Jamaica Faces a Defining Moment

The government's effort to arrest an alleged drug lord puts the island nation on the brink of civil war.

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The simmering tensions in Jamaica's lawless West Kingston turned vicious Monday as thugs fought fierce gun battles with the island's security forces to prevent the arrest of Christopher "Dudus" Coke for extradition to the United States. He is wanted here (in the US) for drug trafficking and weapons smuggling.

Tivoli Gardens, Dudus' stronghold in West Kingston, and several other areas of the city took on the dimensions of a civil war as it became clear that his supporters are ready to die for him. And some of them have.

Since the fighting started on Sunday, after the Government imposed a State of Emergency, at least two security force members and several gunmen have been reported killed. Many police, soldiers and gunmen have also been wounded. Dudus supporters also attacked five police stations, burning one to the ground and firebombing another.

Most troubling is the sporadic outbreaks of gunfire, fires and roadblocks in other areas of the city. Teams from the security forces removing roadblocks often came under fire and new barricades appear when others are taken down. These incidents outside West Kingston fed fear in the city's population, which mostly stayed home on Monday instead of participating in several scheduled Jamaica Labor Day projects.

The security forces say their offer to give law-abiding citizens in affected communities safe passage out remain active. But calls to the media from people inside Tivoli suggested that the fighting has been too intense for anyone to try to leave.

As of late Monday Dudus, the leader of the infamous Shower Posse, is still at large and no one seems to know how long the assault will last. Kingston's corporate area is not likely to return to normal Tuesday since public transport may not be in service, many schools will remain closed and some businesses plan not to open. Sunday night there was sporadic looting when there was a power failure in parts of downtown Kingston.

Authorities seem determined that this operation will only end when Dudus is arrested and when the security forces have cleaned out Tivoli Gardens of the many guns said to be stashed there. It is believed that Dudus fears detention in Jamaica since his father died in jail. All this could mean a prolonged battle for control of the garrison community.

But support in the population for the operation is widespread. "It is a threat to the authority of the state and to our democracy and it is a threat to be faced head on and with resolve," said Joseph Matalon, President of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica. "We support entirely the efforts of law enforcement and call on all of Jamaica to support them in this war," said Peter Bunting, the security spokesman for the opposition People's National Party.  Mark Shields, a former deputy police commissioner, said on radio "We have to bring this monster of crime under control."  Peter Phillips, a security minister in the previous administration said: "It is important for this challenge to the state to be defeated."

In a brief message to the nation Sunday after the State of Emergency was announced, Prime Minister Bruce Golding said: "Jamaica must confront this criminal element with determination and unqualified resolve." But it was his lack of resolve to settle the extradition issue that stoked the firestorm now underway in West Kingston. After a United States request to hand over Coke last August, Golding dawdled for several months, and finally refused, claiming that some of the evidence used to indict Coke was illegally obtained using wiretaps. Since Coke is one of his constituents - Golding is the MP for West Kingston - few believed it was anything but a stalling tactic.

When he admitted on May 11 that he had sanctioned the hiring the American law firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips to lobby the U.S. on Coke's extradition, many business and civic groups called for him to resign. The admission was seen as evidence that Jamaican politicians at the highest level are in bed with criminals. Golding then reversed himself and agreed to the extradition, and apologized to the nation.