JAMAICA’S leader is facing growing criticism over a near week-long assault on a slum to capture a powerful drug don as decomposing bodies of civilians lay unclaimed for days.
The operation has left 73 civilians dead by official count and has divided the island, with many Jamaicans hailing what they see as a chance to fight rampant crime, but some alarmed at the heavy humanitarian price.
An overpowering stench of death hung over a cemetery in the capital Kingston, where more than a dozen bodies were left in simple wooden coffins. Flies hovered over one, from which an exposed leg stuck out.
Faced with rising allegations of abuse, the military and police went on the offensive, portraying residents of the destitute Tivoli Gardens area almost as an insurgent force that had hidden explosives and girded for heavy combat.
Forces descended on Sunday into the district seeking gang leader Christopher Dudus Coke, who is wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, but is hailed by many residents as a Robin Hood figure who offers security and small-time jobs on some of the world’s toughest streets.
Jamaica’s police chief Owen Ellington pledged a thorough investigation of all allegations but voiced confidence that the operation enjoyed popular support.
He acknowledged that the forces did not know Coke’s whereabouts but said he was believed to be in Jamaica, dismissing widespread rumours he may have fled the country.
Ellington said bodies had been left outside for police post-mortems, following accusations they were trying to secretly dispose of corpses to hide the death toll, but that they could be a public health hazard if left inside.
But many of Coke’s sympathisers inside the barricaded area accused troops of firing indiscriminately.
The slum dwellers received support from former prime minister Edward Seaga, who used to represent Tivoli Gardens in parliament and is considered by some to be the architect of Jamaican politicians’ close ties with the underworld.
Mr Seaga estimated that the real death toll was up to 150. He called for the resignation of incumbent Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who succeeded Seaga as the ruling Jamaica Labour Party’s parliamentarian representing Tivoli Gardens.
“What kind of country have we become? This is what happened with Pinochet in Chile, it happens in Africa. It does not happen here,” Mr Seaga said in a television interview.
Amnesty International also called for a thorough investigation of the unrest, saying that Jamaican police had a “dire” track record on human rights.
It pointed to the small number of weapons seized compared with the death toll. As of Friday, the police said they had captured a few dozen firearms or explosives.
However, many Jamaicans have welcomed the crackdown, even if they asked questions about its handling.
Downtown Kingston, deserted for days, has came back to life with vendors selling fresh fruit, jerk chicken and clothes underneath the Georgian architecture despite streets being flooded from an overnight downpour.