Jamaica cops release most of 980 detained in raid

A soldier frisks a man at a military check point in Tivoli Gardens neighborhood, Kingston, Saturday, May 29, 2010.

KINGSTON, Jamaica—All but a handful of the roughly 980 Jamaicans detained during raids by security forces in gang-heavy Kingston slums have been released in recent days, police said Saturday.

Detainees had been held at the Kingston’s National Arena, where dozens of concerned relatives had congregated outside a security gate in recent days, holding up pictures of their sons. On Saturday, the stadium was empty and police said 10 suspects were still being held elsewhere.

Hundreds of heavily armed troops, meanwhile, occupied the bullet-pocked Tivoli Gardens complex on Saturday following a bloody, four-day assault of the slum stronghold of reputed underworld boss Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who is wanted in the United States on drug and gun-trafficking charges.

Coke was nowhere to be found, but Jamaica’s top cop insisted that security forces will capture him and that their “best intelligence” indicates he is hiding somewhere on this tropical island. The raids to catch Coke left scores dead and police said Saturday that they had detained 980 people.

The released detainees appeared to be avoiding returning to the Tivoli Gardens housing project, where soldiers manned checkpoints and searched people entering the complex, even an elderly woman carting home vegetables and fruit from a nearby market.  Nearly all residents view the security forces as an occupying force and accuse them of firing indiscriminately. The police and army counter their

targets are specific but would investigate any wrongdoing by individuals. The government has vowed independent investigations of all killings.  Police say their offensive was launched after unprovoked attacks by gangsters who shot up 14 police stations, burning two to the ground with molotov cocktails, in an effort to protect the 41-year-old Coke from extradition.

So far, 70 civilians and three security officers are listed by the government as killed during the fighting.  On Saturday, Deputy Police Commissioner Charles Scarlett said about 10 criminal suspects were still being detained at a lockup but have not yet been charged. The rest had been let go.

He said the detainees were rounded up “to ensure we were not hindered in what we were going” during the West Kingston raid.

Susan Goffe, spokeswoman of the Kingston-based human rights group Jamaicans for Justice, said it was a common pattern by Jamaican security forces to detain large numbers of people during slum raids and then only charge a small number.

“In this case, it does raise issues if a number of (gunmen) did manage to escape prior to the operation taking place,” Goffe said Saturday. “As far as the detainee releases, it sounds as though they have done this processing quite quickly.”

Rumors are widespread that gunmen loyal to Coke managed to escape Tivoli Gardens through drainage sluices in gullies that crisscross the impoverished communities of West Kingston. Col. Rocky Meade of the Jamaica Defense Force told reporters that security forces had no knowledge of culverts around Coke’s slum fiefdom.

Coke has ties to Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s Labour Party, which gets a large number of votes from the Tivoli Gardens area Golding represents in parliament. As a community “don,” he provides services and protection to the poor West Kingston community—all funded by a criminal empire that seemed untouchable until the U.S. demanded his extradition.

U.S. authorities say he has been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York City since the mid-1990s, allegedly hiring island women to hide the drugs on themselves on flights to the U.S.  Golding had stonewalled the U.S. extradition request for nine months, straining relations. A U.S. State Department report earlier this year questioned the Caribbean island’s reliability as an ally in the war against drugs.

The violence erupted about a week after Golding said he would not oppose extradition any longer.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. law enforcement official in New York said a lawyer for Coke has been in negotiations with the U.S. Justice Department about his client’s possible safe removal to New York to face charges.

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