The smoke clears over Jamaica
Economist | Jun 8th 2010, 19:37
WHEN the Jamaican government announced on May 17th that it would comply with an American request to extradite Christopher "Dudus" Coke, an alleged drug trafficker, it didn't just declare war on the gang he reportedly leads. It also launched a campaign to overturn the country's malign social and political order. Since the 1970s, political parties have, in effect, outsourced the task of governing the island's "garrisons", or working-class neighbourhoods, to leaders of criminal gangs known as "dons", in exchange for their support during elections. The gang founded by Mr Coke's father has long reigned in the Tivoli Gardens garrison of Kingston, the capital. Moreover, it is thought to have close links to the Jamaica Labour Party of Bruce Golding, the prime minister, who represents the district.
The first battle in what will surely be a long struggle to dismantle these alliances took place the week after the extradition announcement. Mr Golding sent 2,000 police and soldiers to Tivoli Gardens to search for Mr Coke house by house. The elusive fugitive still remains at large, and there is now doubt as to whether he was even in Tivoli Gardens at the time. But four days of fighting there led to 73 civilian deaths. Now that the cloud of black smoke over the neighbourhood has cleared, some Jamaicans are starting to criticise how the operation was conducted—and to ask whether Mr Golding has a coherent strategy to root out organised crime.
By some measures, the government's initial salvo was a qualified success. For the first time in a generation, police can now act freely within Tivoli Gardens. Moreover, of the 60 dons on the country's most-wanted lists, 25 have already surrendered or been arrested, including both Mr Coke's brother and one of his business partners. In addition, the police say they discovered the blood-stained torture chamber of one gang member.
However, it appears that serious abuses may have been committed in the state's offensive. In the best-known case, security forces killed Keith Clarke, a 58-year-old accountant and the brother of a former cabinet minister, in a barrage of 20 gunshots at his home. Mr Clarke lived in Kirkland Heights, a wealthy area far from the main battlefield of Tivoli Gardens. But he had the misfortune to live next to one of Mr Coke's business partners, who presumably was the intended target of the raid and later voluntarily surrendered. Most of the other people killed in the operation were young men in Tivoli Gardens, which the government closed off to the media and outside observers during the assault, making it impossible to verify whether they were attacking security forces. The independent public defender's office plans to investigate accusations of excessive and unprovoked use of force.
Two other obstacles in Mr Golding's new fight against organised crime will be the political and fiscal consequences of disrupting the cozy ties between his party and the gangs. His predecessor as prime minister, Edward Seaga, previously represented Tivoli Gardens in Parliament for 43 years, and has been sharply critical of the raid. And his cash-strapped government, which faces crushing debt obligations, can hardly afford a costly increase in the security budget. The finance minister, Audley Shaw, has requested $1 billion in foreign aid to fight the mafias, which would represent 8% of GDP. A big grant of American money might be Mr Golding's best hope. But the United States has financial problems of its own, and would have to be convinced that the funds wouldn't be diverted to the very gangs they hope to defeat.
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