By Calvin Palmer
Explosions and gun fire rang out in the Jamaican capital of Kingston this afternoon and security forces moved in on the Tivoli Gardens area to take Christopher “Dudus” Coke into custody to await extradition to the United States.
Supporters of alleged drug baron Coke are fighting the extradition for drug and gun trafficking charges.
A Jamaica Defence Force soldier was shot and killed. He was among four soldiers taken to hospital, after they were shot by gunmen in the Tivoli Gardnes community.
One soldier was wounded in the right arm and leg, one is fighting for his life and another is in a stable condition.
Police stated seven members of the security forces have been injured.
Security Minister Dwight Nelson said soldiers of the Jamaican Defense Force, in a joint operation with police, had broken down the barricades around Tivoli Gardens and were doing a house-to-house search for Mr Coke.
“The purpose of the operation is to execute the warrant for extradition and to detain Coke so he can appear in court,” Nelson said.
He insisted the police were “doing everything in their power to ensure the city remains safe”.
But some reports said police had met heavy resistance from armed gunmen as they tried to enter Tivoli Gardens, a stronghold of support for 41-year-old Mr Coke — who says he is a community leader — and is represented in parliament by Prime Minister Bruce Golding.
Coke’s supporters see him as a man who is fulfilling a role that the government does not, such as giving them money to support their children.
They have staged protests and barricaded streets to stop his arrest and extradition.
But the U.S. Justice Department says Coke is one of the world’s most dangerous drug barons. He is accused of leading a gang called the Shower Posse — owing to the volume of bullets used in shootings — and operating an international smuggling network.
He faces a life sentence if convicted on charges filed against him in New York.
On Friday, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding declared a state of emergency as a number of police stations came under attack.
In a televised address, Golding described the violence as a “calculated assault on the authority of the state that cannot be tolerated”.
Golding, who has promised to pursue Coke’s arrest, said the state of emergency in Kingston and the neighboring district of St Andrew “will be a turning point for us as a nation to confront the powers of evil that have penalised the society and earned us the unenviable label as one of the murder capitals of the world”.
Golding prompted the violence after, facing embarrassment over his own role in shielding Coke from U.S. prosecutors, he announced a week ago that his government would end its nine-month long refusal to extradite him.
Hailed by his supporters as a philanthropic building contractor and food importer but by the U.S. as one of the world’s most dangerous drug barons, Coke is a prominent supporter of the ruling Jamaican Labour Party.
Local criminal gangs have long been used – and protected – by the country’s two main political parties to get out the vote at election time. Coke’s position is further complicated by the fact that Tivoli Gardens is Golding’s parliamentary constituency.
Although police insist that the violence is solely the work of gangsters and drug dealers, many ordinary people deeply respect Coke as a key provider of jobs, money, schooling and food in a struggling economy.
His word is considered law on the streets of Tivoli Gardens – children stay off the streets after 8pm and the area is largely free of petty theft.
As the afternoon wore on there were reports that the violence had spread to Southside near to the Kingston Central Police station. Jamaica Defence Force soldiers and police have been deployed to that area to quell the disturbance.
Gunmen and police were also engaged in a running gun battle in the Woodford Park community of Central Kingston.