Letter From Jamaica

The government's refusal to extradite an alleged drug lord to the United States raises concerns about corruption.

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Jamaica finds itself in a pickle with the United States at a time when its economic woes suggest it needs more friends than enemies. The government of Prime Minister Bruce Golding stalled for months on a U.S. extradition request for Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the strongman, or Don, as they are called here, from Tivoli Gardens, the island's infamous garrison community. (Garrison communities are closely linked to one particular political party, are run by a Don and his henchmen, restrict access to outsiders and law enforcement officers, and exercise their own law.)

When he finally responded, Golding came down on the side of his constituent, often described here as a businessman. Golding told U.S. officials that since the indictment against Dudus was based on evidence gathered from wiretaps, which are illegal here, it could not honor the request.

Furious American law enforcement officials have since promised to resubmit a case without the evidence obtained in the wiretaps. While that may pave the way for face-saving on both sides, it hasn't stopped the debate here about the close relationship Jamaican politicians continue to have with Dons.

Many Jamaicans are outraged at what they see as a flimsy excuse for the government to protect someone most regard as a common criminal whose illegal activities stretched from Kingston to the United States. Civil society has long called for politicians from both Golding's Jamaica Labour Party and the opposition People's National Party to dissociate from Dons.

But the traditionally close relationship has been hard to break. Dudus is the Don of Tivoli Gardens, the center of the prime minister's parliamentary seat, which was previously held for 43 years by former Prime Minister Edward Seaga.

The U.S. indictment charges that Dudus is the leader of the Shower Posse, a violent gang that allegedly murdered more than 1,000 people in Jamaica and the United States in the 1980s. His father, Lester Coke, was the leader then, and died in a jail fire in 1992, the day before the United States was to extradite him on drug and murder charges.

Dudus is facing charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana and conspiracy to illegally traffic in firearms brought by the U.S. Southern District of New York. The Justice Department has him on its "world's most dangerous" list. If convicted under the Extradition Treat, he will face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

This debacle comes at a bad time for Jamaica. Slow to acknowledge the local impact of the global recession, the Jamaica Labour Party government seemed to have stumbled from one ill-conceived plan to the next. First there was a sort of John McCain denial, with the finance minister saying Jamaica had nothing to worry about. When Prime Minister Bruce Golding got a reality check, his response was a poorly constructed stimulus plan that the business community here saw as a flop.

When matters got worse, he announced punishing new taxes that drew so much ire he quickly backed down and rescinded many of them. Soon after, the government took more heat for getting temporary loans from the country's central bank and state agencies.

The causes of the economic problems are varied. Jamaica's once-flourishing bauxite industry has almost disappeared overnight because of declining prices in world markets and the energy inefficiency of Jamaica's bauxite plants--when prices dipped. They were the first to be closed by the multinationals.