KINGSTON, Jamaica — After a slum raid that left nearly 50 people dead in four days of gunbattles, the reputed drug kingpin who was the target may have fled the country, the government said Wednesday.
Strongman Christopher Coke, who helped the prime minister win elected office, had months to stockpile weapons in his slum stronghold while the premier wavered over U.S. demands for his extradition.
“I could not say if he is in Jamaica,” Information Minister Daryl Vaz said of Coke, who is known as “Dudus.” “It’s very difficult to tell.“
Police and soldiers who fought their way into the barricaded Tivoli Gardens slum in gritty West Kingston were conducting a door-to-door search, and the government reported calm Wednesday. Coke’s lawyer has declined to confirm his whereabouts.
Grey smoke was rising from recently extinguished fires inside Tivoli Gardens. Sporadic gunfire rang out elsewhere in West Kingston and security forces barred journalists from entering the battle zones around the capital on Jamaica’s south coast, far from the tourist resorts on the north shore of the Caribbean island.
The violence did not surprise island police and community groups who warned that Coke had been stockpiling weapons and preparing to defend himself since the U.S. demanded his extradition last August. According to the U.S. indictment, he has built a private arsenal of firearms smuggled in by gang members in the United States, sharing guns with other criminals to solidify his power as a major underworld boss.
“The situation at Tivoli is dreadful, but it’s been something that’s been simmering for a long, long time. And everybody knew that if they made the move for Coke that there would be trouble,” said Susan Goffe, spokeswoman for local human rights group Jamaicans for Justice.
At least 44 civilians have been killed, said Bishop Herro Blair, Jamaica’s most prominent evangelical pastor, who was escorted into the slum by security forces. At least four soldiers and police officers also have died in the fighting.
Jamaican politicians and gang leaders who control ghetto fiefdoms have had cozy ties for decades. Political parties created Jamaica’s street gangs in the 1970s to rustle up votes. Since then, the gangs have turned to drug trafficking, but they remain staunchly and often violently loyal to their parties and live in poor neighbourhoods called “garrisons.”
The slum presided over by Coke, the alleged leader of the “Shower Posse” gang, has long been a bastion of support for the governing Jamaica Labor Party. It is part of the district represented in parliament by Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who stonewalled the U.S. extradition request for months before reversing himself under pressure from Washington and the local political opposition.
Golding disputes the allegation that his party is close to Coke, and he is not known to have a personal relationship with Coke. But political observers say he could not have been elected to his parliament seat without the gang leader’s support.