KINGSTON, Jamaica – Security forces gained a tenuous hold on the slum stronghold of a powerful reputed drug lord, while Jamaica's embattled leader promised an independent investigation into the roughly 26 civilian deaths during the operation.
Thousands of police and soldiers have stormed the Tivoli Gardens ghetto in search of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who is wanted by the U.S. on drug and gun charges. Three days of street battles with heavily armed supporters of the underworld boss had claimed at least 30 lives by late Tuesday.
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The fight with gang gunmen has spilled into troubled areas just outside the capital, Kingston, and complaints are rising that innocents are being caught in indiscriminate gunfire.
In a Tuesday address to legislators, Prime Minister Bruce Golding indicated he was taken aback by the intensity of the assault in the heart of West Kingston's ramshackle slums, which he represents in Jamaica's Parliament.
"The government deeply regrets the loss of lives, especially those of members of the security forces and innocent, law-abiding citizens caught in the crossfire. The security forces were directed to take all practical steps to avoid casualties as much as possible," he said.
Golding vowed that the "most thorough investigations" would be undertaken to examine all deaths caused by security forces, which have developed a reputation for slipshod investigations and for being too quick on the trigger. In the same speech, he also said security agents would go after "criminal gunmen in whatever community they may be ensconced."
Government officials told reporters all the dead civilians in West Kingston were men. But distressed people inside the slums who called local radio stations asserted there had been indiscriminate shootings during the all-out assault that police and soldiers launched Monday.
Security forces on Tuesday only permitted two government investigators and Red Cross staff to enter the Tivoli Gardens area, where supporters of Coke began massing last week after Golding dropped his nine-month refusal to extradite him to the U.S. Coke has ties to Golding's Labour party, and Tivoli Gardens delivers significant votes for it.
Coke was still at large despite the assault on his stronghold, National Security Minister Dwight Nelson said.
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 U.S. demanded his extradition.
Coke has built a loyal following and turned 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 island women to hide the drugs on themselves on flights to the U.S.
Members of Coke's Shower Posse and affiliated gangs began barricading his stronghold last week following Golding's abrupt reversal on Coke's extradition on drug- and gunrunning.
Golding had stonewalled the U.S. request for nine months, straining relations. A U.S. State Department report earlier this year questioned the Caribbean island's reliability as an ally in the war against drugs, and Golding's stance drew domestic opposition that threatened his political career.
The government imposed a monthlong state of emergency for the tense Kingston area Sunday, after an eruption of violence by gangsters that security forces called unprovoked.
The violence has not touched the tourist meccas along the island's north shore, more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Kingston, or the nearby Montego Bay airport. However, Jamaican officials said they were very 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, president of Jamaica's Hotel and Tourist Association.
Along the pitted and trash-strewn streets of West Kingston that few tourists ever see, residents say Coke is feared for his strong-arm tactics, but also is known for helping slum dwellers with grocery bills, jobs and school fees.
Coke's influence extends well beyond the capital. Police say gunmen from gangs that operate under the umbrella of his Shower Posse elsewhere on the island have been flocking to his defense.
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.
"Mr. Coke is a strongman whose tentacles spread far and wide," said the Rev. Renard White, a leader of a Justice Ministry peace initiative that works in Jamaica's troubled communities.