Jamaica’s leader survives no-confidence vote


Anger over Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s handling of police operations last week against a suspected drug lord that left 73 people dead pushed Jamaica’s Parliament to introduce a no-confidence measure Tuesday that could have cost the beleaguered leader his job.

The weeklong police and military search for alleged drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke, which also saw 700 people detained, had drawn widespread criticism and calls for Golding’s resignation, including from longtime rival and former Prime Minister Edward Seaga.

The no-confidence and censure motion — which Golding narrowly survived in a 30-28 vote against the measure — also focused attention on a long-standing practice of politicians cozying up to neighborhood “dons,” the often-violent and Mafioso-like ward leaders of whom Coke is the most powerful.

The failure of the sweeps to capture Coke, a 41-year-old neighborhood leader in the Tivoli Gardens slum who is wanted in New York federal court on drug and arms smuggling charges, only made matters worse for Golding.

Before the no-confidence vote, Golding said he would push to pass six crime bills and promised to maintain pressure on criminal gangs, saying the operations last week were “the beginning of a concerted effort to dismantle an aggressive criminal network.... We will target criminal gangs wherever they exist, irrespective of their political alliances.”

But Golding’s image was tarnished long before the search for Coke began.

The government came under fire for having dragged its feet on the U.S. extradition request for Coke issued in August, which raised suspicion among opposition politicians and observers that Golding was protecting Coke. In March, Golding denied reports that his government had hired the U.S. law firm Manatt Phelps & Phillips to, among other things, contest the extradition, a denial he subsequently had to retract.

“This house must do the right thing to salvage our constitutional integrity and our international image,” opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller said in arguing for censure for Golding’s “unforgiveable violation.”

The political furor underscores the practice of Jamaican leaders who confer authority on neighborhood dons as way of maintaining party discipline, punishing opponents and distributing patronage, similar to the political ward system once prevalent in Chicago and New York.

The patronage often takes the form of government jobs and construction contracts for public works, which in turn generate local employment and earn financial reward for the recipients.

But with the increase of drug trafficking in Jamaica since the mid-1980s, many of the dons turned to violent crime as government resources were cut by financial crises. In fact, some dons’ drug profits have made them more powerful than their former patrons, said Brian Meeks, a University of the West Indies political science professor.

According to an indictment unsealed in U.S. federal court in August, Coke’s gang, called the Shower Posse, since the early 1990s has smuggled cocaine and marijuana to the United States while bringing guns and cash back to Jamaica. He faces a possible maximum sentence of life in prison and a fine of $4 million.

Coke succeeded his father as a local boss after the older don was fatally burned in jail in 1992. Coke has become revered among some of the poor in his Tivoli Gardens district as a latter-day Robin Hood. He bankrolls social services, including health and school tuition, that the government in its current financial straits is unable to provide.

But one U.S. anti-narcotics official told The Times that Coke is a “very, very dangerous criminal” whose conviction would be a blow to one of the Caribbean’s most powerful drug-running operations.

Several Tivoli Gardens residents, however, spoke Monday of Coke’s good works, including a concert held every September called Champion in Action to raise money to sponsor school tuition, uniforms and supplies for resident children. A second annual event, called Jamboree and held in December, raises money for Christmas gifts for poor children and Christmas dinners for poor elderly people. Residents said crime is kept low by Coke’s enforcers.

“We get free medication. We get everything assisted, anything we want,” said Catherine Quesd, 24. “Old people who are hungry can go to him, they can ask him for money, money to buy them food, medication, anything at all you can ask him for.

“I could walk in the streets naked and nobody come trouble me. I feel like my community is the peacefullest community in Jamaica. And who do that? Mr. Golding don’t do that,” Quesd said.

Michelle Davis, 45, said her 22-year old son, Errol, was killed by police last week. She blamed the government, not Coke, who she said was a positive presence in the neighborhood, playing football with youths and dispensing cash to the needy.

“He never forsake us, nor leave us. He’s always here. When he’s here, you don’t see Mr. Golding. But owing to that they want to kill him,” Davis said.

Kraul is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Emily Schmall contributed to this report.