Thursday, May 27, 2010

Jamaican Forces Hunt Target of Raid

May 26, 2010

Jamaican Forces Hunt Target of Raid

New York Times

KINGSTON, Jamaica — Near the shuttered shops of downtown Kingston, draped with fallen electricity lines and prowled by armies of stray dogs, soldiers emerged from the shadows on Wednesday to warn off visitors, politely at first, then forcefully and finally with bursts of gunfire.

Their message was clear: The neighborhood called Tivoli Gardens would stay off limits, leaving its residents to share the story of their neighborhood and the four-day siege that upended it from a distance on cellphones.

And so they did, speaking of the friends who had been arrested or killed and of the house-to-house searches for the gang leader named Christopher Coke. These residents boasted about the comparative order in the neighborhood before the current mayhem, and they hung up abruptly when the soldiers came knocking again.

Mr. Coke, the powerful and politically connected don of Tivoli Gardens who is wanted by the authorities in the United States on gun and drug charges, remained at large on Wednesday. He had not been found despite a dragnet that had led to fierce gun battles between Mr. Coke’s supporters and government security forces, and despite at least one government official’s contention that Tivoli Gardens had been secured.

Mr. Coke’s apparent disappearance was the talk of Kingston on Wednesday, giving rise to a multitude of theories and hard questions that government officials had trouble answering.

At a news conference on Wednesday, officials were asked whether they had made contact with Mr. Coke and had spoken with him by phone. Did the government, someone asked, have any idea at all where Mr. Coke might be?

Karl Angell, a police spokesman, answered, “For all purposes we are not speaking on the matter.” He added that parts of Kingston and a nearby area would remain under a state of emergency for a month.

Security forces announced that they had arrested more than 500 people since the operation began and that they continued to detain scores of people even as the violence eased on Wednesday afternoon. A Jamaican official said the death toll had grown to at least 44.

Earl Witter, Jamaica’s public defender, said the conflict had spread to adjoining neighborhoods of Tivoli Gardens late on Tuesday, although he did not know whether troops were still actively fighting with Mr. Coke’s supporters there.

Mr. Witter said that 35 bodies had been taken to a morgue in Kingston and that officials had received reports of 9 other deaths. Earlier, the government said that the death toll included three police officers and soldiers.

“Frankly, I expect the number to rise,” Mr. Witter said.

On Wednesday, Ann Marie Johnson left the morgue, having just completed a fruitless search for the body of her cousin’s son. As she spoke, police vehicles tore up behind her, shooing visitors away. One officer, who faced a phalanx of frustrated reporters and photographers, said, “The police are not the most popular people in Kingston now.”

Nowhere was that more true than among the shaken residents of Tivoli Gardens, Mr. Coke’s stronghold and a place called a “garrison,” virtually outside of and off limits to the Jamaican state. In interviews with a half-dozen residents, they spoke of a place where, before the government crackdown, bell ringers would ride through the neighborhood at 8 p.m. every night, telling schoolchildren to go home. A theft of just a child’s bicycle would not go unpunished if whispered of in the right ears, they bragged.

In the residents’ nostalgic tales of their neighborhood, there was always Mr. Coke, the drug lord known as Dudus, whose sins, some argued, paled next to his largess. “You cannot do everything to please everyone,” said one resident, Cynthia Macalla.

Ms. Macalla’s niece remembered meeting with Mr. Coke when she could not pay her college tuition bills: he gave her 100,000 Jamaican dollars, she said. “People were very comfortable,” said the niece, one of several residents who refused to give their names. “Now it looks like hell.”

Another woman who sells clothes in one of Kingston’s outdoor markets said Mr. Coke gave her financial help when business was bad. She contrasted Mr. Coke’s assistance with the behavior of the Jamaican government, which she said offered help but gave none last December when her house burned and her 3-year-old daughter died in the fire.

But some residents supported the government crackdown. “This country has been taken over by criminals,” said Jennifer Baker, according to Reuters. “Tivoli Gardens is one of the worst places in Jamaica, and it is time that something is done about that community. It is like a kingdom within an island.”

The complex relationship between Jamaica’s politicians and its crime lords is at the heart of the current unrest, a system in which the prime minister, Bruce Golding, counted on Mr. Coke’s influence to secure votes in the west Kingston neighborhood that both men share.

When Mr. Golding, under pressure, recently agreed to extradite Mr. Coke to the United States to face charges, including trafficking in drugs and arms, the arrangement collapsed, and Mr. Coke’s supporters took up arms and barricaded the streets. Mr. Coke’s lawyer says he is a legitimate businessman.

On the outskirts of Tivoli Gardens on Wednesday, past the soldiers’ checkpoints, a few people congregated in Kingston’s deserted downtown, but were dispersed by police officers roaming the streets in jeeps. The shops would reopen Thursday, said Jamaica’s information minister, Daryl Vaz.

“Normalcy is fast returning to areas of downtown Kingston,” he said, adding that many airlines that had suspended flights because of the unrest had already restored normal service.

He also promised that in the coming days, journalists would be allowed to see some areas of Tivoli Gardens.

Ross Sheil contributed reporting from Kingston, and Jack Healy from New York.

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