Five hundred Jamaican civilians, mostly male, have been imprisoned, and an estimated 73 are numbered at press time this evening among the dead quickly filling up the Kingston area morgues and funeral homes. The Caribbean island of Jamaica, Belize’s longstanding neighbour, continues in a state of emergency declared Sunday, May 23, for the capital, Kingston, and the nearby St. Andrew’s Parish. Virtually all of the imprisonments and fatalities are the result of an unprecedented street war between Jamaican security forces and angry, militant residents of the area of Tivoli Gardens, West Kingston. The urban warfare began after the Jamaican government decided, after months of delay, to extradite Christopher Michael “Dudus” Coke, a resident of Tivoli Gardens indicted in New York City on narcotics and firearms trafficking charges.
The list of specifications for the state of emergency was long. Apart from prohibiting roadblocks, public assemblies and the carrying of weapons, and restricting access to certain areas, it also makes provisions for curfew and for areas to be cordoned off, requiring people to stay indoors. The state of emergency did not dissuade residents of Tivoli Gardens from taking to public protests in droves. It has also not put an end to unrelated murders in the area.
Based on the images coming out of Jamaica, “Dudus” has big time popular support in his community. Many in Tivoli see him as “the godfather” who reportedly supplies for the needy who find no shelter in the society’s social safety net. Those against his extradition came out with cardboard box placards, making it clear that they were ready to defend “Dudus” – and some of them did to the death. “We will die for Dudus,” said the placard on what appears to be a pit-bull. The war in Tivoli Gardens is being waged in the electoral constituency of the Jamaican Prime Minister, Bruce Golding.
Yesterday the body count of those killed in Tivoli Gardens was 44; today, it has escalated to 73. This evening’s release from the Jamaica Information Service says, “The Police today (May 27) revealed that the bodies of some 73 civilians have been recovered from the West Kingston community of Tivoli Gardens following the recent battle between members of the nation’s security forces and gunmen.… 15 of these bodies are currently being processed for burial.
“Of these 15, there is some doubt that six actually came from the area of operation. We are in fact certain that three did not, and three, we are advised, came from an area close to the area of operation and could be murder victims. … A significant majority of the bodies found are males.”
Three members of the security forces had been killed in the battle this week – one soldier from the Jamaica Defence Force and two members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force. The policemen were killed on Mountain View Avenue, the release further revealed.
“Additionally, some 28 members of the security forces had been wounded, while 26 civilians received injuries. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 rounds of assorted ammunition and six firearms – four rifles, two pistols were reportedly recovered from the area in the process of the operation,” the report continued.
“The United States (US) State Department has strongly dismissed an ABC News report which claimed that [Jamaica] Prime Minister Hon. Bruce Golding was a criminal affiliate of Christopher Coke,” the Jamaica Information Service said in another release today.
Coke, for whom an arrest warrant for extradition proceedings was drawn up last week, faces charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine, and conspiracy to illegally traffic arms, according to an August 2009 release from the United States Attorney Southern District of New York.
The US Department of Justice has included Coke on its list of Consolidated Priority Organization Targets (CPOT), along with the world’s most dangerous narcotics kingpins.
The Barack Obama administration of the United States of America had called for Jamaican authorities to hand over Coke, 40, whom their indictment accuses of leading an international criminal organization known as the “Shower Posse,” which the indictment claims has members in Jamaica, the US and other countries. [The gang was so named for its practice of showering their targets with bullets in the 1980’s cocaine war era.]
The official US document says that if indicted, Coke faces a possible life sentence, but a minimum of 10 years behind bars for the narcotics charge alone, and a fine of up to US$4 million or twice the financial gain from the trade. He would face a maximum sentence of 5 years for the trafficking charge and a possible fine of US$250,000 or twice the pecuniary gain – what they believe he may have gained financially from any arms trafficking.
The release notes that, “The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”
That statement of presumed innocence is no comfort for the many families grieving over the loss of loved ones in the crazy violence that has erupted in Kingston over the past five days.
The drama has severely disrupted the lives of some Jamaicans, while others not in the immediate vicinity go about their regular business. Earlier this week, after the Sovereign’s Day weekend, workers in the affected area were advised to stay home; however, media reports say students who had examination commitments had to report for their exams, but some to different exam centers.
Reports from several Belizean sources on the Caribbean island indicated via interviews with local media that Belizean students at the University of the West Indies were not immediately threatened by the bloody battle. The Jamaica Ministry of Education had shut down basic, infant, primary and high schools in Kingston on Tuesday, according to an official statement.
Public transportation was temporarily suspended earlier this week and some businesses had closed.
Prime Minister Bruce Golding had commented on Sunday, the day when the state of emergency was declared, to be effective at 6:00 p.m., that, “…violent orchestrated attacks have been launched on a number of police stations. Two members of the security forces have been shot and injured.” He called the uprising “a calculated assault on the authority of the state that cannot be tolerated and will not be allowed to continue.”
He added that, “This will be a turning point for us as a nation to confront the powers of evil that have penalized the society and earned us the unenviable label as one of the murder capitals of the world. We must confront this criminal element with determination and unqualified resolve.”
Jamaican authorities claim that they had launched the joint military/police operation to execute an arrest warrant on Coke, but that his allies retaliated.
“The violent response of certain sections of society to the Government’s attempt to serve an extradition order on an alleged gangster is unacceptable in a democratic society,” said Organization of American States Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, supporting the Jamaica Government.
On Tuesday, May 25, Golding sent in Ombudsman Bishop Herro Blair, to assess the situation. On Wednesday, the reply was that the security forces had acted “with restraint.” The administration had also claimed that they had “re-established control in Tivoli Gardens.”
According to information published by the Government of Jamaica, roughly 27 deaths and dozens of injuries resulted from a 2001 operation in the same community in a weapons raid. Golding had been quoted last Friday as saying, “I have been assured that the security forces are determined to carry out their duties in a professional manner, in order to prevent any recurrence of the terrible atrocities that occurred in 2001.”
Today, the body count and atrocities reported in respect of this incident are evidently much higher, and there is no indication that a ceasefire is in effect.
Commenting on the catastrophe, Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow told us that he is very sorry for what is happening in Jamaica. As much as Belize is experiencing its own crisis, it shows how much worse it can be.
“There, the criminal elements actually constitute a serious threat to the authority and the very existence of the Jamaican state. That’s no exaggeration,” he commented. “Your heart bleeds for a fellow Caribbean country,” he added, calling it nothing short of tragedy.
“It makes me realize,” said Barrow, “that we still have so very much to protect here and so very much that is still precious.”
He said that Belize will have to redouble its efforts to ensure that there is no further slippage in this country where crime and public safety are concerned.
As Jamaica’s security forces continue their hunt for Coke, that country’s Minister of Information, Daryl Vaz, was quoted by the Jamaica Observer as saying that it was uncertain whether Coke was still in Jamaica.
(According to Jamaica sources, Coke is the son of Lester Lloyd Coke, locally known as “Jim Brown” or “Don Dadda”. Jim Brown had perished by fire in a local jail in the early 90’s, also accused of leading the Shower Posse gang.)