Jamaica’s Coke Rebellion

U.S. demands for the extradition of a notorious gang leader have exposed an island paradise as a violent narcostate teetering on the edge of chaos.

Anthony FOSTER/AFP/Getty Images
Anthony FOSTER/AFP/Getty Images

When Bruce Golding, Jamaica’s prime minister, gave a nationally televised speech last week to announce his intention to capture Christopher "Dudus" Coke and send him to the United States, where he is wanted on gun and drug charges, Golding alluded to the heavy pressure he is under to extradite the powerful gang leader.

What he didn’t acknowledge was the deep and murky relationship between Coke’s criminal organization and the prime minister’s own Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which for nine months hemmed and hawed over the U.S. extradition request and even went so far as to hire lobbyists to press Washington to drop the charges.

It was a glaring omission, bordering on the farcical. Indeed, the symbiotic relationship between Jamaica’s political parties and criminal gangs — reliably delivering votes to connected politicians and local social services to neighborhood residents — has deep roots going back more than 30 years. That’s nothing new. But Golding’s obfuscation and decision to finally turn on his erstwhile ally is a dangerous break with the past: The capitulation to domestic pressure and U.S. authorities has pit a government with its back to the wall against a seething downtown population that tends to confer upon local gangs more legitimacy than it does a police force widely viewed as capricious and excessively violent.

On Sunday, Golding declared a month-long state of emergency as Coke’s supporters, many reportedly members of sympathetic rival gangs, attacked six police stations in Kingston. As police and government troops massed, armed gangsters streamed from the housing projects in the Tivoli Gardens area of West Kingston, firing on the hundreds of security forces deployed to arrest Coke — who generally lives in a tony uptown neighborhood of Kingston but, like the JLP, considers Tivoli Gardens his base.

Since independence from Britain in 1962, political power in Jamaica has seesawed between the liberal-leaning People’s National Party and the more conservative JLP. In the early days of self-governance, both parties used local youths to drum up votes, but by the early 1980s politicians and the dons who rule Jamaica’s powerful gangs were openly collaborating. Case in point: In 1992, Edward Seaga, then the leader of the JLP, walked at the front of the funeral procession of Coke’s deceased father, Lester Lloyd "Jim Brown" Coke, who oversaw the transformation of the Shower Posse (named for its penchant for raining bullets on its adversaries) from a get-out-the-vote community organization to its current configuration as a multimillion-dollar, transnational drug- and arms-running operation. In 1992, Brown was captured by Jamaican forces, but was killed in a prison fire while awaiting extradition to the United States.

The aptly named Coke stands accused of running a violent and sprawling cocaine and marijuana smuggling operation, primarily centered in New York but active across the United States. The indictment filed in a New York district court also alleges that Coke is a major importer of illegal firearms into Jamaica, helping to fuel Kingston’s spiraling street violence. Since the violent anti-government rebellion first erupted on Sunday, two police officers, one soldier, and at least 26 civilians have been killed and scores more wounded.

Although most outsiders think of Jamaica as a vacation paradise and the idyllic, peaceful homeland of Bob Marley, over the last two decades the island nation has become one of the most violent countries on earth.

It dependably ranks in the top five — behind Colombia, South Africa, and a rotating list of Central American narcostates — in annual homicide indices. Entire neighborhoods are no-go areas for police, who often are not in the crime-busting business anyway. Witnesses quietly speak of police colluding with drug lords, summarily executing rival gang members on the street.

But even for those locals inured to the violence, the recent battles are a different breed.

Ten miles away from the makeshift barricades and the gunfire in the Tivoli Gardens and the Denham Town neighborhoods where Coke is thought to be in hiding, Sara Lawrence, a Kingston medical student, awakened Tuesday morning to the sounds of a national emergency: sirens, the distant tat-tat-tat of automatic gunfire, and the rustle of helicopters overhead. On the street, however, "cars are few and far between. Everyone I know is trying to stay safe, keep travel to a minimum," she told me. "Everyone is a little bit anxious, but I would describe the mood now as somber."

It’s a mood shared broadly among many Jamaicans outside the densely populated, impoverished garrison neighborhoods like Tivoli, said Marlon James, a well-known Jamaican novelist. "Jamaicans horrified by the violence are beginning to think that maybe Tivoli should be cut off from the rest of the country," he told me. "With not just Dudus but all the dons, this week shows just how acute the cult of personality among the dons has become. Politicians created these communities and these dons, and they’ve become monsters they can no longer control anymore because the money is no longer in politics — the money is in drugs."

Jamaican public opinion of Coke generally cleaves along class lines. For those living outside the impoverished garrisons, Coke is a galling symbol of Jamaica’s economic decay and governmental fecklessness. But even some within Jamaica’s middle and upper classes recognize that Coke has been a stabilizing presence in a part of Kingston set to a permanent, rolling boil. And many now say that the current push to capture Coke is merely an act of political expediency for Golding and that little will be gained by cutting the head of this hydra.

"I really don’t know if this is a permanent severing of links or a really nasty breakup," said James. "I think they are going to realize they still need each other. There is always someone else to come up from where the last one left off. The money is too good. The actual business of drug dealing, gun-running is just too easy. It’s kind of ludicrous to think it will be over. Politicians can’t survive without West Kingston, and I don’t think West Kingston can survive without politicians. It’s such a unique case in so many ways. A politician has never turned over a don, but this is no ordinary don."

Even if Coke is soon captured, few in Jamaica expect that the prime minister’s standing will recover. With both major political parties stained by association with drug gangs, the more significant damage is to the legitimacy of Jamaica’s government overall — especially its police and armed services — which was never held in high regard, but is now being reassessed by a much broader spectrum of Jamaican society.

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