Fugitive Drug Lord Arrested In Jamaica

Authorities in Jamaica say reputed drug lord Christopher Coke is behind bars. Attempts by the United States to extradite Coke triggered violence in Kingston in May that claimed the lives of 76 people.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

After last month's deadly days-long assault on a neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica aimed at capturing a reputed drug lord, it all ended yesterday a whole lot less dramatically. Gang leader Christopher Coke was picked up at a police roadblock. The attempt to arrest Coke for extradition to the U.S. left more than 70 people dead. NPR's Jason Beaubien was in Jamaica during those clashes, and he's here to tell us about this latest turn of events. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: I said a roadblock. Exactly what happened? How was he picked up?

BEAUBIEN: Well, it appears that Christopher Coke was driving into Kingston, Jamaica, apparently to turn himself in and was stopped at a roadblock and arrested. He was with a minister who had been involved in several of his family members also turning themselves in. And it appears that that's what his intention was, that he was trying to turn himself in.

MONTAGNE: Now Christopher Coke was an infamous gang leader in Kingston. How significant is this arrest?

BEAUBIEN: This is really huge. The confrontation that happened in Kingston when an extradition warrant was issued for him was like urban warfare in the part of Kingston that he controlled. And when they said they were going to come in and get him, the people in the neighborhood barricaded the streets. They set up sniper positions, and more than 70 people died in this four-day-long confrontation as authorities attempted to come in and arrest him.

MONTAGNE: And so he's something of a local hero, because, what, all the people who died weren't all his, you know, lieutenants, or his fellow gang members.

BEAUBIEN: He was very much a local hero. I was struck by - right after this confrontation, we were actually - some of the journalists were allowed into that area where this intense firefight had occurred for days and people were locked inside their homes as soldiers and police had stormed through the area. And even just mothers who had been pulled out by the soldiers still continued to say that they supported Christopher Coke, that this was a man who did more for their neighborhood than the government had ever done for them.

MONTAGNE: One other thing this attempt to arrest him also did was it showed how - you know, the relationship between Jamaican politicians and organized crime.

BEAUBIEN: It really did highlight this longstanding tradition that has built up in Jamaica, where politicians basically gave control of particular neighborhoods to particular dons, as they called them. And the dons would deliver votes - entire neighborhoods would vote entirely for one political party. And in exchange, the politicians allowed the dons to do whatever they want, basically, in those neighborhoods. And in terms of Mr. Coke, they're saying that he was running drugs out of there. He was running guns out of there. People say that he was running extortion racquets. And they're saying that this isn't the only neighborhood where that has been going on.

MONTAGNE: Well, given what you've just described, what, then, was driving this? I mean, what got the Jamaican officials to decide to go in after him?

BEAUBIEN: The Jamaican officials were basically dragged in kicking and screaming to extradite him. And the prime minister himself came out and said that he had authorized the Jamaican government to pay $50,000 to a Washington, D.C. lobbyist to fight Mr. Coke's extradition. So this was being driven by a U.S. request for him to be extradited to face drug smuggling charges in New York. And it's not clear that this is going to lead to an overall cleanup of this relationship which has developed not just with Mr. Coke, but with other people in these neighborhoods and Jamaican politicians.

MONTAGNE: Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jason Beaubien.

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