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Diplomacy and the Don – The Exposure of Jamaica’s Drug Trade
A storm is brewing in Jamaica that threatens to threaten the island’s already troubled economy and plunge its government into a diplomatic row with the United States. Last August, the US Department of Justice issued an extradition warrant for the arrest of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the reputed don of West Kingston’s notorious Tivoli Gardens Garrison. Coke, counted among the “world’s most dangerous drug kingpins” by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), is accused of trafficking firearms and conspiring to distribute marijuana and cocaine.
To date, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding has ignored mounting local and US pressure to sign the extradition warrant, citing violations of Jamaican laws to obtain wiretapped evidence and the protection of its citizens due process. But this is not an ordinary citizen.
Coke’s power and influence extends to the upper echelons of Jamaica and the current government. Community Coke Controls is a notorious stronghold of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and is Prime Minister Golding’s constituency; His defense attorney, Senator Tom Tavares-Finson, is a member of parliament.
More than a diplomatic standoff, the David-and-Goliath showdown threatens to expose decades of corruption in Jamaican politics. Moreover, it exposes the reality that both politics and criminal gangs are intricately intertwined in political parties. The ongoing diplomatic standoff has had a major impact on the popular tourist destination, which is heavily dependent on US support and generosity in the form of exports, tourism and remittances.
Then, a bombshell: A Washington Post article reported that last November, prominent American law firm Manett, Phelps & Phillips received about $50,000, one installment of a $400,000 settlement, to lobby against Coke’s extradition on behalf of the Jamaican government.
The agreement was signed by Manat’s partner Susan Schmidt and Kingston lawyer Harold Brady, who claimed to be “authorized on behalf of the Government of Jamaica” to make the deal, and was attended by Jamaica’s Minister of Information, Daryl Vaz. The deal violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), because the firm failed to declare the purpose and extent of their lobbying efforts, and because Coke financed the deal.
Although records filed by Manatt under FARA regulations say only “treaty issues” were discussed, White House officials confirm that the conversations focused primarily on Jamaica’s opposition to coke extradition. In a subsequent outcry, Prime Minister Golding denied that anyone had been authorized to act on behalf of the government and that the law firm had “ceased activities on behalf of the Government of Jamaica.” But questions remain, the most important of them: Who has the power to broker and finance such a deal, and why?
It’s all anyone, cab drivers, merchants, nurses, vendors, speaks on the island. As a testament to his power and reach, though, almost no one speaks on the record — university professors, journalists, friends or the man on the street — and inquiries are met with dead-eyes and disconnected phone lines. A palpable tension in downtown Kingston and across the island, is a restless unrest.
Impenetrable to outsiders, the entrances to the downtown garrison are barricaded with cement blocks, tires and old iron. They are patrolled by iron-eyed boy-men with automatic weapons slung at their sides, fingers never far from the trigger. The ghetto passes are not enough here, and the curiosity “Who are you?” Coke’s supporters – who are the military – insist he will not go down without a fight, and rumors about his preparations are rife.
Garrison communities – Tivoli, Trench Town, Forest, Fletcher’s Land and others – are self-governing, politically protected enclaves scattered according to party affiliation, patronized and controlled by “dons” and their gangs, who are the liaison between the community and the political. parties. Dons enjoy patronage and political patronage of party leaders, which keeps them away from law enforcement. In return, they finance political campaigns, distribute votes, fight wars to defend territories and maintain overall peace.
Despite their reputation for criminality and corruption, many dons benefit greatly from government contracts for construction, transportation and infrastructure, and in turn, use these legal businesses to launder money. They fill a void that successive governments seem unable and unwilling to address.
Case in point, Coke has been instrumental in revitalizing, restructuring and streamlining commerce and ensuring the safety and security of both vendors and shoppers in downtown Kingston. Now, business transactions and social interactions (such as the popular dancehall event, Pasa Pasa) are mutually beneficial, and money flows to poverty-stricken communities unlikely to benefit from tourist dollars or government subsidies.
He has also managed to prevent much of the violence and terror for which these regions are historically famous. But this peace comes at a steep price: There is no business that operates without paying a don’s henchmen—from established businesses and storefronts to produce market vendors. Denial means arson, intimidation and threats of violence without any legal recourse.
Politicians have ceded their power to gangsters and seem unable or unwilling to curtail the chaos they’ve helped create since they began arming gangs in inner-city Kingston and beyond. As the standoff intensifies, Jamaicans fear the return and devastation of violence and what will thrive in the vacuum created by his extradition.
Jamaicans are a famously proud people who will bow to the idea of anything and anyone, but many are bitterly resentful and outraged by the stench of decades of corruption, which they feel has tarnished the island’s image around the world. Regardless of the resolution, the bitter consequences are the unbearable prices regular Jamaicans struggle to survive.
America sharpens its tools
Flaying began with Jamaica’s prominence in the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which highlights the country’s many crimes. The report turns the spotlight on the “unusual handling of [Coke’s] extradition request” and notes a “dramatic change in Jamaica’s previous cooperation in extradition”, including a temporary suspension of processing of all other pending requests, which it says raises serious questions about the country’s commitment to combating international crime.
Criticizingly, the report highlights the “guns for marijuana” trade and labels the island as the “largest source of marijuana in the Caribbean” for the United States and a “transit point for cocaine trafficked from South America” and notes its “high per capita homicide rate.” –1,672 in 2009, one of the highest in the world.” It expresses concern over the “increasing activity of organized crime, which permeates the legitimate business sector as well as the political sphere, and its impact on Jamaica’s political and economic stability.”
US Charge d’Affaires for Jamaica, Isaiah Parnell, asserts that ties between the countries are strong, but Washington is waiting and doubting the government’s political will. Despite Prime Minister Golding’s statement that efforts are being made to strengthen bilateral cooperation to stem the tide of illegal guns and drugs, anti-corruption and anti-crime laws are stalled in Parliament.
To date, the United States has not appointed an ambassador to Jamaica, and recently, the visas of several prominent entertainers and businessmen have been revoked without warning. Many citizens are concerned that US visas will not be granted or renewed.
What options are there for Coke, who lives in a one-story mansion in the leafy suburbs of Kingston, miles away from the overcrowded slums he allegedly commands? His father, feared JLP strongman Lloyd Lester “Jim Brown” Coke, JLP promoter and leader of the Shower Posse – who funneled drugs and guns through the US and Jamaica for more than a decade – also found himself in the same predicament. Coke Sr. died in a mysterious fire in his cell at the General Penitentiary in February 1991, on the eve of his own extradition.
Currently, Jamaica continues to drag its political feet before the Supreme Court. Jamaican Attorney General Dorothy Lightbourne has filed a motion seeking a declaration addressing Coke’s extradition request. The hearing is scheduled for May 5.
As the high-stakes game of chicken continues, a country awaits: anxious, cautious, hopeful.
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