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Who controls the slums of Kingston?

May 27, 2010 |  1:35 pm


The death toll rose to more than 70 in the Jamaican capital on Thursday in the fifth day of skirmishes  between government forces and loyalists of a powerful drug lord in the Tivoli Gardens slum of Kingston. The search continues for Christopher "Dudus" Coke, a 41-year-old "don" who is wanted in the U.S. on drugs and weapons charges. But local news reports say Coke has already escaped from the area.

Video of the gun battles from a local newscast is available here.

Morgues in Kingston are almost full, reports the Jamaica Gleaner. The chief public defender in Kingston, Earl Witter, is also raising questions about the government's conduct in the raid on Tivoli Gardens: Police officers and soldiers have killed dozens of people but seized few weapons.

The security situation in Jamaica this week raises a more troubling and fundamental question, analysts say. Who really controls the streets in the tough parts of Kingston?

The answer gets to the heart of a historical and complex relationship between criminal gangs and political parties in Jamaica. Tivoli Gardens, for example, was built as a housing project in the late 1960s by the Labor Party, said Damien King, research director at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute. The party and Coke's gang, the Shower Posse, have more or less controlled the neighborhood ever since, ensuring prosperity for both but effectively isolating Tivoli Gardens from the Jamaican state, King said in an interview with La Plaza.

"Within a handful of inner-city communities, area leaders, or dons, as they are called, exercise a tremendous amount of control both politically and economically," King said. "Part of that control begins with who is allowed to live in the community to begin with. Only people loyal to the party are allowed to take up residence."

Slum dons such as Coke also control economic activity in their areas, King said. "If an outsider comes in to invest, the area leader would determine who is going to get employment on the project, and he would extort a contribution from the business activity," he said.

Tivoli Gardens, King said, is "the most tightly controlled and impenetrable of these communities."

This week's outbreak of violence, sparked by Prime Minister Bruce Golding's abrupt about-face on a U.S. extradition order for Coke, highlights the need for reform, Jamaican lawyer and extradition expert David Rowe said in an interview.

Golding faces tough questions about his party's ties to Coke, but is firing back at an ABC News report that cites U.S. sources calling the prime minister a "criminal affiliate" of the drug lord. If Washington OKd the airing of the allegation -- as Golding has claimed -- it is now making a reversal. Radio Jamaica reports that the U.S. State Department is distancing itself from the ABC News item, but the damage to Golding's legitimacy might have already been done.

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, whom the Jamaica Gleaner calls "the ideological architect of Tivoli Gardens," is openly criticizing Golding's handling of the Coke affair. As the slum smolders, Golding is  fighting for his political life. And Christopher "Dudus" Coke remains at large.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A wounded man is carried to a van in Kingston during violent clashes this week. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency, via The Guardian.