Christopher “Dudus” Coke is described by the US Justice Department as one of the most dangerous drug lords in the world.
The 42-year-old has a passionate following in his impoverished neighbourhood of the Jamaican capital Kingston, where residents have taken up arms in a violent struggle to stop his extradition to the United States. Fierce gunbattles have left at least 74 dead.
Hundreds have been arrested in raids by security forces but Coke – who enjoys widespread support in his slum stronghold and is referred to as “president” – remains at large. Officials admit he may have left the troubled Caribbean island. Coke is among dozens of Jamaicans who have allegedly developed vast commercial interests, running networks that control the flow of drugs and other lucrative underworld activities.
On the impoverished streets of the Tivoli Gardens ghetto, one of Jamaica’s notorious “garrison” slums, Coke is revered as a man of the people who has used his vast wealth to invest in the local community and provide jobs for people who would be otherwise unemployed. But authorities accuse him of leading an international gang known as the “Shower Posse” – so named not for their cleanliness but for showering opponents with bullets.
Coke has largely shied away from showmanship. He rarely speaks to the media and instead has let his influence speak for itself. Michael Christopher Coke was born March 13, 1969. His father, Lester Coke, was an earlier leader of the Shower Posse. In 1987, the elder Coke was deported from the US for allegedly setting up cells of his deadly gang in dozens of American cities; he died in a Jamaican prison in 1992.
According to the BBC, Christopher Coke’s sister and two of his brothers were killed by gunfire. Coke has four children, and according to one report in the Jamaica Gleaner, all of them have been removed from the recent fighting in the Tivoli Gardens neighbourhood. Coke is the latest in a long line of area leaders who oversee the garrisons, popularly known by names such as Dunkirk, Jungle and Rema.
They are low-income areas built during the 1960s and 1970s by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP). Depending on the party in power, the neighbourhoods were constructed and stocked with fanatical supporters, many of whom were then rewarded for their part in political activities. Some of Jamaica’s most high-profile politicians represent garrisons. Former prime ministers Michael Manley and Portia Simpson Miller were backed by communities with high rates of crime, teen pregnancy and unemployment.
But because parliamentarians largely failed to improve the lives of constituents, garrison heads like Coke became role models. They made sure children of single mothers were educated, and got food to families struggling to make ends meet. Coke’s two major business ventures, Incomparable Enterprise and Presidential Click, have been hugely successful.
According to the Gleaner, Incomparable Enterprise has received millions in state contracts, and the Presidential Click company continues to hold some of the country’s largest street parties and music events. Tom Tavares Finson, Coke’s former lawyer, said Coke is just a hardworking businessman. “Essentially he has overseen the transformation of a community riddled with criminality and violence into a place where people can make money,” Finson told the Jamaica Observer.
Coke is thought to have strong ties to the JLP Prime Minister Bruce Golding, whose parliamentary district includes the Tivoli Gardens neighbourhood. According to an investigation by the The government Jamaican Information Service (JIS) rejected as “offensive” some US and UK media reports that linked Golding to the alleged drug lord. But political observers say he could not have been elected to parliament without the gang leader’s support. A former prime minister from the same party, Edward Seaga, marched at the funeral of Coke’s father.
“There is a widespread perception that Coke is closely linked to the dominant JLP as evident in Golding’s prevarication, maneuvering and ultimately dissembling on the matter of the extradition and on the related sideshow,” said Brian Meeks, a professor at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies. Police rarely, if ever, patrol inside Coke’s slum. The last time they attempted to assert control inside Tivoli Gardens, in 2001, clashes between gunmen and security forces killed 25 civilians, a soldier and a constable.
Former police officials have said officers receive subtle messages to stay out of certain areas controlled by politically-connected gang leaders. Until last week, Golding had refused for months to extradite Coke to the US. Jamaican politicians have long cultivated relationships with gangland figures, who can deliver huge blocs of votes by endorsing candidates and instructing followers from the garrisons to support them.
Gleaner, Coke was “instrumental” in electing Golding to parliament. But with the US beginning to accuse Jamaica’s Government of a lack of co-operation in stopping drug trafficking, Golding relented last week and vowed to arrest Coke. “The criminal element who have placed the society under siege will not be allowed to triumph,” Golding said in an address to the nation. The unrest, which also disrupted flights in and out of Kingston, prompted the US State Department to warn Americans against travelling to the city and surrounding areas.
Some business leaders have complained of a sharp hit to tourism. But officials said the violence had had no impact so far on the island’s bauxite, sugar and banana production. The US Department of Justice has listed Coke among the “world’s most dangerous narcotics kingpins”. Federal prosecutors last August unveiled charges against Coke, accusing him of selling marijuana and cocaine in New York and elsewhere and arming his associates with illegally trafficked weapons.
The drug trade is deeply entrenched in Jamaica, which is the largest producer of marijuana in the region and where gangs have become powerful organised crime networks involved in international gun smuggling. It fuels one of the world’s highest murder rates; the island of 2.8 million people had about 1660 homicides in 2009. But there are signs the sun-splashed island known more for reggae music and all-inclusive resorts is tiring of the violence. Many locals supported the crackdown.
“This country has been taken over by criminals. Tivoli Gardens is one of the worst places and it is time that something is done about that community. It is like a kingdom within an island,” said one resident, Jennifer Baker. Tivoli Gardens was the target of a deadly assault by heavily-armed security forces searching for Coke. Forty-four people died in the raid, most of them young men, suspected to be gang member supporters of Coke.
Public Defender Earl Witter, sent to inspect the community after the raid, said he was concerned about the disparity between the high number of civilians killed in the Tivoli Gardens assault and the low number of firearms seized by soldiers and police – only four, including an AK-47 automatic rifle.
“The security forces have their own explanation. If they don’t find it particularly curious, I certainly do,” he said. Coke remains at large but if convicted faces mandatory life imprisonment and millions of dollars in penalties. “The charges are another important step in our bringing to justice the world’s most dangerous criminals, wherever they may be found,” Preet Bharara, the US attorney for southern New York, said at the time.