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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET


Steve Harrigan

Miami, FL


Unrest in Jamaica

May 26, 2010 - 2:20 PM | by: Steve Harrigan


The toughest hurdle while attempting to reaching Jamaica’s many trouble spots is getting in, as airports shut down. American Airlines canceled flights into Kingston so you must fly into Montego Bay on the North side of the island, where most tourists go. A flight attendant said crews could not get to downtown Kingston because of the gunfire. No taxis from the hotel would make the drive which is about 120 miles. Air Jamaica is still flying in, so we so we got on a 9am flight into Kingston, found a driver, Mr Powell, and drove in toward the center of the violence, Tivoli Gardens.

The atmosphere was eerie with deserted streets, looted stores, and shot-up police stations, some of which were burned down.

For 4 days the government has tried and failed to capture a drug lord, Christopher Coke. Sending the Army in led to barricades in the streets and gunbattles which have killed almost 50 civilians. A section of the capital city is out of government control.

We set up near a soldiers’ road block. By the time I had Qik streaming video up on an iphone cameraman Chris Pontius already had a stronger signal from a bgan, a transmitter the size of a laptop computer. He set up his gear right on the sidewalk- laptop and cables on the pavement, all charged the night before.

The soldiers did not like being filmed, nor did the civilians. There is a sense of shame in the world looking at the looted stores and street violence. One young man in a red shirt made his hand into an imaginary gun and walked up behind me yelling “Blam blam blam.”

There were crowds on foot around a gas station. Security felt dicey. Pontius and I stood out.

The military and private security and police wear a maze of uniforms and masks and often travel in civilian cars or pickups with guns sticking out the windows. That makes it tough to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

The battle also has shifted from different parts of the city. Foot traffic is heavy today on some streets where there were pitched battles yesterday. So it is hard to tell where the front line is.

I’ve read about parallels between this man Coke and Pablo Escobar – figures romanticized as Robin Hoods who help the poor from their neighborhoods. That might explain some of the support Coke has gotten from his section of the city. Other reports say his gang – the Shower Posse – got its name from the amount of bullets it sprayed into victims. Some estimates say the Shower Posse is responsible for 40 percent of the crack cocaine trade in the U.S.

Some places you can feel the violence. A couple of weeks ago in Greece I saw demonstrators in white face masks holding scrolls of protest like some elaborate theatre put together by graduate students. I did not feel there would be much violence. Here you can see the pock marks in the central police station. Yesterday men took automatic rifles and blazed away at the police HQ. I thought about the men holding the rifles. That is violence.

The bigger concern for the U.S. is not just about extraditing one drug lord. It is the close connection between a drug lord who supplies 40 percent of crack to the U.S. and a country’s Prime Minister. Coke and Jamaican PM Golding are from the same district, allies. Political parties have used street gangs here to get out the vote since the 1970s, but now these gangs have developed into international drug rings. The money and the firepower and the opportunity for corruption has magnified to the point where a state is at threat, at risk of becoming a narco-state. So now we will see if a drug lord’s ally can bring him to justice by the use of the military inside a crowded capital without igniting further unrest.