Jamaica: Different Drug War, Different Strategy

A state of emergency was declared in certain areas of Kingston, Jamaica on Sunday, as violence broke out over the extradition of accused drug lord and local hero Christopher “Dudus” Coke. Coke is the alleged head of the “Shower Posse,” a gang that has committed scores of drug-related murders in both Jamaica and the United States since the 1980s. Washington is seeking the extradition of Coke based on charges lodged in the U.S. for trafficking in drugs and weapons.

The original request for extradition was made more than nine months ago, but until very recently Prime Minister Bruce Golding and his party, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), had dragged their feet when it came to handing Coke over to U.S. authorities. When Golding, pressured by Washington, reluctantly changed his mind and agreed to Coke’s extradition; residents of the JLP-controlled Kingston neighborhood Tivoli Gardens, Coke’s power base, exploded in protest.

Popular support: strong, but not always armed

Tivoli Gardens is now surrounded by barricades, constructed by local residents who aim to keep authorities out and prevent the extradition of Coke. Made out of derelict vehicles and other debris, these barricades and the armed partisans crouched behind them demonstrate the intense house-to-house level of gang and popular support that Coke wields. Recipients of Coke’s hand-outs, which range from help with medical bills to free school uniforms, even go so far in showing their gratitude as to call him “President.” One newspaper quoted several Tivoli Gardens residents as saying they were willing to die for him.

Armed members of Coke’s gang ran through the streets of Tivoli Gardens on Monday, and exchanged fire with police forces, killing several officers. Others turned their guns on two police stations, while a third station was set on fire. A total of eighteen police stations have now been attacked. In response, police and military forces have assaulted the barricades, charging into the Tivoli Gardens area. At least twenty-seven have been killed in the fighting, among which at least three are members of the country’s security forces. Homes have been burned, and Kingston’s Coronation Market was set on fire.

Many have characterized the actions of Coke and his gang as nothing less than holding the country of Jamaica hostage. This is barely an exaggeration, as Coke has managed to subvert the will of the Prime Minister, the authorities, and a large segment of Jamaican society. It is a civic eruption and a menace to the state.

Not all of Coke’s supporters, though, are armed thugs. Popular protests against Golding’s decision to extradite Coke began peacefully. On May 21st, a group of mostly women converged outside a Kingston police station. Wearing white and carrying signs with statements like “Leave Dudus Alone,” they sought to make one main point: since Coke had arrived in West Kingston, their lives had improved. Safety and stability came with Coke, they said, responding to police claims that Coke’s thugs were holding residents hostage, and seizing their phones to prevent communication with outsiders. The protest went on for several hours, and was described by reporters as nonviolent and highly organized. When police had had enough, they fired a single shot into the air, and the crowd quickly dispersed.

Police maintained that their reports of residents being held as hostages within Tivoli Gardens were completely true, despite protester denials. Some implied that Coke’s local popularity is not a result of genuine happiness with the situation in Tivoli Gardens, but rather of manipulation by Coke, or residents’ fears of what would happen to them if they failed to show support. Others believe that Coke’s popularity among West Kingston residents is based on his ability to fulfill a role that the government has not. Coke has been known to give small chunks of his vast horde of funds to his poor community. As was the case with the late Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, paying for living expenses such as food, children’s schools, and community centers has earned Coke a reputation among some as a protector and caretaker, rather than a drug lord, criminal, and murderer.

More than likely, it is not one but both of these explanations for Coke’s popularity that are correct. While some who show support for him may be doing so out of fear, others certainly feel a genuine, intense loyalty toward the man.

Government Transparency (or lack thereof)

The situation surrounding Coke’s proposed extradition was further complicated by a scandal involving the ruling JLP and the U.S. law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which is well connected to the Obama administration. Prime Minister Golding was accused of paying the firm almost $50,000 in order to lobby the United States government, with the objective of convincing it to drop the extradition request. Golding flatly denied this allegation until May 11th, when he admitted not to hiring Manatt, but to sanctioning his party’s decision to do so.

However, questions still linger over the Prime Minister’s honesty regarding the Manatt hiring. The People’s National Party (PNP), JLP’s main opposition, does not seem to buy Golding’s distinction between the JLP having hired Manatt, and the government having done so. The PNP has also accused Golding of a secret political alliance with Coke himself, which motivated his original reluctance to agree to the extradition. This is far from impossible. Reports of Jamaican government officials granting political favors to people like Coke in exchange for votes have been rampant for some time, and a vague tie between Coke and the JLP has always been loosely acknowledged. However, such ties are hardly exclusive to the JLP. Other drug lords have similar arrangements with other parties, including, reputedly, the PNP.

Despite his initial denial of the extradition request and the fact that Coke’s supporters make up one of his party’s main constituencies, Golding now shows no goodwill whatsoever toward Coke’s followers. Yesterday, he called the violent actions of Coke’s supporters a “calculated assault on the authority of the state.”

What this will mean for Golding’s political future, or the worthiness of his good faith, remains uncertain. Golding represents West Kingston, the area which contains Tivoli Gardens, in the Jamaican Parliament. As of now, he surely has lost the support of Coke and his followers there. While his decision to approve the extradition may have won him some favor among the many Jamaicans who want Coke out, it is yet to be seen how much his initial reluctance will damper that reaction.

The Jamaican Drug Trade and the United States

The Jamaican drug trade does not exist in isolation, as is demonstrated by the fact that Coke has been charged with multiple crimes in the U.S. Actions taken by the United States have important effects on the Jamaican drug trade and that of the Caribbean in general. Aside from generating the demand that creates a market for marijuana and cocaine coming out of places like Jamaica, the United States has inadvertently channeled the drug trade toward the Caribbean through its actions along the U.S.-Mexico border. As the border has become more militarized and smuggling illegal products through it has become increasingly difficult, drug lords have been forced to use an alternate route to transport their products: through the Caribbean, into the U.S.

Furthermore, there is a notable difference between U.S. involvement in drug-related issues in Jamaica, and its usual format in other Latin American nations, such as Mexico and Colombia. In Jamaica, the United States has avoided any large scale, high profile initiatives to fight drug-related power and violence. Reasons for this include the nature of the almost non-existent Jamaican economy, and Washington’s fear of a surge in illegal migrants escaping from an island that has the potential to be transformed into a narco-state.

About 20% of Jamaica’s GDP presently comes from tourism revenues, and an open drug war is sure to damage those revenues. Jamaica’s economy is already ailing, with an unemployment rate of 14.5% in 2009. Further unemployment would undoubtedly lead more desperate Jamaicans to seek illicit employment in the drug trade, or at the very least leave them more willing to accept the favors of drug lords like Coke, who gain loyal followers by helping the poor when the government cannot. The vast amounts of money available to powerful drug lords also mean plenty of funds for bribes and corruption of police and state officials, making an obvious clampdown even less likely to be effective, or even attempted.

For these reasons, an intervention by the United States meant to advance the fight against the drug trade in Jamaica would be counter-productive, and highly damaging to Washington’s standing in the rest of the hemisphere. Assistance in efforts to retake Kingston from Coke’s gang would be one thing, but an extended stay with the intention of fixing broader problems would be quite another, and might even risk civil conflict . Thus far the U.S. has steered clear of such measures, and it should continue to do so. The violence in Kingston must be brought under control, and a more general solution to Jamaica’s drug problems must be sought. But, this time, the usual methods of the United States are not the answer.

The key seems to be the Jamaican economy. With less unemployment would come less poverty, and with less poverty there would be fewer brought under the sway of drug lords by economic assistance. Without their cadres of loyal followers, men like Coke would lose community protection, and thus, much power. Although repairing the Jamaican economy will certainly be no easy task for Golding’s administration, it may be the only viable solution to a problem that extends far beyond this week’s violence, and which has seen the present Jamaican prime minister’s bona fides diminished to the point that they hardly exist.

The current situation in Jamaica began long before the Obama administration took office, and in no way can be blamed on it. However, the administration has not been a source of inspiration for Kingston, either. Essentially, U.S. policy has been a source of benign neglect, with the continuation of a drug policy that does not emphasize the demand factor, despite words to the contrary. Certainly, the White House has no intention of taking on any new, big ticket programs. There is no evidence that the Department of State possesses the means or the vision for a new policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean that will dare to think the unthinkable. This might include a public debate over the decriminalization of some categories of drug usage, and greater patience in dealing with other nations that are following through on their own conceptions of economic and social outreach.

For after-hour information on developments in Jamaica, call COHA at (202)215-3473.