KINGSTON, Jamaica – After a slum raid that left nearly 50 people dead in four days of gunbattles, the reputed drug kingpin who was the target may have fled the country, the government said Wednesday.
Strongman Christopher Coke, who helped the prime minister win elected office, had months to stockpile weapons in his slum stronghold while the premier wavered over U.S. demands for his extradition.
"I could not say if he is in Jamaica," Information Minister Daryl Vaz said of Coke, who is known as "Dudus." "It's very difficult to tell."
Police and soldiers who fought their way into the barricaded Tivoli Gardens slum in gritty West Kingston were conducting a door-to-door search, and the government reported calm Wednesday. Coke's lawyer has declined to confirm his whereabouts.
Gray smoke was rising from recently extinguished fires inside Tivoli Gardens. Sporadic gunfire rang out elsewhere in West Kingston and security forces barred journalists from entering the battle zones around the capital on Jamaica's south coast, far from the tourist resorts on the north shore of the Caribbean island.
The violence did not surprise island police and community groups who warned that Coke had been stockpiling weapons and preparing to defend himself since the U.S. demanded his extradition last August. According to the U.S. indictment, he has built a private arsenal of firearms smuggled in by gang members in the United States, sharing guns with other criminals to solidify his power as a major underworld boss.
"The situation at Tivoli is dreadful, but it's been something that's been simmering for a long, long time. And everybody knew that if they made the move for Coke that there would be trouble," said Susan Goffe, spokeswoman for local human rights group Jamaicans for Justice.
At least 44 civilians have been killed, said Bishop Herro Blair, Jamaica's most prominent evangelical pastor, who was escorted into the slum by security forces. At least four soldiers and police officers also have died in the fighting.
Jamaican politicians and gang leaders who control ghetto fiefdoms have had cozy ties for decades. Political parties created Jamaica's street gangs in the 1970s to rustle up votes. Since then, the gangs have turned to drug trafficking, but they remain staunchly and often violently loyal to their parties and live in poor neighborhoods called "garrisons."
The slum presided over by Coke, the alleged leader of the "Shower Posse" gang, has long been a bastion of support for the governing Jamaica Labor Party. It is part of the district represented in parliament by Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who stonewalled the U.S. extradition request for months before reversing himself under pressure from Washington and the local political opposition.
Golding disputes the allegation that his party is close to Coke, and he is not known to have a personal relationship with Coke. But political observers say he could not have been elected to his parliament seat without the gang leader's support. A former prime minister from the same party, Edward Seaga, marched at the funeral of Coke's father, the gang leader known as Jim Brown, who died in a prison fire in 1992 while awaiting extradition to the U.S. on drug charges.
"There is a widespread perception that Coke is closely linked to the dominant JLP as evident in Golding's prevarication, maneuvering and ultimately dissembling on the matter of the extradition and on the related sideshow," said Brian Meeks, a professor at Jamaica's University of the West Indies.
Police rarely, if ever, patrol inside Coke's slum. The last time they attempted to assert control inside Tivoli Gardens, in 2001, clashes between gunmen and security forces killed 25 civilians, a soldier and a constable. Former police officials have said officers receive subtle messages to stay out of certain areas controlled by politically connected gang leaders.
Washington supports Jamaica's efforts to capture Coke. A federal indictment in New York accuses Coke of trafficking marijuana and cocaine to the U.S., and the U.S. Justice Department has named Coke one of the world's most dangerous drug kingpins.
"We support the bold steps taken by the government of Jamaica to enforce rule of law, protect its democracy, and combat the destabilizing effects of drug trafficking and related criminal activity," said Virginia Staab, a State Department spokeswoman.
The 41-year-old Coke, also known as "general" and "president," allegedly relied on a band of gunmen to keep control of Tivoli Gardens. He solidified his authority by dispensing charity and street justice in an area with little government presence.
Vaz, the information minister, said bosses like Coke have been able to thrive in part because Jamaica has failed the desperately poor slums.
"The necessary financial commitments have never been provided in these neighborhoods. That vacuum has been filled by these criminal elements," he said.
The 44 civilians killed inside the bullet-scarred slum were mostly males under age 30, said public defender Earl Witter, who toured the slum with Bishop Blair to probe for any human rights violations. In comments to the Jamaica Observer, he said they did not see any signs of abuses.
Since security forces occupied Tivoli Gardens, Vaz said the government has been delivering food and medicine to hundreds of needy residents.
But some slum residents complained that outsiders are not getting the full picture and victims are not receiving medical treatment in time.
One woman in Hannah Town, where fighting has been intense, told Radio Jamaica that a body of a local man known as "Prince" was just outside her home.
"He's lying in the gutter on our street," she said, her voice heavy with emotion.
Some observers say Coke could end up helping Jamaicans root out government corruption — if he's captured alive.
"If Coke is killed, the chances are very slim. If he sings and implicates members of both parties the hand of civil society will be strengthened to raise calls for a complete overhaul, including constitutional reform," said Barry Chevannes, a professor of social anthropology at the University of the West Indies.
Associated Press Writer Mike Melia in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.