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Jamaica stand-off highlights links between ruling party and drug gang

More than 30 killed as government steps up hunt for former ally Christopher Coke

The same drug gang that is now battling security forces in Jamaica in a bloody urban stand-off was openly used by the island's ruling party to bring supporters to the polls and intimidate opposition voters in elections three years ago, Caribbean political experts suggested yesterday.

The "Shower Posse" gang, led by the outlaw and alleged drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke, was yesterday locked in brutal combat with more than a thousand members of Jamaica's security forces in West Kingston, in a bid to stave off their leader's extradition to the US on drug and gun charges. The clashes have so far killed more than 30, according to a Kingston hospital.

But those hostilities were in sharp contrast to previous relations between Coke and the ruling Jamaica Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Bruce Golding. David Rowe, a University of Miami adjunct professor and lawyer who specialises in Jamaican law, says they used to have an "almost symbiotic relationship".

Although the security minister, Dwight Nelson, insisted that police were "on top of the situation" and promised that "we will not allow criminals to take over the country", there was little evidence of the violence abating. But the JLP is not alone in its responsibility for the situation. As Kingston endures its worst violence in years, there was little escaping the fact that it was sown over many years not just by the JLP but also by the main opposition: the People's National Party (PNP).

Kingston was reaping the consequences of that tolerance last night. Although security forces broke through the barricades around the Tivoli Gardens neighbourhood and cut off the electricity supply to Coke's power-base, gunshots could still be heard. According to residents, bodies were lying in the streets, although that claim could not be verified as reporters are banned from the area.

Video: Jamaican PM vows to restore order

In one building in the enclave, 15 women and children were said to be trapped without food, water or medication, not daring to venture out for fear of being caught in the crossfire. Some called radio stations to express their terror. "We're holed up in a building across from Denham Town police station with no food and sick children," said one resident. "We need help."

Yesterday the violence in West Kingston spilled over to other poor neighbourhoods. A firefight in Spanish Town killed two people, including a boy, and streets and businesses across the capital were deserted. Meanwhile, gangs from slums outside the capital erected barricades and fired on troops. There was also an attack on the city's central police station. Officers have detained 211 people believed to be Coke's supporters and seized guns, ammunition and bullet-proof vests.

"It is rather precisely defined," Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington DC, said last night, describing the network of so-called "garrison" districts in Kingston, where gangs are affiliated with the parties. "Certain neighbourhoods are PNP neighbourhoods and others are Labour [JLP] neighbourhoods. Basically, it has meant that 'These are my gunslingers and, if you shoot my guys, we are going to have to shoot yours'."

No one has gained more from these relationships than Coke. It was partly the expanding reach of his power that prompted the US Justice Department last August to submit its formal request for his extradition to Mr Golding, who stalled for nine months before last week finally acquiescing.

"We must admit that we have been laying the foundation for yesterday's events for a long time," the Jamaica Observer said in an editorial yesterday. "For a long time we have been heading for an explosion as those who have held the reins of government have given succour to criminals in their blinkered thirst for political power... It has to stop."

For years, a sort of balance of power existed between the parties and the gangs. The drug dons would fundraise for campaigns and mobilise voters at election time. The politicians would promise contracts and turn a blind eye to their drug-trafficking activities. When Coke's father, Lester Coke, who headed the Shower Posse before him, died in prison in 1992, Edward Seaga, the Prime Minister and JLP leader, marched at his funeral. Coke's former lawyer was a senior figure in the JLP. And his consulting company has earned millions over the years from government contracts.

Video: 'Hurricane' of violence in Kingston

According to Mr Rowe, the balance of mutual benefit between the JLP and Coke went awry in recent years as Coke's clout has grown. He has since begun to overwhelm the government and the police force.

The US State Department made clear in a report on the delays in the Coke extradition that it understood the history. "The government of Jamaica's unusual handling of the August request for the extradition of a high-profile Jamaican crime lord, with reported ties to the ruling JLP... raises serious questions about the government's commitment to combating transnational crime," it said.

In numbers

2.84m Number of inhabitants

30 per cent Population under the age of 14

1,660 Homicides in 2009

1962 Year of full independence from Britain

2m Tourists who visit the country annually

$8,200 Average income per head

14.5 per cent Unemployment rate

14.8 per cent Population living below the poverty line