Kingston residents fear police more than drug dealer Michael ‘Dudus’ Coke

After days of bloodshed that turned Kingston into a warzone, the world now knows the name of fugitive drugs kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke. Tony Thompson, writing for London’s Telegraph, examines how his gang became so powerful in Jamaica – and beyond.  Here are some excerpts, with a link to the full text below.

Ask the people of Tivoli Gardens, Kingston’s most notorious “garrison” community, who they consider to be the greatest threat to their wellbeing and the answer is always emphatic: the police.

Little wonder. Prior to last week’s bloodshed the area had one of the lowest-reported crime rates throughout the entire city. Although murals of the prime minister, Bruce Golding, adorn many of the pastel-coloured four-storey blocks and low-rise homes, alongside graffiti urging the residents to support his Jamaica Labour Party, life here is controlled by a force far more powerful than any government.

According to the US State department, Michael “Dudus” Coke is a major drugs and arms trafficker but to those who have fought and died to defend him over the past week, he is the one they rely on to settle local disputes, ensure their children’s schoolbooks and shoes on their feet, that holes in their roofs get patched up and rubbish is collected. Most importantly, Dudus is the only one they can rely on to keep them safe from armed incursions by rival garrisons.

To grow up in Kingston is to grow up knowing death and violence from an early age. Each community is allied to and supported by one or other of the two main political parties – the JLP or the People’s National Party (PNP). Local MPs fight for seats by guaranteeing the desperately impoverished substantial financial aid for their communities in return for their support. It didn’t take long for those living in the worst ghettos to cotton on to the idea of using force to ensure votes in their area went a certain way or, better yet, that all those in a neighbouring community also fell in line.

Running battles between rival garrisons that started out with sticks and stones soon escalated thanks to an influx of guns. During the sixties Jamaica became a covert front in the cold war between the USA and the USSR. The PNP received guns and money from the Soviet Union via its links to Cuba while the JLP benefited in a similar fashion from the US authorities. Edward Seaga, leader of the latter party at the time, became known as CIAga.

Since then, the island has effectively been embroiled in a slow burning civil war, a conflict that flares up every now and then and most notably at election time. During the 1980 campaign, 844 people were killed in the space of two weeks, most of them on election day itself.

The death toll climbs because, particularly for the residents of the ghetto, voting a party to power isn’t so much about the broader issues of lower taxes or trade deficit as the specific personal matters of whether your homes gets connected to the local water and electricity supply and whether you can get treatment at your local hospital. It is quite literally life and death.

Violent tactics have and continue to be effective because Jamaican elections are often incredibly close.

In 1967 the JLP won with 224,180 votes while the PNP polled 217,207. In 2007 the JLP polled 405,215 votes to the PNP’s 402,275. Changing the voting pattern of a small number of communities can have a huge effect on the overall outcome.

The threat of violence is very real and uncompromisingly brutal. Last Wednesday while attention was focused on Tivoli Gardens, a group of gunmen from nearby St Catherine took advantage of the lighter-than-usual police presence to settle some old scores. In two separate incursions they killed eight people, ordering them out of their houses and shooting them in the streets. One of their victims was a three-month old child. It is his ability to prevent such tragedies in Tivoli Gardens that has won Dudus the love and respect of its residents.

As one Tivoli placard states: “First God, then Dudus.”

Quiet and unassuming, Dudus refuses to give interviews to the media, unlike other Kingston dons who regularly hog the limelight and revel in their notoriety, insisting on being seen at every club or party event, usually surrounded by dozens of scantily clad girls. Dudus, by contrast, is far quieter and has earned himself a reputation for being something of a thinker. A graduate of one of Kingston’s most prestigious high schools, he is said to be extremely bright and capable. The construction company he established, Incomparable Enterprise, still receives millions of dollars worth of government contracts each year, most of it geared towards repairs and renovations in Tivoli Gardens itself… Another of his ventures, Presidential Click, stages the island’s biggest weekly street dance, Passa Passa.

Despite his easy-going nature, he remains widely feared. Those foolish enough to challenge his brand of justice often end up dead, their bodies dumped in other parts of the city to ensure any head does not reflect back on the garrison itself. Within these communities, the power of the state wanes alongside the power of the dons themselves. The fact that Tivoli has such a low crime rate is at least in part due to a general terror of the potential consequences.

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