IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Jamaican kingpin's reign comes to a quiet end

Much of the island nation is on edge as people wait to see if Christopher "Dudus" Coke's many supporters in the slums of West Kingston will remain calm with the loss of a 42-year-old leader.
Image: Christopher \"Dudus\" Coke
U.S. authorities began investigating Christopher "Dudus" Coke's alleged role in cocaine and marijuana shipments in the 1990s.The Jamaica Gleaner / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Christopher "Dudus" Coke was born into gang royalty, running a smuggling operation that supplied drugs up and down the U.S. East Coast. He used the proceeds to cast himself as a Jamaican Robin Hood, and his power grew to rival that of the prime minister.

That reign was at an end Wednesday, with Coke behind bars at a secret location and facing almost certain extradition to the U.S.

The threat of extradition sparked a week of violence in May that killed 76 people, but his capture after a monthlong manhunt was surprisingly peaceful: He was arrested at a police checkpoint while wearing a wig in a preacher's car outside the capital.

In some ways, it was a fitting end since Coke was known as a low-key kingpin — more Godfather than Scarface — who quietly exercised his power over the most notorious Jamaican slum.

"He was perfectly calm," Leslie Green, an assistant police commissioner, said of the arrest late Tuesday on the Mandela Highway outside Kingston. It was the reaction of a "professional and calculated" criminal, he added.

Now, much of Jamaica is on edge as people wait to see if Coke's many supporters in the slums of West Kingston will also remain calm with the loss of a 42-year-old leader credited with providing better services than the government.

Coke is due to make his first court appearance by Thursday as proceedings begin for his extradition to New York, where he faces drug and weapons charges and the prospect of a possible life sentence if convicted.

His father, famed gang leader Jim Brown, died in a 1992 prison fire in Jamaica while awaiting extradition to the U.S. on drug charges. Coke then became the head of the Shower Posse, a name that by some accounts came from the gang's practice of "showering" its enemies with bullets.

By all accounts, the son was a sharp contrast from his mercurial father, but he nevertheless took his inherited role to new heights.

'Cool and calculating'
U.S. authorities who began investigating Coke's role in cocaine and marijuana shipments to New York and Florida in the 1990s allege he gave out cash and weapons to solidify his authority among gangs in Kingston and beyond.

He also spread his riches around the slums. In blighted downtown areas with hardly any government presence, he was credited with enforcing public order and helping families with nowhere else to turn for medical bills and other needs.

All who met the strongman inside his Tivoli Gardens base described him as a low-key, self-possessed man without the flash of other dons.

"He was extremely articulate, very bright, the kind of man who people in Jamaica would describe as cool and calculating," said Bishop Herro Blair, who spoke privately with Coke at the behest of Prime Minister Bruce Golding shortly before the outbreak of last month's violence. "He spoke in a calm, easy tone of voice, and at the time was carefully weighing all his options."

Behind Coke's desk was a framed message that read, "Jesus loves me," and scripture verse could be seen elsewhere in the modest office, Blair said.

The one known passion of the man who organized huge street parties inside Tivoli Gardens is for dance — especially the Gully Creeper made famous by Usain Bolt at the Beijing Olympics. A former teacher told local media once that Coke had been a model student, a math whiz, said Annie Paul, a cultural critic in Kingston who has researched the island's gang culture.

Coke apparently possessed remarkable leadership abilities since he was able to unify the country's gang leaders, said Paul, editor of the journal Social and Economic Studies.

"There are a few little things that suggest he wasn't your normal, flashy hard-drinking don," she said. "I hesitate to just dismiss Dudus as a common criminal."

In a country where gangs have long benefited from ties with political parties, Coke built his reputation inside a barricaded neighborhood that is a stronghold of the governing Jamaica Labor Party and represented in parliament by Golding — who stonewalled the U.S. extradition request for nine months. Political opponents said Golding's dithering in the case suggested Coke was more powerful than Golding.

The violence flared last month after Golding dropped his opposition to Coke's extradition, which had strained relations to the United States and put his political career in jeopardy at home amid growing public anger.

The extent of the community's loyalty to Coke inside the slums immediately became clear as supporters built barricades of junked cars and sandbags, made gasoline bombs and pitched barbed wire over power lines. Gunmen from gangs across the Caribbean island fought soldiers and police in street battles that killed 76 people.

Eluding manhunt
Police caught Coke only after he decided to surrender.

He was arrested at a checkpoint in a car with the Rev. Al Miller, an influential evangelical preacher who facilitated the surrender of Coke's brother earlier this month. Miller said Coke was on his way to turn himself in to authorities at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston when police stopped him.

Green said Coke managed to elude police for weeks with help from a network of supporters.

"He's got tremendous support from senior businesspeople and others throughout the country. He had a very extensive and vast network," Green said.

Coke is said to fear the same fate of his father, a man that some suspect was killed to keep him from implicating others in the drug trade. But Security Minister Dwight Nelson said Coke is locked away at an undisclosed, maximum-security facility and his life will be protected.

Golding has described the pursuit of Coke as a turning point in Jamaica's struggle with gangs, which have thrived since political factions armed criminals in the 1970s to help rally votes. While the affiliations are deeply entrenched, many say the arrest of such an important figure does make reform seem possible.

"It certainly struck a real blow against don culture here," Paul said. "Before all this happened, Dudus was considered to be untouchable."

Associated Press writer Howard Campbell reported this story from Kingston and Mike Melia from San Juan, Puerto Rico. AP writers David McFadden and Ben Fox contributed to this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.