Jamaican police have tenuous hold on Kingston violence; death toll more than 44

Security forces battle armed gunmen in Kingston, Jamaica, during an attempt to capture Christopher "Dudus" Coke, an alleged gang leader wanted by the United States on drug and weapon charges.
By David McFadden
Thursday, May 27, 2010

KINGSTON, JAMAICA -- Jamaican security forces claimed a tenuous hold over the slum stronghold of an alleged drug kingpin and gang leader sought by the United States, but only after clashes that killed at least 44 civilians, the country's official ombudsman said Wednesday.

Officers and soldiers were still fighting holdout defenders of Christopher Coke, known as "Dudus," in pockets of the Tivoli Gardens area of Kingston. He was still at large after nearly three days of street battles.

Bishop Herro Blair, Jamaica's most prominent evangelical pastor, said independent evaluations have put the number of civilian dead at 44 in West Kingston alone. Police say that at least four soldiers and police officers have died in fighting in West Kingston and elsewhere in the capital.

The country's embattled prime minister, Bruce Golding, promised an independent investigation into civilian deaths during the operation.

Blair and Jamaica's public defender were escorted by security forces into Tivoli Gardens, where Coke's supporters began massing last week after Golding dropped his nine-month refusal to extradite him to the United States. Coke has ties to Golding's Labor Party, which receives many votes from the Tivoli Gardens area that Golding represents in Parliament.

The gunmen fighting for Coke say he provides services and protection to the poor West Kingston community -- all funded by a criminal empire that seemed untouchable until the United States demanded his extradition.

Coke has built a loyal following, turning the neighborhood into his stronghold. U.S. authorities say he has been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York City since the mid-1990s, allegedly hiring Jamaican women to carry the drugs on flights to the United States.

U.S. federal prosecutors in New York say drug traffickers in the United States routinely sent Coke gifts, including clothes, accessories and car parts in recognition of his influence over the American cocaine trade.

The violence that erupted Sunday has not touched the tourist meccas along the island's north shore, more than 100 miles from Kingston, or the nearby Montego Bay airport. But Jamaican officials said they are concerned about the impact on tourism.

"The entire Caribbean and the world is trying to pull itself out of a recession. This kind of hit, if one can call it that, comes at a very, very bad time," said Wayne Cummings, head of Jamaica's Hotel and Tourist Association.

-- Associated Press

© 2010 The Washington Post Company