Entering the Tivoli Gardens ghetto in West Kingston, scars of the battle to arrest Jamaica’s most infamous criminal kingpin, Christopher “Dudus” Coke, in May 2010, are everywhere. Blocks of apartments remain riddled with bullet holes, where soldiers and police battled with Coke’s gunmen. Some streets are still blocked by the makeshift barricades of concrete and uprooted street lamps, which Coke’s supporters used to slow security forces. The nearby graveyard contains dozens of tombs of people who died in the violence.
Coke’s reign has left even deeper marks on many young men from the area. An entire generation of drug traffickers and paid assassins grew up under Coke, who was both the “don” of Tivoli and head of the international Shower Posse from 1992 until his extradition to the United States in 2010. Many still refer to Coke, also known as “The President,” in near-messianic terms and reminisce about his leadership. They also apply the criminal skills they learned under Coke to keep moving drugs to the United States and guns back to their homeland.
This article examines how Jamaican organized crime has reshaped after the so-called “Dudus affair,” which shook Jamaica’s political system as one of the country’s bloodiest confrontations since its 1962 independence. It looks at how Jamaican politicians, seeing the threat Coke posed, have tried to back away from their long-standing relationship with gang leaders. It finds that Coke’s fall has left a power vacuum within Jamaican ghettoes that other contenders are trying to fill. Jamaican traffickers from the Shower Posse and other gangs have morphed into more fragmented groups to stay off the radar of law enforcement. These smaller cells have been effective at trafficking cocaine, helping the Caribbean regain its foothold as a major smuggling corridor from Colombia to the United States.
Dons to Traffickers
When Jamaica gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, the nation’s politicians inherited a country with vast chasms between the wealthy, often descended from plantation owners, and poor, mostly descended from slaves. Many of the poor flocked to growing urban ghettoes, especially in Kingston, which often lacked basic sanitation and paved streets. Area leaders, or strongmen, emerged in these ghettoes, becoming known as “dons” in the 1970s. The two major political parties, the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and People’s National Party (PNP), both financed these dons to deliver votes for them in return for money and development projects. The dons’ turfs became known as garrisons because of the way they were defended like forts with many blockaded entrances. Dons from JLP garrisons fought their rivals from PNP garrisons, unleashing intense political violence. This violence reached a peak in the election year of 1980, when there were 889 murders.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Jamaica
Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston was emblematic of this partisan system, being dubbed the “mother of all garrisons” by a head of the Jamaica Defence Force. It elected JLP officials consistently for four decades, while images of Tivoli’s dons and their “soldiers” were painted in murals on its streets. Dons also controlled turfs across poor areas of Kingston, Spanish Town, Montego Bay and other parishes.
While this political violence raged in Jamaica, many of the country’s criminals went to the United States, building networks to traffic marijuana and cocaine to Americans and guns back to their homeland. Around 1980, traffickers from Tivoli Gardens, and some allied garrisons, formed the Shower Posse in New York. A veteran member described in an interview how the name derived from their reputation for showering their enemies with gunfire.
“We wanted to stand out among other gangs that were already established in the United States, to earn our reputation, to make people on the street respect us,” said the member in an interview in Kingston. Jamaicans from rival PNP garrisons followed by creating the Spangler Posse.
The Shower Posse’s US operations were headed by Vivian Blake, while in Jamaica it was controlled by Lester Lloyd Coke (also known as Jim Brown), the don of Tivoli Gardens. The Shower Posse spread rapidly across the United States, building a stronghold in Miami and expanding to cities including Los Angeles, Kansas City and Chicago, helping drive the crack cocaine epidemic. It also had connections as far afield as London. It defended its operations with intense violence. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Posse was blamed for more than 1,000 murders in the United States.
The Reign of Dudus
Christopher “Dudus” Coke took control of Tivoli Gardens and the Shower Posse following the death of his father, Lester Lloyd Coke, in 1992. According to US prosecutors, Coke masterminded the trafficking of tons of marijuana and cocaine over almost two decades until his 2010 arrest. A main base of his US operations was in the Bronx, but he also built a significant network in Toronto, Canada.
The Shower Posse under Dudus Coke, however, appeared to commit much less violence on the streets of the United States than in the 1980s. Several sources said that Dudus preferred business to war and tried not to provoke a US law enforcement reaction.
“He was a little more business savvy than your typical criminal,” said Jamaica’s National Security Minister Peter Bunting. “He had gone to a well thought of high school, he had up-to-date camera systems and technology around his organization.”
It took US prosecutors until 2009 to indict Coke, even though they cited crimes as far back as 1994. They finally accused him of cocaine, marijuana and firearms trafficking but could not directly link him to any murders in the United States.
While the streets of New York became less murderous during Coke’s reign, Jamaica became increasingly violent; it reached a rate of 62.5 homicides per 100,000 in 2005, one of the highest in the world. Gunmen from Tivoli Gardens were accused of many of these killings, especially against rival garrisons. Yet the don of Tivoli, Coke himself, was operating openly and even headed two front companies, Presidential Click and Incomparable Enterprises.
Coke bolstered his public image by carrying out Robin Hood style charity work in Tivoli and allied garrisons. His operatives would hand out schoolbooks and stationary to children in public events before the term started. He also ran free bi-annual concerts with some of Jamaica’s top reggae artists. In turn, many singers, including Bob Marley’s step-brother Bunny Wailer, recorded tracks praising Coke, helping build a personality cult bigger than any previous Jamaican criminal.
Coke also won support by punishing so-called anti-social crimes, such as rape and theft, in the communities he controlled. In an interview with the author, a Shower Posse operative described overseeing enforcers carrying out a public beating of rapists under orders from Coke. While police would rarely venture into Tivoli, many residents claimed the area was fairly safe. “He had this almost republic like status as the overlap of the criminal gang with the control of a geographic area, plus strong political connections,” said Security Minister Bunting.
In 2007, Prime Minister Bruce Golding returned the JLP to power, while representing the very constituency that included Tivoli. In 2009, the United States indicted Coke and issued an extradition order for him. Golding refused to accept it, saying it included information from unauthorized wiretaps on Coke’s phone.
Golding’s refusal to arrest and extradite Coke sparked outrage from Jamaica’s opposition politicians and condemnation from US officials. After months of pressure, Golding finally capitulated and an arrest warrant was issued in May 2010. Gunmen loyal to Coke reacted by attacking police stations, which provoked a state of emergency and the mobilization of the army as well as police. The number of garrisons that rose up revealed how Coke’s influence extended beyond his core base in Tivoli.
During the unrest, Jamaica’s security forces were accused of widespread human rights abuses, including shooting unarmed civilians. Nevertheless, they effectively took control of the garrisons from Coke’s gunmen and arrested more than 500 alleged criminals, who they kept temporarily in a national sports stadium. Coke himself escaped from the initial incursion, but was arrested several weeks later, disguised as a woman and accompanied by a reverend. Coke said he was heading to the US Embassy to turn himself in, fearing he could be assassinated by Jamaican security forces.
The End of Don Man Politics?
The Dudus affair showed how the dons and garrisons originally fortified by Jamaica’s politicians had surpassed their control and now threatened the state itself. Golding was widely criticized for defending a drug trafficker from his constituency and his party lost the 2011 elections to the PNP. Politicians from both parties now try to distance themselves from the dons and other gangsters.
While there has been a real change in dialogue, more progress is needed to sever contacts between Jamaica’s politicians and the dons. The JLP’s opposition spokesman on justice, Delroy Chuck, conceded that more work is necessary to break the habit of many politicians using area dons to return votes for them. “Many politicians stayed in power for decades because of the don system so they had no incentive to change it,” Chuck said. “It is hard to break that umbilical cord.”
The Coke episode, however, also showed Jamaican criminal groups how the high profile of an area don has disadvantages. As a Manhattan federal court in 2012 sentenced Coke to 23 years in prison, traffickers could see how Coke’s personality cult had put him on the radar of US authorities. In reaction, many traffickers in Jamaica are now operating in smaller networks, more independent of dons and trying to maintain a low profile. “You often see the same people who worked with the Shower for years but now they are want to hide that connection to beat the conspiracy charges,” said a Shower Posse operative.
One example of these more fragmented trafficking groups was exposed in arrests made by US agents in October 2013. In a probe dubbed Operation Next Day Air that involved ten US agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), nine people were arrested in a trafficking ring that stretched from Jamaica to New Jersey to California. While the suspects had links to the garrisons of West Kingston, they were not immediately linked to a particular posse or don.
These more fragmented groups have been effective at moving substantial quantities of cocaine through the Caribbean, helping to revitalize it as an important smuggling corridor. The DEA reported that 87 tons of cocaine were seized in the Caribbean in 2012 (almost double that of 2011) and another 44 tons in the first half of 2013. Caribbean seizures now account for 14 percent of US-bound cocaine. This shift follows the build-up of more security on the US southern border and years of sky-high rates of drug related violence in Mexico. Cocaine seizures are also being made in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as well as Jamaica.
The unrest around Dudus Coke sparked scenes of violence that threatened Jamaica’s image as a tropical paradise visited by two million people a year. Tourism, however, only fell 2.4 percent in the months directly after the unrest and has been growing since. The vast majority of Jamaica’s homicides take place in the garrisons, away from tourist areas. Nevertheless, gangs from these garrisons continue to sell drugs and pimp prostitutes in tourist areas, including Montego Bay.
Jamaica’s image was also helped by a decline in the murder rate immediately following Coke’s arrest. The number of homicides dropped 34 percent from 1,683 in 2009, the year before he was detained, to 1,113 in 2011, the year after. The most common explanation for the decline is the mass arrest of alleged gunmen during the state of emergency. The trend has begun to rise again, however, with about 1,200 murders in 2013.
Some of these recent killings have taken place in Tivoli and nearby garrisons by gangsters fighting to establish themselves as the new area leader. Since Coke was detained, no single figure has become the new don in his place, and there are at least four groups fighting for power in Tivoli. Some residents reminisce over the days of a single strongman and hope another will take Coke’s place. “Dudus may have done some bad things but he kept order,” said market trader Romino Wilkins. “Now you don’t know who these bad men on the street are and they are out of control.”
Following the “Dudus affair,” Jamaican traffickers have splintered into smaller groups to avoid detection and conspiracy charges. These groups have been effective at smuggling, and the Caribbean has become more important as a corridor for cocaine heading to the United States. The loss of Coke, however, has left a power vacuum in certain Jamaican ghettoes. A new strongman may arise to fill this space unless the fundamental causes of crime and violence in these areas are resolved.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the Caribbean
The unrest in Jamaica around the arrest of Coke also showed how criminal gunmen can unleash violence that surpasses public security to become a national security issue, threatening the state itself as it has in other countries including Mexico. Jamaican politicians appear to have learned from this confrontation and backed away from their historic links to criminal gangs in the last three years. Nevertheless, these links have deep roots, and it remains to be seen whether Jamaican politicians will avoid turning back to gang leaders to deliver them votes in the future.
Ioan Grillo is a journalist based in Mexico City. He has covered Latin America and the Caribbean since 2001 for media including Time Magazine, Reuters and the Sunday Telegraph. He is author of the book El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books and The Orwell Prize.