Jamaican leader under fire over violent siege

After four days of violence, accused drug lord Christopher Coke remained at large and reportedly trying to work a deal for extradition to the US, as opposition mounted over the handling of the offensive to capture him, the Miami Herald reports.

 For Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding, it was a Catch-22: turn over a drug lord and see bloodshed, or refuse and watch his government crumble.

He chose the prior.

With the Jamaican police under attack, Golding launched an offensive to find suspected drug trafficker Christopher “Dudus” Coke, Jamaica Labor Party loyalist, neighborhood capo, and now fugitive who the prime minister had protected for nearly a year.

The bloodshed that erupted this week after Golding’s approval of an extradition order threatens the prime minister’s weak grasp on power, as opposition lawmakers call for his ouster.

Coke’s supporters took on government security forces in public gun battles that cost at least 48 lives, including 44 civilians — mostly men under 30. Another 500 people are in custody. After four days of sporadic violence and the virtual shutdown of large swaths of Kingston, Coke remained at large.

“This has totally gotten out of his hands, and how can you be prime minister if you let it get out of hand?” asked Omar Neath, 27, a sidewalk vendor who was trying to confirm rumors that his brother, who lives in Coke’s Tivoli Gardens stronghold, had been killed during the fighting.

“There is nobody in all of Jamaica who wants to see that man right now.”

As Tivoli Gardens residents remained under lockdown, cordoned off by soldiers, trapped by violence and running out of food, marauding gunmen seemed to have stepped indoors. From 6 p.m. Tuesday to 6 a.m. Wednesday, no one was killed, the government announced.

The guns now being touted are political, and they are aimed at Golding.

The opposition People’s National Party has said it will ask for Golding’s censure when parliament convenes next week. If they gather enough support for a no-confidence vote, Golding would have to step aside or hold general elections.

“There needs to be a greater level of accountability,” said opposition lawmaker Peter Phillips, the former defense minister.

But Golding’s Jamaica Labor Party holds a slim majority in the parliament, meaning members will have to defect in order for the opposition to successfully push a vote of no confidence.

Golding’s party could also force him to step aside, so they can pick a new prime minister and salvage the administration.

“As the deaths pile up, he’s going to have a hard time staying in office,” said Jane Cross, director of the Caribbean Law Program at Nova Southeastern University Law Center in South Florida. “This is pretty much a mess.”

Golding’s office and other government leaders referred all media calls to Minister of Information Daryl Vaz, who said the prime minister is not worried about a possible censure vote.

“It wouldn’t be the first time, and if it does happen, we will deal with it. We are not worried about it,” Vaz told The Miami Herald. “There was no easy road as it relates to the situation here.”

Coke is accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of being the leader of the notorious Shower Posse, a gang that ran Colombian cocaine through Jamaica up the East Coast of the United States. The gang violence dates back to the 1980s, when legend has it the group got its name for showering bullets on rivals.

Coke was indicted in August by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court in New York and accused of two counts of trafficking in drugs and weapons.

Both political parties are said to have long-standing ties with gangland kingpins who can deliver votes and tame the opposition in their neighborhoods. Coke’s ally was the prime minister.

Golding refused Washington’s extradition request for nine months, saying the wiretap was illegal and violated international treaties.

After months of denials, Golding admitted that he sanctioned the Jamaica Labor Party’s hiring of Los Angeles law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which lobbied the U.S. State Department on the kingpin’s behalf.

“In the eyes of the general public, he has compromised himself, and he cannot be believed,” said Mark Wignall, a political analyst and columnist for the Jamaica Observer. “I think he’s on a knife edge right now.”

The Jamaican Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s most powerful business group, defended Golding. Members asked him for an apology and full disclosure, and got both.

But the pressure for Golding to resign over the lobbyist scandal was so intense last week that the prime minister abruptly changed his mind and agreed to allow Coke to face a U.S. court.

“This was a last-ditch effort to save himself, and the sad thing is that the Jamaicans who got caught in the middle were killed,” Cross said. “What responsible political leader would make that trade-off?”

The price was high.

Gunmen barricaded the neighborhood, set fire to police stations and killed officers. The military and police stormed the garrison Monday.

By Wednesday, west Kingston was relatively empty. Most businesses were closed. Street people dug through debris as shop owners longed for the reopening of the Coronation Market, which Coke is credited for keeping safe.

The government urged businesses to open Thursday and planned to reopen schools next week.

“If [Golding] had gone after Coke eight months ago, this wouldn’t be such a problem,” said Desmond Brooks, 43, a landscaper who lives close to a police station that was attacked by Coke gang members. “He should step down. That would be the right thing to do.”

 For more, including additional photos, go to http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/05/26/v-fullstory/1650080/jamaican-leader-under-fire-over.html

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