Elusive Jamaican drug lord to finally face U.S. prison

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 15, 2012 4:24 PM
Elusive Jamaican drug lord to finally face U.S. prison

By Chris Francescani

(Reuters) - When Christopher ‘Dudus' Coke, a second-generation Jamaican drug lord, appears for sentencing in federal court in Manhattan on Friday it will mark a hard-won victory for U.S. law enforcement.

Coke was such a powerful figure in Jamaica that when U.S. authorities sought his extradition in 2009, the country's prime minister fought the request for nearly a year before agreeing under immense political pressure to hand him over.

Still unable to produce Coke for U.S. authorities, the Jamaican government declared a state of emergency and more than 500 police officers waged an armed assault on the barricaded Kingston neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens that Coke controlled. Seventy-three people were killed in the fighting before Coke was captured in June 2010 and extradited.

Coke, 42, whose case underscores the challenges of fighting drug wars in foreign countries where ties between armed gangs and political parties stretch back decades, faces up to 23 years in prison following a deal in which he pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and assault charges.

After Coke's guilty plea last fall, one of Jamaica's leading newspapers expressed hope in an editorial that he would "sing like a bird to authorities, naming names and pointing fingers."

"In a small society such as ours,'' wrote the editors of the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, "it is not possible for Mr. Coke to have been able to run such a 'successful' organization without the involvement of well-placed individuals in both the public and private sectors."

Coke's father, Lester "Jim Brown" Coke, was a product of Jamaica's garrison politics, a system established in the 1970s when the country's two major political parties began arming community bosses, who then used threats, patronage and violence to deliver votes.

In exchange, the bosses, known as dons, were allowed to operate with virtual impunity within their communities.

SHOWER POSSE

Lester Coke, who ran the same Tivoli Gardens neighborhood his son would inherit, emerged as one of the most ruthless of the dons. At first, his crew - dubbed the Shower Posse for its preference for "showering" victims in a hail of bullets - trafficked largely in marijuana.

But Coke's power grew exponentially in the early 1980s after his Jamaican Labor Party won the country's general election. He eventually took control of the West Kingston ports, and began exporting Colombian cocaine to the United States, said Laurie Gunst, author of "Born Fi'Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Posse Underworld."

"In Jamaica, whoever controls the ports controls the island," she said.

The Shower Posse soon began shipping not just drugs but ‘soldiers' to the United States, setting up gang strongholds in Brooklyn, Miami and other cities.

Jamaican authorities arrested the elder Coke in 1990, after the rival People's National Party regained power. Awaiting extradition to the United States, he died two years later in a mysterious fire in his cell.

His 22-year-old son Christopher succeeded him, controlling the neighborhood and drug trade through intimidation and brutal violence, according to authorities.

Federal prosecutors charged in court papers that Coke once used a chainsaw to murder a rival and regularly forced young women to smuggle condoms of cocaine secreted in their genitalia.

After authorities arrested Coke, his gang's international influence diminished somewhat from its height during the cocaine wars of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Still, prosecutors said Jamaican drug traffickers in the United States remained beholden to Coke for nearly two decades.

They "gave away a portion of their narcotics proceeds to Coke, provided him with firearms at their own expense, and sought his authorization prior to engaging in acts of violence against other members of the organization," according to the indictment.

"They did so - despite the fact they were many miles from Jamaica - because Coke was a violent, intimidating figure whose name they could invoke to enhance their own reputations."

But a number of Jamaicans said little has changed in Kingston since Coke was captured.

One resident, asked whether anyone had "risen up" to replace Coke since his capture in 2010, attempted to correct a reporter.

"You don't rise up in Jamaica to take someone's place," said Colin Smikle, 50, a location manager for film crews.

"You have to have the sanction of a politician, to be affiliated with a political party," said Smikle, who was born in Kingston. "Every single don in Jamaica is affiliated and sanctioned by a political party."

(Reporting by Chris Francesconi; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Eric Beech)