KINGSTON, Jamaica – Security forces with M-16s and rotating machine guns at the ready on Sunday patrolled a hostile slum in Jamaica's capital where angry defenders of a fugitive underworld boss complained of unprovoked attacks and the deaths of innocents.
Nearly a week after security forces started a deadly four-day assault in search of reputed drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke, residents of the Tivoli Gardens slum, nicknamed the "wild, wild West," were trying to live their lives amid concertina wire and military checkpoints.
Children played on trash-strewn streets, as mostly older women headed to church in their Sunday best past soldiers and police in camouflage fatigues. The scent of marijuana mixed with the stench of urine and rotting garbage.
Slum dwellers across the bullet-pocked complex voiced rage and frustration at having to live alongside security forces who they see as an occupying army and accuse of killing innocent people during the fighting. They insist the death toll is higher than the official tally of 73.
"We are thankful that God spared our lives, but we are fearful of the soldiers," a woman who identified herself only as Lilleth told The Associated Press on Sunday as a military helicopter buzzed overhead. "I'm not saying everybody was innocent here, but we don't deserve this. More than 100 people died, many for nothing, no matter what they say."
Nearby, a small congregation gathered inside an evangelical church and reflected on the ordeals of the neighborhood, where the 41-year-old Coke solidified his authority by providing handouts, jobs and protection in a poor downtown area where the government and police typically have little presence.
Members of Coke's Shower Posse — a reputed drug gang with members in Jamaica and New York — and others began barricading his slum stronghold about two weeks ago following a televised announcement by Prime Minister Bruce Golding that he would approve Coke's extradition to the U.S. on drug- and gun-running charges.
Golding had previously blocked the extradition for nine months. He represents the Tivoli Gardens area in parliament, and Coke has helped the party receive a large number of votes from the slum. Despite the connection, Golding claimed the U.S. indictment relied on illegal wiretap evidence and that that was the reason for his opposition.
The bloody raid by authorities started Monday after a series of brazen attacks by gunmen, presumably supporters of Coke.
After the violence ended, Coke himself was nowhere to be found. Jamaica's top cop insisted that security forces will capture him and that their best intelligence indicates he is hiding somewhere on the tropical island.
Allegations of abuse are rampant across West Kingston, where Tivoli Gardens is located. During the operation, police blocked streets in the patchwork of gritty slums and prevented journalists from entering.
Across the street from the slum, a tavern owner insisted Sunday he witnessed young men being beaten to the ground by security forces and then shot execution-style.
"They execute the youth. ... See it with my own eyes. They go: Boom! Boom! Dem a wicked, man. And after, dem fabricate pure lies!" Charley Dread, a Rastafarian whose Northside Tavern has been largely empty since the violence, said in Jamaican patois.
Other locals claim bodies were left to lie for days in the streets, where they were partially eaten by stray dogs and rats. A young man who had been held for days at Kingston's National Arena said hundreds of detainees were forced to crawl around a filthy floor by interrogators and kicked as the officials sought information about Coke and gang activities.
Police say their offensive was launched after coordinated attacks by Coke's defenders, who shot up 14 police stations and burned two to the ground with Molotov cocktails to block Coke's extradition.
Security forces have shown what they say is evidence of homemade bombs, some attached to barricades of barbed wire and junked cars. They said they have recovered about two dozen firearms and 7,000 rounds of ammunition and that gangsters may have received help from "foreign sources." They did not elaborate.
The talk among Kingston residents is that most gangsters managed to escape through drainage sluices in gullies that crisscross the impoverished communities of West Kingston.
Information Minister Daryl Vaz has said that officials will work to identify decomposed bodies and that the government will conduct an independent investigation into police actions during the raid. He said Golding's government is "very concerned" about allegations of deliberate killings by security forces, which have long had a reputation for slipshod investigations and for being too quick on the trigger.
Police Commissioner Owen Ellingston told reporters that the force is determined to investigate every allegation of abuse. Military commanders have also pledged to take action if it is determined that extrajudicial killings were carried out.
The last time Jamaica's security forces attempted to assert control inside Tivoli Gardens, in 2001, clashes between gunmen and security forces killed 25 civilians, a soldier and a constable.
"This is not the first time, but it's the worst time," said a resident who only identified herself as Sonia.
When Coke controlled the area, Sonia said, she felt so safe in the community she kept her doors unlocked. On Saturday, she had two deadbolts installed.