Jamaica violence 'linked to US drug market'

By Jon Silverman
Professor of Media and Criminal Justice, University of Bedfordshire

Image caption,
Mr Coke's gang effectively controlled Kingston neighbourhood Tivoli Gardens

Jamaica's most-wanted man, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, is finally in police custody, after attempts to capture him in May led to clashes in which scores of people died.

Many on the Caribbean island of Jamaica attribute its propensity for drug-related violence to passenger traffic travelling from the US to Jamaica.

For a number of years, flights known as "Con Air" have taken off from American airports carrying convicted Jamaican criminals who have been deported to the land of their birth.

In 2007, a report by Jamaica's Ministry of National Security traced a tripling of the annual murder rate - from 542 in 1990 to 1,674 in 2005 - to these involuntary returnees.

And it is certainly true that the fractured relationship between Jamaica and the US - exacerbated by drugs and with the UK acting as the third point of a triangle - is one reason why Kingston is a dysfunctional city.

Tivoli Gardens, the stronghold of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, is a fiefdom of the Jamaica Labour Party.

Since it was built 40 years ago, replacing a wasteland of zinc squatter shacks with no sanitation, its denizens have voted JLP in overwhelming numbers: In the 1993 election, the party won 99% of votes in the area.

For a generation, political patronage flowed down from the JLP's charismatic leader, Edward Seaga, through local so-called dons who wielded more or less absolute power over their area.

One such don was Christopher Coke's father, Lester Lloyd Coke (aka Jim Brown), who was also the subject of an extradition request by the US in the early 1990s.


Lester Lloyd Coke was burned to death in a fire in a Kingston prison cell in 1992 before he could be extradited.

Only days earlier, another of his sons, with the grandiose name Mark Anthony (aka Jah T), was murdered in Kingston.

Shortly before his death, Mark Anthony Coke had been spotted in London's Brixton by undercover detectives monitoring a crack cocaine dealer.

Drugs - crack cocaine and marijuana - are the reason that the United States, and, to a lesser extent, the UK, have had an interest in the Coke dynasty for more than 20 years.

Image caption,
PM Edward Seaga, left, attended the funeral of Christopher Coke's father

Lester Lloyd Coke helped create the Shower Posse, perhaps the most successful of the Jamaican crime groups to gain a toehold in the American narcotics market in the 1980s.

Many of its members originated from Tivoli Gardens and the JLP's other so-called garrison towns, such as Southside.

Christopher Coke is alleged by the US authorities to have carried on the family business by trafficking in drugs and firearms.

In Tivoli Gardens, there has been a sense of betrayal that one of its own so-called sons, the JLP Prime Minister Bruce Golding, has authorized Christopher Coke's extradition.

Admittedly, Mr Golding delayed his decision for eight months, which might explain the strength and organization of the resistance when the security forces moved in to seize Mr Coke.

Shielded from the law

Another explanation is the fear and hatred with which the police, in particular, are regarded in ghettoes like Tivoli.

Image caption,
Thousands of police have been involved in the Kingston operation

Although training by officers seconded from Scotland Yard has improved standards, the human rights record of the Jamaican constabulary is a grisly one.

UN reports and audits by Amnesty International have recorded extra-judicial killings - both inside and outside police stations - endemic corruption and other abuses.

Set against this, dons like Christopher Coke can guarantee a measure of protection, as well as jobs, housing and other services.

For them, the transaction is simple: They supply the votes to put either the JLP - or its rival, the PNP - into power and, in return, they expect to be shielded from the law.

I once asked Edward Seaga why he made a public show of support by attending the funeral of Lester Lloyd Coke, a man alleged to have committed many murders as well as running a drug empire.

"I look at the man in terms of how the community respects and treats him as a protector from their community," was his response.

And although in recent years, politicians have made some effort to disassociate themselves from the community dons, this philosophy still holds sway in Kingston, Jamaica.

Jon Silverman is the author of Crack of Doom, the first British book to explore Jamaican drugs crime.

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