican drug boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke to New York to face charges of drug trafficking and gun smuggling.
Fighting in the Jamaican slum of Tivoli Gardens was set off by a U.S. extradition request for reputed Jamaican drug boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke to New York to face charges of drug trafficking and gun smuggling. AP
The local powerbroker — in this case, Coke — gets out the votes, and in exchange he gets to operate largely unimpeded.
But there's a growing sense that these dons have grown too powerful.
The U.S. has been clamoring for Coke's extradition, and this finally pushed the Jamaican government to go after him.
In a press conference Thursday, Minister of Information Daryl Vaz said all residents of the west Kingston slums will soon be allowed to freely come and go from their neighborhoods.
He acknowledged that there have been accusations of abuse by the security forces.
"The government of Jamaica has taken note and is very concerned about alleged reports of misconduct in operations that have taken place over the last five days," he said.
The allegations include the killing of innocent civilians.
Vaz said the Jamaican public defender's office will set up a special office in the area to gather information and complaints from citizens.