NEW YORK—In October 2007, federal drug enforcement agents were questioning a man who had been arrested in the Bronx on gun and drug charges when he began to talk about someone he called “one of the most powerful men in all of Jamaica.”
The man, Lloyd Reid, said he was referring to Christopher Coke, the notorious gang leader whose resistance to extradition to New York has led to violence and deaths this week in Jamaica as the authorities has hunted for him.
In seeking Coke’s extradition, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, has charged that for more than a decade he has controlled a worldwide drug ring from his neighborhood stronghold of Tivoli Gardens in Kingston. Prosecutors say Coke’s operatives in New York send him part of their drug proceeds and buy guns that they ship to him.
In Jamaica, he distributes the firearms to bolster his authority and influence, a federal indictment charges.
The prosecutor’s office has not made public its extradition papers against Coke, but court records in New York show that investigators have been building a case against him through court-approved wiretaps and the questioning of people like Reid.
The records offer a snapshot of how investigators believe Coke’s influence extends to the streets of New York, and also how the drug dealing here may have helped fortify what the indictment calls Coke’s garrison community in Jamaica, “a barricaded neighbourhood guarded by a group of armed gunmen.”
Prosecutors have said that Reid, who was convicted last year of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and is serving a five-year prison sentence, was an enforcer for Coke in New York.
In talks with agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Reid said he had a close relationship with Coke because his brother had once served as Coke’s “right-hand man” in Jamaica before he was murdered, records show.
But there was another reason, Reid told agents. He and Coke became close because they spent time together in the Bronx, where Coke once lived, according to testimony by Eric Baldus, one of the drug enforcement agents who interviewed Reid.
That Coke lived in the United States is not widely known; officials say he was convicted in 1988 in North Carolina of possession of stolen property and deported the following year.
Reid said he was often called upon to resolve disagreements in New York among Coke’s operatives because people were aware of his relationship with Coke, the notes show. And when problems needed resolution by a higher authority, he indicated, he would relay information directly to Coke.
“Coke is the one who has the power to stop or settle all disputes,” Reid said, the notes show.
Reid’s lawyer, Jeremy Schneider, disputes the government’s characterization of his client. Schneider noted that Reid was convicted in a conspiracy that involved less than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. He was also convicted of a robbery conspiracy but acquitted of use of a firearm in a drug transaction.
“He was found guilty of being a low-level marijuana dealer,” Schneider said. “He was clearly not a high-level operative representing Coke in the United States.” He added that there was “a previous familial relationship” between Coke and his client’s family.
Prosecutors say that while drugs and money were sent to Jamaica as part of Coke’s operation, he and his organization, called the Shower Posse, also sent something back – they provided protection for their operatives in New York.
Coke, 41, has been charged with conspiring to distribute marijuana and cocaine and to illegally traffic in firearms. If he is extradited and convicted, he could face a life sentence.
Many poor Jamaicans look to Coke as a hero who provides a semblance of protection on some of the world’s most dangerous streets, along with small-time jobs and education.
Walls in Tivoli Gardens are covered with artwork depicting Coke’s father and don predecessor, Jim Brown, who died in a mysterious fire at a police jail in 1991.
One portrait read “Jim Brown: One Man Against the World,” next to images of other revered figures including reggae superstar Bob Marley and Ethiopia’s late emperor Haile Selaissie I, a demigod in the Rastafarian faith.