When Bruce Golding, Jamaica's prime minister, gave a nationally televised speech last week to announce his intention to capture Christopher "Dudus" Coke and send him to the United States, where he is wanted on gun and drug charges, Golding alluded to the heavy pressure he is under to extradite the powerful gang leader.
What he didn't acknowledge was the deep and murky relationship between Coke's criminal organization and the prime minister's own Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which for nine months hemmed and hawed over the U.S. extradition request and even went so far as to hire lobbyists to press Washington to drop the charges.
It was a glaring omission, bordering on the farcical. Indeed, the symbiotic relationship between Jamaica's political parties and criminal gangs -- reliably delivering votes to connected politicians and local social services to neighborhood residents -- has deep roots going back more than 30 years. That's nothing new. But Golding's obfuscation and decision to finally turn on his erstwhile ally is a dangerous break with the past: The capitulation to domestic pressure and U.S. authorities has pit a government with its back to the wall against a seething downtown population that tends to confer upon local gangs more legitimacy than it does a police force widely viewed as capricious and excessively violent.
On Sunday, Golding declared a month-long state of emergency as Coke's supporters, many reportedly members of sympathetic rival gangs, attacked six police stations in Kingston. As police and government troops massed, armed gangsters streamed from the housing projects in the Tivoli Gardens area of West Kingston, firing on the hundreds of security forces deployed to arrest Coke -- who generally lives in a tony uptown neighborhood of Kingston but, like the JLP, considers Tivoli Gardens his base.
Since independence from Britain in 1962, political power in Jamaica has seesawed between the liberal-leaning People's National Party and the more conservative JLP. In the early days of self-governance, both parties used local youths to drum up votes, but by the early 1980s politicians and the dons who rule Jamaica's powerful gangs were openly collaborating. Case in point: In 1992, Edward Seaga, then the leader of the JLP, walked at the front of the funeral procession of Coke's deceased father, Lester Lloyd "Jim Brown" Coke, who oversaw the transformation of the Shower Posse (named for its penchant for raining bullets on its adversaries) from a get-out-the-vote community organization to its current configuration as a multimillion-dollar, transnational drug- and arms-running operation. In 1992, Brown was captured by Jamaican forces, but was killed in a prison fire while awaiting extradition to the United States.
The aptly named Coke stands accused of running a violent and sprawling cocaine and marijuana smuggling operation, primarily centered in New York but active across the United States. The indictment filed in a New York district court also alleges that Coke is a major importer of illegal firearms into Jamaica, helping to fuel Kingston's spiraling street violence. Since the violent anti-government rebellion first erupted on Sunday, two police officers, one soldier, and at least 26 civilians have been killed and scores more wounded.
Although most outsiders think of Jamaica as a vacation paradise and the idyllic, peaceful homeland of Bob Marley, over the last two decades the island nation has become one of the most violent countries on earth.