At least 27 people are dead in Jamaica’s capital amid an all-out police assault on a suspected drug lord’s stronghold, a protracted push that began Monday and persisted Tuesday, the government reported.
Security forces have been fighting people who want to prevent the extradition to the United States of “Christopher Dudus Coke.”, who was charged last year in U.S. federal court with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine and with conspiracy to traffic in firearms illegally.
Twenty-six of the dead were civilians and one was a Jamaican Defense Force member; 25 civilians and six defense force members were injured as security forces battled criminal elements in Tivoli Gardens and Denham Town, officials said.
Security forces have confiscated firearms, ammunition, binoculars, army fatigues and ballistic vests and are conducting searches, the government said.
The fighting has paralyzed the metropolis.
Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding has declared a state of emergency in some parts of Kingston. Schools are closed in the capital, and at one point some flights were canceled, said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
Coke maintains a heroic reputation in the Kingston slums, with some people comparing him to Robin Hood, Jesus and one-time Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar. He has helped the community by handing out food, sending children to school and building medical centers.
But drug enforcement officials said he deserves to be classified as one of the world’s most dangerous drug lords.
“He is the head of an organization, a cartel or a syndicate that has a global impact and also has a direct impact on the United States,” said Michael Braun, a former chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
On Monday, residents said that government helicopters dropped explosives into the area near Coke’s stronghold, though it was not clear if he was there.
The attack came after residents blocked roads in the area to restrict access to police and military. The violence then spread to Spanish Town, about 20 minutes outside the capital, where armed men blocked a major road and a bridge that serves as a link between Montego Bay and Kingston, police said.
Monday’s unrest followed a Sunday night shooting that left two police officers dead and six others wounded near Norman Manley International Airport outside Kingston, police said.
Coke’s lawyers were to meet with the charge d’affaires officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston. Coke’s attorney, Don Foote, said he would listen to U.S. authorities but insisted his client should face charges in Jamaican courts.
Golding said last week that citizens should “allow the courts to deal with the extradition matter,” the state-run Jamaica Information Service reported.
In a statement Sunday, Golding announced an emergency meeting of his Cabinet in response to the heavy gunfire and blockades, the information agency said.
Larry Birns, director of the Center for Hemispheric Affairs think tank, said he believes Jamaica “is probably tipping into being a narco-state and it has become too big a problem for the United States to handle in the tried and true ways of the past.”
In August, the U.S. attorney’s office in New York charged Coke, accusing him of leading an international criminal syndicate known as the “Shower Posse.”
“At Coke’s direction and under his protection, members of his criminal organization sell marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere, and send the narcotics proceeds back to Coke and his co-conspirators,” the DEA said.
“Coke and his co-conspirators also arm their organization with illegally trafficked firearms,” the agency said.
Coke is on the Justice Department’s list of Consolidated Priority Organization Targets, which the department said “includes the world’s most dangerous narcotics kingpins.”
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