« The President » in Jamaica is on the run. The nickname given to Christopher «Dudus» Coke, an alleged gang leader, can be confusing to those who are unfamiliar with the politics of country whose head of state is in fact Queen Elizabeth II. Coke earned his nickname of «The President» not because of any formal political activity, but rather due to his massive behind-the-scenes influence, which often rivals that of state institutions.
Coke's notorious "Shower Posse" is one of many criminal networks that have grown powerful based on an implicit harmony of interests with Jamaica's ruling political parties. The gangs' ultimate loyalties, however, are only to themselves. The deadly confrontations which erupted after police attempted to arrest Coke are sad proof of this fact.
It may seem paradoxical for some observers, but the reason why the situation deteriorated in to violence on May 24th is neither Coke's presence, nor his activities in Tivoli Gardens, a west Kingston neighbourhood and home riding to Jamaica's Prime Minister. Rather, the roots of the current crisis can be traced back to the the green light finally given by the government to arrest him. Prime Minister Bruce Golding put an end to months of pressure by the United States, which wants Coke to stand trial for drug trafficking and gun-running. Prepared for an eventual police operation aimed at taking him into custody, Coke fled (and remains at large) while his supporters prevented any «intrusion» in Tivoli Gardens.
The clash between security forces and Coke's loyalists ended in a bloodshed as the police, responsible for at least one out of seven homicides on the island, killed dozens of people, not all of them Coke loyalists. Equally worrisome, some of these deaths may have been intentional, as police and military forces allegedly entered Tivoli Gardens and killed unarmed men.
In the background of this violence, one can find an intertwined and complex relationship between Jamaica's political parties and locals bosses, such as Coke. Jamaica's two main parties, the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and left-wing the People's National Party (PNP) both established links with gangs in the 1970s. Led by local dons, these gangs originally existed to guarantee a favourable vote in their district. But as the gangs became involved in criminal activities, the balance of power has shifted, and many gangs such as Coke's "Shower Posse" have created what Jamaicans call "garrisons." These are enclaves within which the state has no role in the lives of citizens and all public services depend on the local don. In Tivoli Gardens, Cook oversaw funerals, medical clinics, schools, and even distributed Christmas presents to children. When citizens do access state-provided services, their use of those services would often be impossible without subsidies provided by Coke. Lastly, and most importantly, the police do not operate there, and residents come to Coke in search of justice.
Despite the void left by the state, Tivoli Gardens is a stronghold of the JLP. In 2007, Prime Minister Golding was easily elected in the Kingston Western constituency - which includes Tivoli Gardens - by obtaining 6,5 times as many votes as his opponent from the PNP. Citizens living in the area of the capital where clashes took place may be socially marginalized but they seem eager to participate in politics. Electors from Western Kingston are, according to election results, among the most participative on the island. This might explain in part why the Jamaican government was so reluctant to extradite Coke, going as far as retaining a California law firm to fight the US extradition order in federal courts.
But on May 17th, Prime Minister Golding declared that Jamaican courts would enforce the US extradition request. This was followed by unrest in Tivoli Gardens, including the erection of barricades along the roads and eventually attacks on 14 police stations. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency which granted security forces sweeping powers of search, seizure and detention. Armed with enhanced legal authority and heavy firepower, police and military units stormed Tivoli Gardens. After running gun battled with pro-Coke militants, they conducted a house-to-house sweep. The results of the operation so far include an official death toll of over 70 people, 500 arrests, dozens of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition seized. Meanwhile... Coke remains at large.
Countries in the hemisphere have supported the government and authorities' operation aimed at establishing "law and order". Given the way recent events unfolded, this may however not be a fully adequate message to send. Indeed, it remains to be seen if law and order were motives for launching the operation in the first place. Moreover, as Coke's loyalists attacked authorities, the latter, overwhelmed, may have forgotten that "order" cannot be imposed at the expense of "law" (at least in a democratic state). Although full support should be given to police and military who put their lives in danger for fighting criminals, one should recall that the ice is often very thin and that authorities (or elements within them) can easily turn into agents of violence either due to lack of training or due to "affinities" with criminal interests. If non-intervention is not an option, neither is selectively going after criminals in "certain cases", in "certain ways" and in "certain neighbourhoods". Coke, the Shower Posse, and other gangs represent a threat to Jamaica's stability long before the US pressed for his extradition, and it is worrisome that foreign pressure was the main catalyst for the Jamaican government to act.
Yet the policy failures which allowed Coke to rise to power in the first place go beyond law enforcement, a fact which many members of the Jamaican government may not be prepared to acknowledge publicly. The following exchange between the BBC and Karl Samuda, Jamaica's Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce is particularly revealing:
BBC: Do you think [the government's crackdown] comes as much comfort to the people living in Tivoli Gardens and... other poor neighborhoods who see people like Dudus Coke as heroes because they provide the social facilities that your government fails to?
Karl Samuda: Well quite frankly I don't think that there's a great difference in the [state's] approach to persons who are able to provide some degree of support for people who are particularly needy at any given time. What we are to ensure is that the means by which that support is given is obtained legally and that community is prepared to abide by the rule of law.
There may or may not be a difference between the state's reaction to Coke and its hypothetical reaction to a less socially-minded class of criminals. But there should be. By treating Coke like a common (if well-armed) criminal, Jamaica's political leaders may have missed the underlying issue: a failure by the state to meet citizens' basic needs. This void is filled by criminal networks such as the Shower Posse, allowing them to gain the trust and loyalty of local inhabitants, and "crowding out" state loyalties. The result is complex: garrison communities like Tivoli Gardens are not areas of no-law; what seems like anarchy from the state's perspective is actually the displacement of state institutions by rival sources of authority, i.e., the existence of "states within a state."
Jamaica's murder rate is the highest in the Caribbean, and among the highest in the hemisphere. Thus curbing criminal interests represent a real challenge for Jamaica and other democracies where seeing dead bodies on the news is part of the daily grind. In many countries, drug-related violence has risen to a level where the number of deaths (inflicted by authorities or not) surpasses the level of violence that prevailed under non-democratic governments. It goes without saying, authorities ought to play a major role in curbing this violence. But in the short-run let us turn to citizens caught in the middle of ongoing power struggles. Giving citizens full access to justice and state services is certainly a good way to start. A question that the international community could now ask to Prime Minister Golding is "who will fill the void left by the recent operation in Tivoli Gardens?".
Michael Shortt and Charles-André Goulet hold a Masters degree in Political Science from McGill University. Michael Shortt studied at Sciences Po Paris while obtaining his degree and returned to McGill University to study law. Charles-André Goulet is a PhD student in Political Science at the Institut des Hautes Études de l'Amérique Latine, Paris 3. His research deals with public opinion and electoral behavior.
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