TOPICS > Politics

Jamaica’s Civilian Death Toll Mounts in Hunt for Wanted Drug Kingpin

May 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
Margaret Warner has an update on the violence gripping Jamaica's capital where more than 40 people have died, after security forces stormed the slums in search of a reputed drug lord.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: the violence on the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Thousands of police and soldiers continued to swarm the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in West Kingston, as a fourth day of deadly street fighting rocked this Caribbean nation.

They are searching for a man named Christopher Coke, also known as Dudus Coke. He is being sought by the U.S. government on drug and weapons trafficking charges, confronting them, armed supporters of Coke, and members his gang, the Shower Posse. Behind barricades of old cars and debris, Coke’s partisans have waged fierce battles against the government’s forces.

Kimmo Matthews is a reporter for The Jamaica Observer. We reached him by phone.

KIMMO MATTHEWS, The Jamaica Observer: The last three days has been very intense. And a number of persons have been locked behind their doors, not able to come out , because of the state of emergency that has been imposed on sections of — on Kingston and Saint Andrew, a lot of gunfire, gunmen and police trading bullets in the streets. It has been really, really tense.

MARGARET WARNER: Nearly 50 people have been reported killed in the fighting thus far, mostly civilians. A curfew has been declared, and residents are being urged to stay in their homes.

KIMMO MATTHEWS: It would appear that the police, they are taking back the sections of the city. And the gun — gunshots, they’re subsiding. I’m not hearing the gunshots as we would — would several days — two days ago. And we are seeing people are able to come out to carry out their activities in some area. But, in sections of Tivoli Gardens, the soldiers are still keeping a watchful eye.

MARGARET WARNER: The government says it’s arrested some 500 people, but 41-year-old Dudus Coke is still at large.

The fierce reaction from well-armed Tivoli Garden residents wasn’t surprising, given the role Dudus Coke plays in this impoverished neighborhood just 100 miles from Jamaica’s popular tourist beaches.

According to Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

LARRY BIRNS, director, Council on Hemispheric Affairs: We have seen the Dudus Coke type before. We have seen them in Calabria, in Sicily, in much of Latin America.

I’m this is the classic — and on the TV screen. This is the classic don. He is the beneficent one, the benefactor, hands down things. In a country which doesn’t have an economy, he becomes a figure that sees to it that you don’t die, that your kids can go to school.

This is a country where life is rough, where poverty is stark, and where the little guy is nameless and numberless. Given that fact, having a Mr. Big who protects you, at least in theory — of course, at a price — is an important thing for them to have.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. Justice Department decision last August to indict Coke on charges of running a Jamaica-U.S. drug and weapons trafficking ring reflects Jamaica’s growing importance in the Latin American and Caribbean drug trade.

Its role has increased since Colombian and Mexican authorities stepped up the pressure on their drug cartels. The U.S. asked for Dudus Coke to be extradited, and Jamaica usually honors such requests, but, in Coke’s case, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding resisted. Finally, on Sunday, after nine months of diplomatic pressure from Washington, Golding relented.

BRUCE GOLDING, Jamaican prime minister: Actions were being taken which caused significant threats to law and order in the corporate area.

MARGARET WARNER: This was a hard decision for Golding, given the longstanding ties between Coke’s gang and the prime minister’s Jamaican Labor Party, says Birns.

LARRY BIRNS: Well, look, we’re talking about a phenomena that goes back to the 1970s that is the rise of political gangs. And both of the major political parties in Jamaica, they have their gangs.

They were colleagues — that is, the political party and the government and the cartel. So, right now, Coke feels that he has been betrayed by Prime Minister Golding. This was a quid pro quo relationship. And each side, the government, that is, the political party, the Jamaican Labor Party, and the gang got what they wanted. The gang got protection.

MARGARET WARNER: And what did the government get from the gang?

LARRY BIRNS: Well, the government was getting political control over a very important neighborhood — a lot of people, a lot of votes there — cooperation, and, for example…

MARGARET WARNER: And money?

LARRY BIRNS: And money.

MARGARET WARNER: Jamaican officials have vowed publicly to keep up the pressure until they catch their man. But within a power structure that has long protected him, Dudus Coke is clearly a man with resources to draw on.

JIM LEHRER: And, late today, Jamaica’s information minister said it was unclear whether Coke was even still in the country right now.