Police claimed a tenuous hold over the Jamaican slum stronghold of a wanted gang leader today, but only after fighting that left at least 48 people dead.
Officers and soldiers were still battling hardcore defenders of Christopher “Dudus” Coke in pockets of Kingston’s Tivoli Gardens area.
And he was still at large after nearly three days of violence.
Bishop Herro Blair, Jamaica’s most prominent evangelical pastor, said independent tallies put the number of civilian dead at 44 in West Kingston alone. At least four soldiers and police officers also have died.
The country’s embattled Prime Minister Bruce Golding promised an independent investigation into all civilian deaths during the operation.
Bishop Blair and Jamaica’s public defender were escorted by security forces into Tivoli Gardens, where supporters of Coke began massing last week after Golding dropped his nine-month refusal to extradite him to the US.
Coke has ties to Mr Golding’s Labour Party, which gets a large number of votes from the Tivoli Gardens area where he is MP.
Yesterday he indicated he was taken aback by the intensity of the assault.
“The government deeply regrets the loss of lives, especially those of members of the security forces and innocent, law-abiding citizens caught in the crossfire. The security forces were directed to take all practical steps to avoid casualties as much as possible,” he said.
He vowed that the “most thorough investigations” would examine all deaths caused by security forces, which have a reputation for slipshod investigations and for being too quick on the trigger. He also said security agents would go after “criminal gunmen in whatever community they may be ensconced.”
Government officials told reporters all the dead civilians in West Kingston were men. But people inside the slums told local radio stations there had been indiscriminate shootings during the assault that police and soldiers launched on Monday.
The gunmen fighting for Coke say he provides services and protection to the poor West Kingston community – all funded by a criminal empire that seemed untouchable until the US demanded his extradition.
Coke has built a loyal following and turned the district into his stronghold. The US says he has been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York since the mid-1990s, allegedly hiring island women to hide the drugs on themselves on flights to America.
Mr Golding had delayed the US extradition request for nine months, straining relations. A US State Department report earlier this year questioned Jamaica’s reliability as an ally in the war against drugs, and Mr Golding’s stance drew domestic opposition that threatened his political career.
The government imposed a month-long state of emergency for the tense Kingston area on Sunday, after an eruption of violence by gangsters that security forces called unprovoked.
The unrest has not touched the tourist meccas along the island’s north shore, more than 100 miles from Kingston. However, Jamaican officials said they were very concerned about the impact on tourism.
“The entire Caribbean and the world is trying to pull itself out of a recession. This kind of hit, if one can call it that, comes at a very, very bad time,” said Wayne Cummings, president of Jamaica’s Hotel and Tourist Association.
Along the pitted and rubbish -strewn streets of West Kingston that few tourists ever see, residents say Coke is feared for his strong-arm tactics, but also is known for helping slum dwellers with grocery bills, jobs and school fees.
Coke’s influence extends well beyond the capital. Police say gunmen from gangs that operate under the umbrella of his Shower Posse elsewhere on the island have been flocking to his defence.
US federal prosecutors in New York say drug traffickers in the United States routinely sent Coke gifts, including clothes, accessories and car parts in recognition of his influence over the American cocaine trade.
“Mr. Coke is a strongman whose tentacles spread far and wide,” said the Rev. Renard White, a leader of a Justice Ministry peace initiative that works in Jamaica’s troubled communities.f