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Diplomacy and the Gift: Jamaica’s Drug Trade Exposure

There is a thunderstorm over Jamaica that threatens to capsize the island’s already ailing economy and put its government in a diplomatic dilemma with the United States. Last August, the United States Department of Justice issued an extradition warrant for the arrest of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, a reputed gift from West Kingston’s infamous Tivoli Gardens garrison. Coca-Cola, counted among the “world’s most dangerous drug lords” by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has been charged with conspiracy to traffic firearms and distribute marijuana and cocaine.

To date, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Bruce Golding has ignored growing local and American pressure to sign the extradition order, citing the violation of Jamaican law in obtaining recorded evidence and protecting its citizens through due process. . But this is not an ordinary citizen.

The tentacles of Coca-Cola’s power and influence extend through Jamaica and into the upper echelons of today’s government. The community that Coke controls is a notorious stronghold of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and is the constituency of Prime Minister Golding; his defense attorney, Senator Tom Tavares-Finson, is a member of Parliament.

More than a diplomatic stalemate, the David-Goliath showdown threatens to expose the corruption that for decades has been intrinsic to Jamaican politics. Furthermore, it underscores the reality that politics and criminal gangs remain inextricably linked in both political parties. The ongoing diplomatic stalemate has vast repercussions for the popular tourist destination, which relies heavily on the support and magnanimity of the United States in the form of exports, tourism and remittances.

Then a bombshell: A Washington Post article reported that last November, prominent American law firm Manatt, Phelps, and Phillips received nearly $ 50,000, a $ 400,000 contract fee, to lobby on behalf of the Jamaican government against Coke’s extradition.

The agreement was signed by Manatt’s partner, Susan Schmidt, and Kingston’s attorney, Harold Brady, who claimed that he was “authorized on behalf of the government of Jamaica” to make the deal and was attended by Daryl Vaz, Jamaica’s Information Minister. The agreement violates the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), because the company did not state the purpose and scope of its lobbying efforts and because Coke funded the contract.

Although records filed by Manatt under FARA regulations state that only “treaty issues” were discussed, White House officials confirm that the talks focused primarily on Jamaica’s opposition to Coke’s extradition. In the ensuing furor, Prime Minister Golding has denied that anyone was authorized to act on behalf of the government, and the law firm has since “ceased its activities on behalf of the Government of Jamaica.” But questions remain, the most important of them: Who has the power to negotiate and finance such an agreement and why?

It is what everyone, taxi drivers, businessmen, nurses, vendors, talks about on the island. Yet as a testament to its power and reach, hardly anyone will speak officially, not university professors, journalists, friends or the man on the street, and questions are greeted with dead stares and disconnected phone lines. A palpable tension hangs over downtown Kingston and across the island, an incessant unease.

Impenetrable to outsiders, the entrances to the downtown garrisons are barricaded with cement boulders, tires, and old iron. They are patrolled by steely-eyed boy-men with automatic weapons dangling from their sides, fingers not far from the trigger. The ghetto steps are not enough here, and curiosity is answered with a shrill “Who are you?” Coca-Cola supporters, who are legion, insist that it will not go without a fight, and rumors are spreading about its preparation.

The garrison communities (Tivoli, Trench Town, Jungle, Fletcher’s Land and others) are autonomous, politically protected enclaves, structured according to party affiliation, dependent and controlled by “capos” and their gangs, who are the link between the community and the politics. parts. Donors receive patronage and political protection from party leaders, isolating them from law enforcement. In return, they finance political campaigns, cast votes, wage wars to protect territories and maintain peace in general.

Despite their reputation for criminality and corruption, many gifts benefit greatly from government construction, transportation, and infrastructure contracts and in turn use these legal businesses to launder money. They fill a void that successive governments seem incapable and unwilling to address.

Specifically, Coke has been instrumental in resuscitating, restructuring and streamlining commerce and ensuring the safety and security of both suppliers and buyers in Kingston. Now, business transactions and social interactions (like the popular dancehall event, Passa Passa) are mutually beneficial and money flows into poverty-stricken communities that are unlikely to benefit from tourist dollars or government subsidies. .

It also managed to stop much of the violence and terror for which these areas are historically renowned. But this peace comes at a high price: no business operates without paying the minions of a gift, from established businesses and shop windows to vendors of goods in the markets. Negative means arson, intimidation, and threat of violence without legal recourse.

Politicians have ceded their power to gangsters and seem unable or unwilling to mitigate the chaos they helped create since they began arming gangs from downtown Kingston and beyond. As the stalemate hardens, Jamaicans fear the return and outbreak of violence and what will flourish in the vacuum created by their extradition.

Jamaicans are a people famous for their pride who resist the idea of ​​bowing to anything and anyone, but many are bitterly angry and exasperated by the putrid smell of decades-long corruption, which they consider to tarnish the island’s image. around the world. Regardless of the resolution, in the bitter aftermath, the unbearable price will be paid by regular Jamaicans struggling to make ends meet.

America sharpens its tools

The turmoil began with Jamaica’s prominence in the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, exposing the country’s many transgressions. The report focuses on the “unusual handling of [Coke’s] extradition request “and notes the” dramatic change in Jamaica’s previous cooperation on extradition, “including a temporary suspension of the processing of all other pending requests, which, it says, raises serious questions about the country’s commitment with the fight against transnational crime.

Unfortunately, the report highlights the “weapons for marijuana” trade and labels the island as “the largest source of marijuana in the Caribbean” for the United States and “a transit point for cocaine trafficked from South America,” and cites its “high per capita homicide rate.” – 1,672 in 2009, one of the highest in the world. “It expresses concern about” the growing activity of organized crime, which permeates the legitimate business sector as well as the political sector, and its impact on the political and economic stability of Jamaica. “

Despite claims by the US Chargé d’Affaires in Jamaica, Isaiah Parnell, that ties remain strong between the countries, Washington is growing weary of waiting and skeptical of the government’s political will. Despite claims by Prime Minister Golding that efforts are being made to strengthen bilateral cooperation to stem the wave of illegal weapons and drugs, anti-corruption and anti-crime legislation still languishes in Parliament.

To date, the United States has yet to appoint an ambassador to Jamaica, and recently, the visas of several prominent artists and businessmen have been revoked without notice. Many citizens are concerned that US visas will not be granted or renewed.

What options await Coke, who resides in a historic mansion in the green suburbs of Kingston, miles away from the congested slums that he supposedly dominates? His father, fearing JLP strongman Lloyd Lester “Jim Brown” Coke, JLP enforcer and leader of the Shower Posse, who for more than a decade funneled drugs and weapons through the United States and Jamaica, was also found there. situation. Coke Sr. died in a mysterious fire in his cell at the General Penitentiary on the eve of his own extradition in February 1991.

Currently, the political drag continues before the Supreme Court of Jamaica. Jamaica’s Attorney General Dorothy Lightbourne filed a motion requesting a statement on the handling of Coke’s extradition request. The hearing is scheduled for May 5.

As the high-risk chicken game continues, one country waits: anxious, vigilant, hopeful.

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