KINGSTON, Jamaica – Security forces fought their way into the warren-like complex that is the slum stronghold of a Jamaican gang leader facing extradition to the United States and sporadic gunfire could be heard late into Monday night.
More than 1,000 police officers and soliders attacked heavily armed gang members defending the West Kingston base of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who has been indicted in the U.S. on drug and arms trafficking charges. Military helicopters flying with their lights off could be heard buzzing above the darkened slums, where authorities cut off power.
As security forces broke through barbed-wire barricades Monday afternoon to begin their offensive in Coke’s Tivoli Garden neighborhood, clashes with masked gunmen spread to other volatile slums close to the capital on Jamaica’s southeastern coast, far from the tourist resorts on the north shore.
It was not immediately clear what was happening inside the virtual fortresses where Coke’s supporters had massed since last week, when Prime Minister Bruce Golding dropped his nine-month stonewalling against extraditing the Jamaican “don,” who has ties to his governing party.
Exact details were not known about casualties. Authorities said two officers had been killed and at least six wounded since Sunday, and at least one Jamaican soldier was shot dead during Monday’s fighting at Tivoli Gardens, the Caribbean island’s first housing project.
A woman in the besieged slum told Radio Jamaica that she and her terrified family were hunkered down in their apartment as a firefight raged outside.
“I really pray that somebody will find the love in their heart and stop this right now. It is just too much, my brother,” the woman told the station, the sound of a gunbattle nearby.
Gangsters loyal to Coke began barricading streets and preparing for battle immediately after Golding caved in to a growing public outcry over his opposition to extradition. Jamaica’s leader, whose represents West Kingston in Parliament, had claimed the U.S. indictment relied on illegal wiretap evidence.
West Kingston, which includes the Trenchtown slum where reggae superstar Bob Marley was raised, is the epicenter of the violence. But on Monday, security forces also came under fire in areas outside that patchwork of gritty slums.
Gunmen shot at police while trying to erect barricades in a poor section of St. Catherine parish, which is just outside the two parishes where the government on Sunday implemented a monthlong state of emergency.
A police station in an outlying area of Kingston parish also was showered with bullets by a roving band of gunmen with high-powered rifles.
Security Minister Dwight Nelson said “police are on top of the situation,” but gunfire was reported in several poor communities and brazen gunmen even shot up Kingston’s central police station.
The drug trade is deeply entrenched in Jamaica, which is the largest producer of marijuana in the region and where gangs have become powerful organized crime networks involved in international gun smuggling. It fuels one of the world’s highest murder rates; the island of 2.8 million people had about 1,660 homicides in 2009.
Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said “scores of criminals” from drug gangs across the Caribbean island had joined the fighting in the Kingston area, where the fear of gun violence has driven many to live behind gated walls with keypad entry systems and 24-hour security.
In a sun-splashed island known more for reggae music and all-inclusive resorts, the violence erupted Sunday afternoon after nearly a week of rising tensions over the possible extradition of Coke to the United States, where he faces a possible sentence of life in prison.
Coke is described as one of the world’s most dangerous drug lords by the U.S. Justice Department.
He leads one of the gangs that control politicized slums known as “garrisons.” Political parties created the gangs in the 1970s to rustle up votes. The gangs have since turned to drug trafficking, but each remains closely tied to a political party. Coke’s gang is tied to the governing Labor Party.
Civil aviation officials said some flights to Kingston were diverted Monday to the north coast tourist mecca of Montego Bay and a few flights were canceled altogether. U.S. officials have warned that access roads to the airport could be blocked by unrest.
The U.S. State Department said Monday it was “the responsibility of the Jamaican government to locate and arrest Mr. Coke.” A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman denied widespread rumors that U.S. officials were meeting with Coke’s lawyers.
Coke’s lead attorney, Don Foote, told reporters his legal team had planned to have talks with U.S. officials at the embassy but the meeting was canceled.
Foote refused to say whether Coke was hunkered down in the barricaded Tivoli Gardens slum or was somewhere else in the country.
In a national address Sunday night, Golding said the state of emergency order for Kingston and St. Andrew parish gives authorities the power to restrict movement. Security forces will also be able to conduct searches and detain people without warrants.
The U.S. extradition controversy and the ensuing violence has brought to the fore issues that have been simmering for a long time in Jamaica, specifically the links between the political parties and volatile slums that are virtually one-party garrisons.
Amid the escalating tension, the country’s civil society has been demanding through talk shows, blogs and Facebook groups that the government sever all links with powerful “community dons” like Coke.
“If Coke is somehow able to hold out and formally establish his community as a state within a state, then Jamaica’s future is bleak,” said Brian Meeks, a professor of government at Jamaica’s Mona campus of the University of the West Indies.