As hundreds of troops and police officers close in on alleged drug lord Christopher Coke, explosions and steady gun fire can be heard throughout the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica. Plumes of smoke are rising from the barricaded community and journalists are hearing reports of as many as 15 dead, but caution that at this time they are unable to confirm that tally.
Coke is wanted by U.S. authorities for alleged drug and firearms offenses committed while running an international drug gang called the Shower Posse out of the Jamaican capital's slums. Earlier Monday, he told the Jamaican police who are trying to capture him so he can be extradited to the U.S., "I will not surrender," according to U.S. authorities.
Helicopters are hovering overhead, attempting to identify possible snipers on rooftops, and the military can be hear dropping grenades into the community, though it is not known whether those are stun grenades or antipersonnel grenades.
As many as 700 troops from the Jamaica Defence Force have been deployed in West Kingston, with 200 or more at the barricaded community, and according to authorities as many as 1000 police officers are also mobilized. Many can be seen in flak jackets and armed with heavy weapons, including AK 47s, to counter the heavily armed drug gangsters and supporters who are forming a ring around the area where Coke is thought to be holed up.
Conflicting reports that Coke will cooperate or refuse to surrender continue to emerge from the scene, where journalists have now been pushed back from the area of constant gunfire. If he chooses to fight, the violence is expected to continue to escalate.
Residents are complaining to reporters that women and children inside the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood are in danger from the constant gunfire. A battle between authorities and drug gangs in Kingston in 2001 killed 25 civilians.
Authorities declared a state of emergency in the Caribbean island nation Monday. Violence began spreading Sunday, after authorities began the effort to capture Coke and hand him over to U.S. law enforcement for extradition.
Eight police officers were shot, two fatally, during a confrontation near the international airport Sunday night. Four police stations were attacked Sunday, and one was burned to the ground. Jamaica's police commissioner has claimed that gunmen from other Caribbean islands have come to Kingston to aid Coke.
Coke is alleged to head an international criminal posse known as "The Shower Posse" that operates in Jamaica and the United States. He has been charged by U.S. authorities with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine and conspiracy to traffic in firearms.
Coke is alleged to have sold crack cocaine and marijuana in the New York area since the 1990s and to equip his gang members with illegally procured weapons.
Christopher Michael Coke, aka "Presi," "President," "Dudus," and "Shortman," according to the indictment in the Southern District of New York, which was unsealed in 2009, is alleged to have sold more than 1000 pounds of pot and at least five kilos of cocaine during the period of the indictment, 1994 through 2007.
Coke's posse operated out of the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood in West Kingston, which the indictment described as a garrison community, "a barricaded neighborhood guarded by a group of armed gunmen."
The indictment also alleged, however, that the Shower Posse hd a presence in "other areas of Jamaica, and in other countries, including the United States." At Coke's direction, Shower Posse members allegedly sent firearms back to Jamaica, which has one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Coke's "power and influence" the indictment charged, enabled him to protect his posse as it shipped dope to New York and weapons to Jamaica. Coke's alleged ties to Jamaica's prime minister and ruling party have been a major factor influencing the US inability to extradite him in the past.
Prime Minister Bruce Golding had resisted the U.S. extradition request for more than eight months, claiming that the U.S. had used illegal wiretap evidence to secure an indictment. The U.S. indictment refers to numerous phone calls in which Coke allegedly discusses the shipment and sale of drugs and weapons.
Golding was criticized by the political opposition in March for allegedly hiring a lobbying firm in the U.S. to fight the extradition of Coke. Lobbying documents show that the Jamaican government did hire a firm to lobby the U.S. over the treaty dispute. Golding later admitted that he approved the hiring of the firm, but said the effort was on behalf of his political party and not the government.
He apologized to the Jamaican public in a TV address on May 17, and announced that the Minister of Justice would sign extradition papers.
"I should never have allowed it," said Golding, "but I must accept responsibility for it and express my remorse to the nation."
In his statement, Golding said the Jamaican government had never refused to extradite Coke, but had "simply asked the U.S. authorities to provide additional information."
After Golding said the extradition would move forward, Tivoli Gardens began girding for battle.
In Jamaica, the two main political parties are often accused of being allied with the gangs that control different neighborhoods. The Jamaica Labour Party is accused of alliances with gangs on the west side of the capital city. Golding, who heads the Jamaica Labour Party, is a member of Parliament from West Kingston. His district includes Tivoli Gardens, and Tivoli Gardens is said to be a JLP neighborhood.
Additional reporting by Fitzroy Prendergast