'He is seen as a saviour - they are prepared to die for him'

The long-awaited extradition of drug kingpin Christopher 'Dudus' Coke to the US is now threatening to spill over into violence on the streets of Kingston. David Usborne reports
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The Independent US

He is only one man and, according to the authorities in the United States, a thoroughly crooked one. Yet he inspires to-the-death loyalty among his supporters and has brought the government of his country to the brink of collapse. Though for that, at least, Christopher "Dudus" Coke perhaps can't be blamed.

The trouble in Jamaica, after all, has been brewing since last August, when the government of Prime Minister Bruce Golding got the call from the US Justice Department. Mr Coke, 41, was on America's wanted list of global drug kingpins and they were formally requesting his extradition to the US to stand trial, and quickly.

The stalling lasted almost nine months. Then last week, the government, after being caught in an embarrassing lie about the hiring of an American law firm to lobby Washington to withdraw the extradition request, finally acquiesced. An arrest warrant for Coke was issued.

In the Tivoli Gardens district of Kingston, the Jamaican capital, news of the decision was akin to pouring hot water in a hornets' nest. By Thursday, barricades, some reinforced with gas cylinders, had gone up around the streets where Coke is known to live and hundreds of residents marched towards parliament demanding that he be left alone.

While the city appeared calmer last night, local observers warn of a protracted impasse between the police, which is expected to execute the warrant, and residents of Tivoli, who openly warn that they will arm themselves and resort to violence to protect the man they call the president, the man they consider their leader – if not their God.

"They say they are prepared to die for him," Elizabeth Bennett, a radio reporter for Nationwide 90 FM, explained in a telephone interview. "Coke is seen as a saviour by many people. He provides employment, he provides treats for the children at Christmas. People worship the ground he walks on. They don't have a crime problem there. It's like a Utopia for them. He takes care of things for them."

All of which will only confirm what the Americans are alleging: that Coke is an old-fashioned don, in the tradition of Jamaican gang leaders who command trafficking networks not only on their native island but extending into the cities of the United States and often Britain also.

Specifically, prosecutors in the US accuse him of drugs and arms trafficking as head of the notorious "Shower Posse" gang. Shower Posse was once led by Coke's father, Lester Lloyd Coke, who died in prison in 1992 awaiting his own extradition to the US. The cause of his death was never solved.

American officials, who have watched relations with Jamaica come under strain over the affair, welcomed Kingston's about-face, calling the decision to grant extradition "an important first step". "The evidence against Mr Coke was gathered after a lengthy and credible series of investigations and so this is an important first step in resolving this protracted dispute," a State Department spokesman said.

No one in Washington expects to see him on American soil soon, however. Lawyers representing Coke were expected yesterday to seek a stay on the extradition pending a new judicial review of its basis. What perhaps no one predicted was the additional predicament the Jamaican government would create for itself over the hiring of the lobbying firm, something which Mr Golding had previously denied.

For months, Golding resisted the extradition citing illegal wiretapping. But then a week ago the role played by the US lobbying firm, Los Angeles-based Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, was exposed. The Prime Minister said his ruling party had indeed sought the firm's help in reversing the extradition request, even though the firm itself subsequently denied it. The calls for his resignation have not relented since.

"I regret the entire affair and it has been deeply painful for me, members of my family and you who have been hurt and disappointed," he said in an emotional television statement to the country last week. "In hindsight, the party should never have been involved in the way that it did, and I should never have allowed it. But I must express responsibility for it and express my remorse to the nation."

Not everyone is prepared to give him leeway. "As things stand now, it's do or die for the prime minister's political future," the Jamaica Observer said in an editorial yesterday. "Another display of dithering on his part will completely erode whatever confidence the more tolerant among us have placed in him." Ms Bennett also wonders if he can find a way out. "He has got himself into a quagmire," she said. Jamaica's trade minister, Ronald Robinson, resigned on Thursday after being linked to the lobbyists.

Back in Tivoli Gardens, which falls inside the Prime Minister's own constituency, the barricades remain this weekend, schools were empty yesterday and, fearing violence, some businesses were shuttered. For the police, already coping with no fewer than 600 murders since the start of the year in Kingston, the days ahead will be crucial.

"We intend to conduct our operations in a professional manner in accordance with the law and in the interest of all concerned," the police department said in a statement. Extracting "the president" from his lair in Tivoli Gardens and doing it bloodlessly may be more than anyone can expect, however. Assuming, that is, that he is even still there.