The Other Drug War Next Door

Law and Order

It’s fair to say that Americans have become accustomed to the steady stream of brutal reports and violent imagery coming out of Mexico as that country fights an ongoing battle against an entrenched network of drug cartels; it’s also why the drug-fueled violence that wracked Jamaica this past week took many by surprise. So far 73 people have died as Jamaican authorities conduct a quasi-military operation in the Tivoli Gardens section of Kingston, homebase of Jamaica’s top drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke. A week of pitched battles between the Jamaican authorities and Dudus supporters caused widespread damage across Tivoli Gardens, but failed to catch Coke, who remains at-large. The fighting though has enraged many Jamaicans who point to the 73 dead and the nearly 1,000 who were arrested in massive police sweeps of the neighborhood only to be released later in the week and ask what good the massive raids accomplished; Amnesty International has already called for an investigation into the conduct of the Jamaican authorities during the raids.

Jamaica was prompted to move against Dudus after months of pressure from the United States who allege that Coke is the mastermind of a ring that ships vast quantities of narcotics and firearms into New York City using members of the city’s large Jamaican immigrant community as couriers. Coke has long been a high-priority extradition target in the United States’ “War on Drugs.” But Dudus supporters in the sprawling slums of Kingston paint a different picture of the man America wants to extradite. To them, Dudus is a sort of modern-day Robin Hood: admittedly a drug lord, but one who spends his money not on flashy clothes and cars, but on social programs for his neighborhood. Residents in Tivoli Gardens credit him, and his drug syndicate the “Shower Posse,” for keeping the streets safe and largely free of petty crimes, unlike many other areas of Kingston. Dudus, meanwhile, is said to provide the kind of social services that the Jamaican government refuses to supply the impoverished neighborhood: school supplies, healthcare services and jobs for the needy. 

Dudus is also said to have provided one other much-needed social service – votes for Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding who represents the district that includes Dudus’ Tivoli Gardens. Like the 19th century political bosses of New York City, Dudus faithfully delivered his neighborhood’s votes for Golding’s Jamaican Labour Party each election cycle; Golding, meanwhile, fought the United States’ extradition request for Dudus for months. According to London’s Sunday Times, rumors in Kingston are that Golding only decided to finally attempt to arrest Dudus after discovering that “damning evidence” against him and his sweetheart deal with Dudus was captured during an American wiretap of Coke’s cellular phone. How the story of Dudus Coke ultimately ends remains to be seen, Jamaican authorities believe that Dudus is still on the island, though there are also unconfirmed reports he may be seeking asylum at the embassy of Cuba or Venezuela; public outrage against Golding for the Jamaican authorities heavy-handed action in Tivoli Gardens could lead to the downfall of his government – especially if more evidence emerges about a deal between he and Dudus.

Jamaica though is not the only place in the Caribbean finding itself on the front lines of the War on Drugs. In March Foreign Policy magazine reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is concerned Trinidad and Tobago could become the region’s first narcostate as the country emerges as a major transshipment point for cocaine moving from South America to markets in the United States. Trinidad lies just seven miles from the coast of Venezuela, making it a tempting port for smugglers heading north. The smugglers are aided by a high poverty rate that leaves many young men in the capital, Port of Spain, poor, unemployed and with few options for their future. Government corruption, meanwhile, is a major problem on the islands, meaning narcotics and security officials can easily be paid to look the other way when a drug shipment is passing through Trinidad. And many do.  According to one worker on an offshore oil rig in Trinidadian coastal waters quoted in the Foreign Policy piece, some nights so many smugglers’ ships appear on the rig’s radar that it looks “like the Normandy invasion.”

The growing drug problem in the Caribbean is intimately tied into the drug war raging in Mexico. As Mexican drug cartels have grown in strength, they are choking the country off as a narcotics shipment route for cartels operating in South America seeking to access the lucrative North American market, prompting them to look for easier paths via the Caribbean. The recent news out of Trinidad and now Jamaica show that they may have found fertile ground.

US Foreign Policy, Caribbean, Drugs, Jamaica