By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; A08
Thousands of police and soldiers swarmed into slums in Jamaica's capital Tuesday in search of an alleged drug kingpin wanted by the United States, trading gunfire with masked supporters of the fugitive. At least 30 people, mostly civilians, have been reported killed since the battle erupted Sunday.
The security forces were seeking Christopher "Dudus" Coke, one of the top targets for U.S. anti-drug officials. Jamaica's prime minister gave the go-ahead for his extradition last week, after nine months of resistance strained the island's relations with Washington.
The bloodshed in Kingston occurred as the Obama administration has become increasingly concerned about surging violence in the Caribbean linked to the drug trade.
The administration wants to more than double anti-narcotics aid for the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, to $79 million for 2011. U.S. officials will hold a previously scheduled meeting in Washington on Thursday with security ministers from the Caribbean to discuss ways to reduce trafficking and increase safety.
The battles in Kingston have showcased the brazenness of the drug gangs, which have attacked five police stations since Sunday. The Jamaican government has declared a state of emergency in Kingston, and the U.S. State Department warned Americans not to travel to the capital.
The violence has not spread to the palm-fringed beach areas that draw millions of tourists each year.
Coke, who allegedly assumed leadership of the "Shadow Posse" from his father, was accused in a U.S. indictment in August of heading an international trafficking ring that sells marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere.
Coke, 41, is often described as a kind of godfather in Tivoli Gardens, a West Kingston slum, where he reportedly provides food and assistance to the poor. But some analysts say residents might follow him more out of fear than love.
John Rapley, president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, a think tank, said Coke's case reflected how entwined Jamaica's drug gangs have become with the nation's political system. The alleged drug lord is believed to be close to members of the governing Labor Party, although not Prime Minister Bruce Golding himself, Rapley said.
Many Jamaicans believe that Coke "could bring down . . . members of the government and the opposition" if he pleads guilty and cooperates with U.S. justice officials, Rapley said. "So the stakes are very high for the politics of the country."
In West Kingston, masked gunmen darted down streets barricaded with barbed wire and junked cars on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. Gunfire echoed through the slums.
A police spokesman, Cpl. Richard Minott, told the AP that 26 civilians and one security official had been killed in the fighting in West Kingston.
Two officers and a soldiers were killed in earlier fighting, the AP reported.
Golding, who represents a parliamentary district including West Kingston, had come under heavy pressure from U.S. authorities in recent months to allow the extradition. A State Department report on global drug trafficking issued in March said that the delays in extraditing narcotics suspects "have called into question Kingston's commitment to law enforcement cooperation with the U.S."
Coke's lawyer has said his client is innocent.
State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said the U.S. government had agreed to send bulletproof vests to Jamaica to help its security forces deal with the violence.
Jamaica's ambassador to Washington, Audrey Marks, said in a statement that the island "faces a growing problem, in part generated by the linkage between drugs and arms smuggling. The security operations now underway are intended to have a decisive impact on this problem."