Diplomacy and the Don – The Exposure of Jamaica’s Drug Trade

There is a thunderstorm raging over Jamaica that threatens to capsize the island’s already hobbled economy and put its government in a diplomatic quandary with the United States. Last August, the U.S. Department of Justice issued an extradition warrant for the arrest of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, reputed don of West Kingston’s infamous Tivoli Gardens garrison. Coke, counted among the “world’s most dangerous narcotics kingpins” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), has been charged with conspiracy to traffic firearms and to distribute marijuana and cocaine.

To date, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding has ignored increasing local and U.S. pressure to sign the extradition warrant, citing breach of Jamaican law in obtaining the wiretapped evidence and the protection of its citizens to due process. But this is no ordinary citizen.

The tentacles of Coke’s power and influence stretch across Jamaica and in to the upper echelons of the current government. The community Coke controls is a notorious stronghold of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and is Prime Minister Golding’s constituency; his defense attorney, Senator Tom Tavares-Finson, is a member of Parliament.

More than a diplomatic stalemate, the David-and-Goliath showdown threatens to expose the corruption that for decades has been intrinsic to Jamaican politics. Moreover, it underscores the reality that politics and criminal gangs remain intricately linked in both political parties. The ongoing diplomatic stalemate has vast repercussions for the popular tourist destination, which relies heavily on U.S. support and magnanimity in the form of exports, tourism and remittances.

Then, a bombshell: A Washington Post article reported that last November, prominent U.S. law firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips received nearly $50,000, an installment toward a $400,000 contract, to lobby on behalf of the government of Jamaica against Coke’s extradition.

The agreement was signed by Manatt partner Susan Schmidt and Kingston lawyer Harold Brady, who claimed he was “authorized on behalf of the government of Jamaica” to make the deal and attended by Daryl Vaz, Jamaica’s Minister of Information. The agreement violates the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), because of the firm’s failure to declare the purpose and extent of their lobbying efforts and because Coke financed the contract.

Though records filed by Manatt under FARA regulations state that only “treaty issues” were discussed, White House officials confirm that conversations were primarily focused on Jamaica’s opposition to extraditing Coke. In the ensuing furor, Prime Minister Golding has denied that anyone was authorized to act on the government’s behalf, and the law firm has since “ceased activities on behalf of the Government of Jamaica.” But questions remain, foremost among them: Who has the power to broker and finance such a deal and why?

It is all anyone, cab drivers, businessmen, nurses, vendors, speaks of on the island. As testament to his power and reach, though, almost no one will speak on record — not university professors, journalists, friends or the man on the street — and inquiries are met with dead-eyed stares and disconnected phone lines. A palpable tension hovers over downtown Kingston and across the island, a restless disquiet.

Impenetrable to outsiders, the entrances to downtown garrisons are barricaded with cement boulders, tires and old iron. They’re patrolled by steely eyed boy-men with automatic weapons hanging at their sides, fingers not far from the trigger. Ghetto passes do not suffice here, and curiosity is answered with a strident “Who you?” Coke’s supporters – who are legion – insist he will not go without a fight, and rumors are rampant about his preparedness.

Garrison communities – Tivoli, Trench Town, Jungle, Fletcher’s Land and others – are self-governing, politically protected enclaves striated according to party affiliation, dependent on and controlled by “dons” and their gangs, who are the liaison between the community and political parties. Dons receive the patronage and political protection of party leaders, which insulates them from law enforcement. In exchange, they finance political campaigns, deliver votes, wage wars to protect territories and maintain peace overall.

Despite their reputation for criminality and corruption, many dons benefit enormously from government contracts for construction, transportation and infrastructure, and, in turn, utilize these legal businesses to launder money. They fill a gap that successive governments seem unable and unwilling to tackle.

In point, Coke has been instrumental in resurrecting, restructuring and streamlining commerce and ensuring the safety and protection of both vendors and buyers in downtown Kingston. Now, business transactions and social interactions (such as the popular dancehall event, Passa Passa) are mutually beneficial, and money flows in to poverty-stricken communities that are unlikely to benefit from tourist dollars or government subsidies.

He’s also managed to stem much of the violence and terror for which these areas are historically renowned. But this peace comes at a steep price: There is no business that operates without paying up to a don’s henchmen–from established businesses and storefronts to produce sellers in the markets. Refusal means arson, intimidation and the threat of violence with no legal recourse.

Politicians have ceded their power to gangsters and appear unable or unwilling to mitigate the chaos they helped create since they began arming the gangs of inner city Kingston and beyond. As the deadlock tightens, Jamaicans are fearful of the return to and breakout of violence and what will flourish in the vacuum created by his extradition.

Jamaicans are a famously proud people who balk at the notion of bowing to anything and anyone, but many are bitterly angry at and exasperated by the putrid odor of decades-long corruption, which they feel sullies the island’s image across the world. No matter the resolution, in the bitter aftermath, the unbearable price will be paid by regular Jamaicans struggling to eke out a living.

The U.S. Sharpens Its Tools

The flailing began with Jamaica’s prominence in the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which lays bare the country’s many transgressions. The report turns the spotlight on the “unusual handling of [Coke’s] extradition request” and notes the “dramatic change in Jamaica’s previous cooperation on extradition,” including a temporary suspension in the processing of all other pending requests, which it says raises serious questions about the country’s commitment to combating transnational crime.

Damningly, the report highlights the “guns for ganja” trade and labels the island “the Caribbean’s largest source of marijuana” for the United States and “a transit point for cocaine trafficked from South America,” and cites its “high murder rate per capita–1,672 in 2009, one of the highest in the world.” It expresses concern over “the increasing activity of organized crime, which permeates the legitimate business sector as well as the political sector, and its impact on Jamaica’s political and economic stability.”

Despite assertions by the U.S. charge ‘d’affaires to Jamaica, Isaiah Parnell, that ties remain strong between the countries, Washington is growing weary of waiting and skeptical of the government’s political will. Despite Prime Minister Golding’s assertions that efforts are being made to strengthen bilateral cooperation to stem the tide of illegal guns and drugs, anticorruption and anticrime legislation still languishes in Parliament.

To date, the United States has yet to appoint an ambassador to Jamaica, and recently, the visas of several prominent entertainers and businessmen have been revoked without warning. Many citizens are worried that U.S. visas will not be granted or renewed.

What options lay ahead for Coke, who resides in a storied mansion in the verdant suburbs of Kingston, miles away from the congested slums he purportedly commands? His father, feared JLP strongman Lloyd Lester “Jim Brown” Coke, JLP enforcer and leader of the Shower Posse — that for over a decade funneled drugs and guns through the U.S. and Jamaica — also found himself in the same predicament. Coke Sr. died in a mysterious fire in his cell at the General Penitentiary on the eve of his own extradition in February 1991.

Currently, the political foot dragging continues before the Jamaica Supreme Court. Jamaica Attorney General Dorothy Lightbourne has filed a motion seeking a declaration on the handling of the extradition request for Coke. A hearing is set for May 5th.

As the high stakes game of chicken continues, a country waits: anxious, vigilant, hopeful.

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