How Jamaica became a hotbed for drug violence

OPINION - The catalysts of the civil unrest now unfolding in Jamaica include decades of corrupt politics...

The catalysts of the civil unrest now unfolding in Jamaica include decades of corrupt politics, an alleged narcotics kingpin, a U.S. District Court indictment, suspicious consultations with a U.S. law firm and an extradition order.

The August 2009 indictment charges Jamaican, Christopher “Dudus” Coke with conspiracy to traffic narcotics and firearms. Despite being ranked among the most dangerous narcotics kingpins, however, the Jamaican government for nine months resisted the United States’ request for Coke’s extradition to answer these charges, citing breaches of Jamaican law in the gathering of evidence against Coke.

Though he initially categorically denied it, Jamaica’s prime minister, Bruce Golding nonetheless admitted on May 12, amidst mounting pressure from the opposition and civil society, that in his capacity as leader of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party (JLP), he authorized the initiative to solicit assistance from the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips to lobby the United States on this extradition issue. Why would the prime minister, in his capacity as leader of the ruling party, desire to lobby on Coke’s behalf? The answer resides in a longstanding history of troubling connectivity between politics and criminality in Jamaica.

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Between 1962 and 1972, the JLP developed Western Kingston with Tivoli Gardens, Jamaica’s first government housing development, at its center. The JLP has always represented West Kingston in parliament and Coke has controlled the volatile Tivoli Gardens community since the early 1990s. Gunmen, presumed to be members of Coke’s organization, the “Shower Posse,” heavily guard Tivoli Gardens.

Allegedly, Coke’s organization arms its members with illegally imported firearms and also distributes firearms to other area leaders. The indictment also alleges that since 1994, members of the gang have sold narcotics at Coke’s direction, shared the proceeds of the sale with him, and also use these proceeds to offer economic support to depressed communities. These philanthropic gestures have gained Coke the community’s loyalty and the moniker “the president.”

Last Tuesday, the government signed the extradition request and issued Coke’s arrest warrant. Following the official announcement, thousands of residents protested in Kingston, declaring: “He is next to God; We will die for Dudus.” On Monday May 24, joint security forces launched an operation in Western Kingston to serve the arrest warrant on and capture Coke.

The death toll is now at least 44, with a state of emergency in effect for volatile areas. What may seem to have begun with the indictment began many years ago with the establishment of corrupt politics – entire communities established, and organized around political party affiliations. This link today, though not as determinate of loyalties to the formal political machinery as it once was, seeded the network of heavily armed gunmen, engaging security forces across Jamaica, and doing so in defense of their “president.”

Jamaica seems poised to break this destructive connection between politics and criminality, with politicians vowing to crush the manacles of the criminal elements on Jamaica once and for all. As the world watches though, what will squash the corruption?

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