On June 22, Jamaican police arrested Christopher “Dudus” Coke in the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood of Kingston and immediately delivered him into U.S. custody. Coke was captured after a bloody siege that left 73 people dead. Tivoli Gardens is one of the city’s “garrison communities,” virtually autonomous communities that are typically linked to one of the country’s political parties and off limits to the city’s law enforcement authorities.
Many Jamaicans are hoping that Coke will reveal the long history of connections between the country’s political leaders, its business elite, and its gunmen in the street. Such revelations are likely to illuminate the connections among the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP, the country’s conservative political party), the government, gangsters, and the past actions of the CIA, which helped create one of Jamaica’s most powerful organized crime organizations, the Shower Posse. These links are ever more important as the United States is poised to invest millions of dollars to make the Caribbean its newest front in the drug war, ostensibly fighting some of the same personalities and groups they helped create.
On June 25 Coke was charged by a grand jury in New York with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine, and to traffic firearms from 1994 to 2007. The United States requested his extradition in August 2009, but Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding rejected the request, claiming that the evidence against Coke was obtained illegally.
Golding even went so far as to hire the California law firm Manatt, Phelps, and Phillips to lobby against the extradition request. Many speculate that he went to such lengths because he owes much of his political success to Coke, Jamaica’s most infamous gangster. Golding presides over the electoral district of West Kingston, where Tivoli Gardens is located and the Shower Posse is based. Only after nine months of intense domestic and international pressure did Golding finally cave on May 18 and order the offensive to capture Coke.
International media captured the violence of Coke’s capture, and many wondered why so many West Kingston citizens would sacrifice their lives to defend the leader of the notorious Shower Posse. To the residents of Tivoli however, Coke was more than simply a gangster – he was a respected community leader, philanthropist, businessman, and a powerful political authority. For instance, despite the U.S. extradition request last year, the JLP government continued to support Coke’s construction company, Incomparable Enterprise Ltd., with millions of dollars in government contracts. This allowed Coke to distribute jobs and further consolidate power within his community.
The garrison town of Tivoli Gardens began as a political project by former prime minister and JLP politician Edward Seaga in 1963. In order to complete his idea of “urban renewal” after his election to represent West Kingston in 1962, he first had to bulldoze a neighborhood called Back ‘O Wall, a large Rastafarian community loyal to the leftist People’s National Party (PNP). The original residents were forced out and replaced with Seaga’s supporters in large modern housing complexes.
To enforce his will, Seaga constructed his own political militia, headed by Lester “Jim Brown” Coke, the father of Dudus Coke. Lester Coke obtained a reputation as a brutal and loyal enforcer, organizing the young men of Tivoli into the Shower Posse in the early 1970s. The Shower Posse expanded its influence to the harbor fronts of Kingston, securing an invaluable port to traffic drugs to the United States. Aside from the overtly criminal nature of drug dealing and murder, the Shower Posse was responsible within the garrison community for bringing supporters to the polls, fundraising, and intimidating members of the opposition.This is where the link betweenpolitics and drug trafficking began.
Seaga’s promotion of Jamaica as a free market paradise in the 1970s was ripe for garnering Washington’s support under the prevailing cold war environment, especially since prime minister and PNP leader Michael Manley, who served from 1972-1980, was promoting democratic socialism while rubbing elbows with Fidel Castro and Julius Nyerere. The CIA quickly brought Seaga under its wing in order to undermine any attempt to move the nation in a more leftward direction. Manley, however, copied the successes of Seaga’s garrison community in East Kingston by constructing replicas in areas like Dunkirk, Jungle, and Matthew’s Lane. As guns arrived from the USSR, the militarization of Jamaican politics was complete.
The connections between the CIA and the Shower Posse have long been known. Former CIA agent Philip Agee, for example, revealed that “the CIA was using the JLP as its instrument in the campaign against the Michael Manley government, I’d say most of the violence was coming from the JLP, and behind them was the CIA in terms of getting weapons in and getting money in.”
In 1989, former Shower Posse member Charles “Little Nut” Miller was charged with drug trafficking but agreed to testify against other gang leaders in order to receive immunity. In his testimony – in which he implicated himself in nine murders - Miller revealed his connection to the JLP as a “political enforcer,” as well as to the CIA, going as far to state that “the United States made me what I am”(Newsweek, July 13th, 1998). After testifying, Miller returned to his native St. Kitts where he blossomed into one of the regions most notorious drug barons, though he has been in prison in the United States since 2000 on drug charges.
1992 brought forth the greatest opportunity to highlight the connections between the JLP, the Shower Posse, and the CIA. It came with the arrest of Lester Coke, who was awaiting extradition to the United States on charges similar to those now faced by his son. The opportunity for Lester Coke’s testimony in open court never occurred, as he was burned alive in his jail cell.
On June 27, Jamaicans breathed a sigh of relief as Dudus Coke was successfully brought to the United States for trial. Many feared that he would meet the same fate as his father and never live to testify about how deeply the government is involved with the gangsters. The editorial pages of the country’s media outlets such as the Observer and Gleaner hope that this will be a step forward for the nation, if indeed Coke’s testimony does bring down more drug lords and corrupt politicians and the political gangsterism that has plagued the country for so long.
However with the continued problems of structural poverty, the country faces a near impossible task. As other countries throughout the region find themselves in similar situations as Jamaica, in 2007 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime designated the Caribbean as themost dangerous place on Earth. Statistics from Jamaica's Ministry of National Security traced a tripling of the annual murder rate - from 542 in 1990 to 1,680 in 2009.
The recent events in Tivoli Gardens have further brought the drug war in the Caribbean to the attention of the U.S. government. On June 10, Hillary Clinton was in Barbados to address members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and outline the plans of the Obama administration to combat the drug trade in the region. Clinton told the assembled ministers that the United States is "applying lessons we've learned in Colombia, Mexico and Central America to our security cooperation" and is "working to curtail the flow of guns and illicit funds to the region and to reduce demand for drugs." Looking at the lack of success the United States has had combating drugs so far in other regions such as Mexico, where there have been an estimated 23,000 drug related deaths since 2006, Clinton’s statement can only be interpreted as more bad news for the people of the Caribbean. Remember: it was the CIA that helped create drug gangs like the Shower Posse in the first place.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA Research Associate