In Jamaica, Fighting Intensifies over Extradition of Gang Leader

BY Larisa Epatko  May 25, 2010 at 5:39 PM EDT


Police patrols in Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by Anthony Foster/AFP/Getty Images

Clashes in Jamaica continued for a third day Tuesday between security forces and masked gunmen loyal to a Jamaican gang leader sought by U.S. authorities. At least 30 people have died in the fighting.

Gunfire could be heard in the slum area of West Kingston as heavily armed police and soldiers fought gunmen aligned to Christopher “Dudus” Coke. He was indicted in August in the United States on drug and arms trafficking charges and faces a possible sentence of life in prison.

The fighting began on Sunday, six days after Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding agreed to extradite Coke, who has ties to the ruling Labor party. Golding had stalled the case for nine months, saying the U.S. indictment relied on illegal wiretap evidence, according to the Associated Press.

Soon after the prime minister agreed to the extradition, gang members set up barricades of barbed wire and old cars in the streets to try to keep troops away from the neighborhoods of Tivoli Gardens slum. It is unclear if Coke is still holed up there.

Police spokesman Corporal Richard Minott told the AP that 26 civilians and a security official died in the clashes on Tuesday. Two officers and a soldier died in earlier fighting.

Though the violence was taking place on the south coast, far from the tourist resort areas in the island’s north, it was still causing concerns over tourism in the country, according to a CNN report.

The Jamaican government implemented a month-long state of emergency in parts of Kingston on Sunday. And the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens traveling to Kingston and surrounding areas because of the unrest.

Unrest is nothing new in Kingston, which experienced gang-against-gang violence in the 1970s and ’80s, and has a history of depressed communities backing political parties, which sometimes leads to unrest following elections, said Anton Edmunds, president and CEO of The Edmunds Group International and a consultant with Caribbean Central American Action.

But the violence stemming from an extradition is new, he added. People in the neighborhoods of West Kingston consider Coke a community leader and someone they can look to for funds and assistance, and are therefore trying to protect him, said Edmunds.

So in addition to short-term problems of finding and extraditing Coke, the Jamaican government is faced with the long-term challenge of trying to service poor communities at a level where they won’t feel like they have to go to gang leaders for help, Edmunds said.