Latin America & Caribbean

Kingston under siege

Smoke rises over Kingston's Tivoli Gardens community, 24 May
Image caption Smoke rose over Kingston's Tivoli Gardens area on Monday

As I drive through the city, my taxi driver tells me that he is going to have to charge extra: "Everywhere is blocked up, it's just turn, turn, turn."

I am just trying to get into the main commercial district of the capital, New Kingston, but the journey provides a snapshot of the situation the country finds itself in.

As we head up one road we spot the few vehicles on the road doing sharp U-turns. Then I hear it, the sound of automatic weapon fire.

We head back down the road to go around the trouble, and we are suddenly surrounded by police. A shot-up Toyota is parked up by a petrol station.

We continue. Towards the centre of town the streets are quiet - it is a national holiday, Labour Day, a time when communities get together to do work in their areas.

But everywhere is empty until we pass the main army camp as truckloads of soldiers in convoy head out, sandbags loaded on their vehicles, to a city under siege.

Steve the driver, like many Jamaicans, has a nickname. His comes from his time in the Jamaican defence force: Sojey, the patois for "soldier".

After seven years in the army, he recognises the sound of the M16s fired in our direction.

Tight control

The old police station at Darling Street had stood in West Kingston for over a century. Now it is a ruin, firebombed and looted in an brazen daytime attack. Parts of the capital are under a state of emergency with two police officers killed overnight.

Jamaica had been gearing up for trouble from the moment the country's Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, announced he would address the nation a week ago.

He promised to explain his handling of an extradition request from the US for Christopher Coke, better known as Dudus.

He also goes by the other aliases of Shortman and President, the last one an indicator of how he is viewed in his community of Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston.

Before the violence which came to a head on Sunday, I had spent time in the community of Denham Town, and I was surprised by the reaction from many residents.

The area had been called the "mother of all garrisons" by a former head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force yet when I spoke to people, I was struck by the loyalty and support people had for the Dudus.

"Nobody can steal round here without his say-so, nobody carries out rape round here, they'd be dead."

I was worried for my safety but was told that nobody would touch me and in the early hours of the morning I walked out of the community, something that would be unheard-of in other more volatile communities on the island.

He was seen as the boss who cared for his community, providing what the state had not: safety.

Fast-foward to nine months ago and the US put in an extradition request for Christopher Coke, a man Washington claims is the head of the Shower Posse, an infamous gang that made and earned its name in the 1980s by spraying bullets like water when they attacked rivals.

It is believed they are responsible for more than 1,400 murders in the US.

His extradition would see him facing charges of drug-smuggling and gun-running but, as a prominent supporter of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party, he holds a large amount of political sway.

Jamaica's 'dons'

He keeps the area, which is also Prime Minister Bruce Golding's constituency, loyal to the party.

The government initially turned down the request, saying the evidence for the extradition had been gathered illegally.

But following calls for Mr Golding's resignation, after it became clear he had sanctioned a US law firm to lobby against the extradition, he announced the order would be signed the following day.

The warrant for the arrest saw fortifications being put round West Kingston.

The tough inner city communities of Kingston are not called garrisons for nothing.

Controlled by an "area leader" - the island's euphemism for the criminal bosses who are better known as "dons" - local strongmen can control a few blocks to whole swathes of the city.

The power they have stretches from the gully to the Gordon House, the seat of government.

The prime minister says the security forces will be swift and decisive in re-establishing law and order but, as the violence spreads, many wonder if they can handle the criminals who are taking on the state.

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