Jamaican Manhunt Raises Questions About Deaths

With the death toll at 73, Kingston residents are demanding an inquiry into the tactics of government forces in pursuit of an alleged drug lord.

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As Jamaican security forces widen their search for reputed drug lord Christopher Coke outside West Kingston, many are raising questions about the operation and its outcome. With Coke still at large after five days of searching, just 22 guns seized and 73 dead, security forces now have to answer to an independent inquiry that the Jamaica Government says will be established in a few days.

The Government says Public Defender Earl Witter will pick its members and head the probe into what some here see as indiscriminate use of force in what is turning out to be a messy operation. But Witter says his statutory powers allow him to initiate investigations on his own discretion since his office has received complaints of rights abuse.

But the complaints and recriminations are coming from all over. Amnesty International and a local group, Families Against State Terrorism, are demanding a full inquiry to determine if there were human rights violations by the security forces. The National Democratic Movement, a marginal political party that Prime Minister Bruce Golding once headed, is calling the raid on Coke's Tivoli Gardens neighborhood "a massacre."

Even former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who many see as the architect of this garrison community that Coke controlled, is critical of the operation and its aftermath and especially of Golding. He told a television reporter here: "I have never known a prime minister to display such a lack of moral rectitude." Seaga believes the security forces have been reckless in the way they went into the community and did not plan for the aftermath – food, water, medical attention and other supplies, and freedom of movement.

Carolyn Gomes, Executive Director of Jamaicans for Justice, a human rights group, told The Root: "It is unfortunate that the security forces went in with so much support but their position is now falling into question. And they have been very bad about providing information. Why has the body count jumped from 44 to 73? We are not told. This lack of information is fueling suspicion and concern?"  says Gomes.

Other serious issues have also surfaced that are likely to lose hearts and minds for the security forces, who had enjoyed immense support in the first few days of the operation. A detachment of police and soldiers were reportedly seen preparing to bury more than a dozen decomposing bodies in a cemetery. An assault on a house in an upscale community left a well-known businessman dead under questionable circumstances. Some young men released from among hundreds held in detention at the National Arena say they have been brutalized and tortured.

But the issue that is most troubling to observers is the small number of guns seized and the huge number of people killed. Civil society here is asking if most of the dead were combatants defending Coke’s turf, why have the security forces found so few weapons, although police say they found nearly 8,000 rounds of ammunition? A spokesman’s response was that while police have full control of Tivoli they have not finished searching the community and that they are likely to find more weapons.

Jamaicans have always seemed conflicted about approaches to fighting crime. There are constant cries that the police are not doing enough to stem the rampant murders and other violence. But charges of police abuse accompany every raid on the criminals. Making matters worse, nearly everything is politicized so that you can almost predict people’s position based on their party affiliation.

"There is a growing danger that partisan criticism begins to undermine the middle class support for this initiative,"  says Paget De Freitas, Editor, Gleaner Company Overseas Publications, "and if the security forces back off we won’t deal thoroughly with the problem crime has become."
De Freitas and others believe the police need to be professional enough to ensure the constitutional civil rights of Jamaican citizens but at the same time ought not relent in pursuit of criminal gangs and the terrorists. "This is Bruce Golding’s opportunity for any redemption of his reputation and possibly the future of his political party," De Freitas told The Root.

Knolly Moses, a former reporter for Newsweek, lives in Jamaica.