Masked men torched a police station and traded gunfire with security forces in a patchwork of barricaded slums in Jamaica's capital Sunday, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.
Sporadic gunshots rang out in gritty West Kingston where defiant supporters of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, a Jamaican "don" sought by the U.S. on drug and arms trafficking charges, turned his Tivoli Gardens neighborhood and other areas into a virtual fortress with trashed cars and barbed wire.
In barricaded Hannah Town, close to Tivoli Gardens, black smoke spiraled into the sky from a police station set aflame by molotov cocktails.
Gangsters roaming streets
Officers fled the burning station in impoverished West Kingston, where a 2001 standoff between gunmen and security forces killed 25 civilians as well as a soldier and a constable.
The Jamaica Constabulary Force reported one wounded Sunday: a police officer hit in the hand by gunfire.
Police said the attacks by gangsters roaming the streets with high-powered guns and improvised weapons were unprovoked. It called for all "decent and law-abiding citizens" in the troubled areas to immediately evacuate their homes and said security forces would ferry them out safely.
The violence erupted after a week of rising tensions in the capital over the possible extradition of Coke to the United States.
After Prime Minister Bruce Golding reversed his long-standing refusal to extradite Coke, the alleged kingpin's supporters began barricading the streets and preparing for a fight.
Earlier Sunday, police urged the neighborhood boss to surrender, calling the heavy barricades encircling his slum stronghold a sign of "cowardice."
The U.S., Canada and Britain issued travel alerts Friday warning of possible violence and unrest in Jamaica. Most islanders have been avoiding downtown Kingston entirely.
Influence over West Kingston
The state of public emergency, limited to the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew, will be in effect for one month unless extended or revoked by lawmakers, the government said.
Coke is described as one of the world's most dangerous drug lords by the U.S. Justice Department. He has ties to the governing Jamaica Labour Party and holds significant sway over the West Kingston area represented in Parliament by Golding, who stalled Coke's extradition request for months with claims the U.S. indictment relied on illegal wiretap evidence.
Golding's fight against the extradition strained relations with Washington, which questioned the Caribbean country's reliability as an ally in the fight against drugs. His handling of the matter, particularly his hiring of a U.S. firm to lobby Washington to drop the extradition request, provoked an outcry in Jamaica that threatened his political career.
Coke, who typically avoids the limelight, has remained silent. He faces life in prison if convicted on charges filed against him in New York.
Jamaica's political history is intertwined with the street gangs that the two main parties helped organize — and some say armed — in Kingston's poor neighborhoods in the 1970s and '80s. The gangs controlled the streets and intimidated voters at election time. In recent years political violence has waned, and many of the killings in Kingston now are blamed on the active drug and extortion trade.
The Rev. Renard White, a leader of a Justice Ministry peace initiative that works in Jamaica's troubled communities, said Coke is a strongman who wields enormous power and whose followers are ready for violence if they think it is in his best interest.
"Clearly the government has to take a strong hand, but they must also tread very, very wisely so people are not hurt," White said. "But a lot of these guys in Tivoli Gardens, they are really pretty desperate."
Coke was born into Jamaica's gangland. His father was the leader of the notorious Shower Posse gang, a cocaine-trafficking band with agents in Jamaica and the U.S. that began operating in the 1980s and was named for its members' tendency to spray victims with bullets.
The son took over from the father, and expanded the gang into selling marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere, U.S. authorities allege.
Lawyers for Coke — who in addition to "Dudus" is also known as "Small Man" and "President" — have challenged his extradition in Jamaica's Supreme Court.