Jamaica Split Between Drug Lords, Rulers

Jamaica's recent deadly violence, sparked by the search for an alleged drug trafficker whose extradition is sought by the United States, brought into sharp relief a system of patronage that may no longer be working.

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In Jamaica, authorities are still hunting for alleged drug lord Christopher Coke. A government offensive to try and arrest him left more than 70 civilians dead this past week. Gunmen loyal to Coke barricaded the West Kingston slum of Tivoli Gardens and fought the security forces for days to keep them out. Some Jamaicans are saying that this crisis exposes the longstanding relationship between politicians and organized crime.

NPR's Jason Beaubien has more from Kingston.

(Soundbite of protest)

Ms. MONA JAMES: Fight for the people dead and then fight for guns.

JASON BEAUBIEN: There's anger in Jamaica's capital right now at almost all levels of society. The Tivoli Gardens slum in Kingston resembles a war zone. The buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. Makeshift barricades still block some streets. And sandbag sniper positions are tucked into stairwells of the deteriorating tenements.

Mona James(ph) says she wasn't able to come out of her house for five days. And the security forces, she says, were executing young men in the streets.

Ms. JAMES: Killing innocent boys, take them out of the house and they shoot them and kill them - police and soldier are doing.

BEAUBIEN: Christopher Dudus Coke is the don of Tivoli Gardens. And he's the product of a political system gone wrong. In the 1960s and '70s, Jamaica's two main political parties started setting up garrison communities in the Kingston slums. The don would get out the vote for his party and in exchange, the politicians let the don operate criminal enterprises largely unimpeded. Jamaica's current prime minister, Bruce Golding, represents Tivoli Gardens in parliament.

There were calls for Golding's resignation earlier this month after he acknowledged authorizing the Labor Party to pay $50,000 to a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm. The firm was hired to lobby against Christopher Coke's extradition to the U.S.

In this most recent clash in Tivoli Gardens, Colonel Rocky Meade with the Jamaica Defense Force says Coke's supporters launched a direct offensive against the Jamaican state.

Colonel ROCKY MEADE (Jamaica Defense Force): Two police stations were destroyed, about 12 other stations were attacked. That was within 24 hours. We would've been irresponsible to have not responded as decisively as we did.

BEAUBIEN: Army officials say Christopher Coke's supporters had set up sophisticated defenses throughout Tivoli Gardens and even had surveillance cameras that could monitor various parts of the slum from a central control room. Ralston Hyman is an economist in Kingston. He says the dons of these garrison communities, such as Coke, have grown into monsters that the political parties can no longer control.

Mr. RALSTON HYMAN (Economist): What we see now is that the tail is wagging the dog. That is more the political parties who are depending on the support of the enforcers rather than the other way around.

BEAUBIEN: Hyman says the dons provided the social services that the government for years has failed to deliver. The area leader pays for kids to go to school, lends people money to set up small shops, organizes crews to clean the drainage canals and doles out at times brutal justice. The dons also control the sale of drugs and operate extortion rackets. U.S. prosecutors allege Coke runs a multi-million dollar drug and weapons smuggling operation from his West Kingston slum.

Hyman says the relationship between the dons and the political parties is part of the reason why Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world. And he says ordinary citizens and politicians are finally fed up with it.

Mr. HYMAN: What I see now is that the political parties have been kind of waking up and smelling the coffee, so to speak, and realize that the change is now. Now - now is the most opportune time to break the back of the criminality which has been destroying this country and the nexus between politics and criminality.

BEAUBIEN: Business leaders are openly calling on Jamaicans to stop paying bribes to the dons and the government to stop awarding public works contracts to them. Christopher Coke's lawyers say the alleged drug lord is a businessman who runs several construction and maintenance companies. And his company's got legitimate government contracts. Joseph Matalon is the head of a business group called the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica. He says the system of garrison politics has to come to an end.

Mr. JOSEPH MATALON (President, Private Sector Organization of Jamaica): And I think that civil society as a whole has come to that conclusion.

BEAUBIEN: He's calling for all government contracts to be open to competitive bidding. And he wants campaign contributions made public, so any backflow of money from criminals to politicians is exposed.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kingston.

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