The capture of a notorious drug lord creates an opportunity to attack the link between crime and politics and narrow the alienation between the island nation's middle classes and its desperately poor urban residents.
Many in Jamaica are rejoicing at the capture of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the drug lord who has been extradited to the United States on charges of drug trafficking and gun running. Coke is reputed to be the head of the murderous Shower Posse, which was responsible for more than 1,000 killings in the United States during the 1980s and still holds sway in Kingston.
Despite the jubilation in some quarters, many naysayers--including some in the international press--argue that the loss of more than 70 lives in the hunt for Dudus in Kingston last month was in vain. They say that his capture and the surrender of dozens of other reputed drug "dons" in Kingston will merely lead to a new round of internecine murder to fill the power vacuum. But such a deterministic attitude seems unwise in assessing the situation in Kingston. There are reasons to believe that the events surrounding Coke's capture create a significant opportunity for change on the island.
The violence in Jamaica is the result of patronage politics run amok and magnified to horrifying proportions by the corrupting power of drug money. The drug dons have become more powerful in the handful of so-called garrison constituencies they control than the prime minister himself. The global drug trade has led to the creation of Jamaican posses in key U.S. markets, facilitating the flow of guns and money back to Kingston. Politicians who once controlled and provisioned the dons now depend on them for campaign funds, as well as political violence.
Coke's capture was preceded by an audacious challenge to the state, as residents of his West Kingston stronghold barricaded the road against security forces and demonstrated in the streets in his defense. There is evidence that gunmen from other volatile areas on the island were summoned to the area. A pitched battle with the security forces was launched, including attacks on an anti-terrorist police garrison and 14 police stations, one of which was burned to the ground. The Jamaican security forces prevailed, demonstrating a reassuring ability to crush the deeply troubling violence, which fell just short of an insurgency in the capital city.
More good news followed the defeat of the gunmen, as security forces recovered more than 100 firearms, thousands of rounds of ammunition, numerous informal improvised explosive devices and other deadly traps in West Kingston. So entrenched had the Shower Posse been in this neighborhood, which was also Dudus' headquarters, that the police dared not enter. But the offensive to capture Dudus enabled the security forces to demolish much of the infrastructure that had sustained the gang.
The rehabilitation of West Kingston must, however, also include a battle for the hearts and minds of the residents. Jamaican civil society is complicit in the power of drug dons. The desperately poor urban communities have largely been ignored by the middle classes, giving rise to deep loyalty to the dons for their largess. Furthermore, both the government and the private sector have awarded lucrative contracts to the front organizations established by the dons.
The government's decision to extradite Dudus, after months of resistance, was the result of united outrage in Jamaican society. Thus, the initiative against Coke and his gang has led to a new level of openness among civil society. Leading figures in the private sector have decried their own complicity in doing business with organizations operated by drug gangs and pledged greatly expanded support for social services in West Kingston.
At the same time, churches and faith-based organizations have launched an initiative to step into the leadership vacuum and begin to fill the role played by Coke there. If they are successful in attracting substantial funding from international organizations such as the World Bank, they have the potential to permanently end their dependence on the drug dons. This is of great significance in what has been termed the "mother of all garrisons" in Jamaica.
There are also very important political implications. Since West Kingston has been a key stronghold for the current ruling party in Jamaica, there is now a powerful incentive--and a clear call from civil society--to continue the task of cleaning up other garrison communities, especially those that support the opposition party. While it is not clear that the government has the means to continue the campaign in all 18 garrison communities, the fall of the leading garrison, and the potential for eradicating the others, is extremely important.
Finally, the safe arrival of Coke in New York last week is also a positive sign. It raises the hope that Dudus, in an effort to arrange a plea bargain, will give up corrupt politicians and other middle-class Jamaicans who have been involved in his illegal activities, and perhaps even in murder. This development would no doubt bring down the current government in Jamaica and might serve as a cautionary lesson to other corrupt politicians and those facing similar temptations.
The problem of political violence, drug trafficking and the nexus of the two is massive and long standing in Jamaica. And the arrest of a single individual will not undo that knot. But the developments surrounding Coke's capture open an avenue for substantial change in Jamaica.
Jacqueline Rivers is a doctoral student in sociology and African American studies at Harvard University and a native of Jamaica.