KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) – When drug baron Christopher “Dudus” Coke ruled her slum neighborhood, Gloria Petgrave and her neighbors felt so protected by the area’s criminal benefactor that they never locked their doors.
Now, with Coke in New York facing sentencing Friday, Petgrave says is frightened to step outside at night in the West Kingston district of Tivoli Gardens.
Police have patrolled the streets since authorities besieged and raided Tivoli Gardens to capture Coke nearly two years ago, and many residents say they yearn for the more effective order he enforced, as lawless and violent as it was.
“I’ve never seen it as bad as it is now, lots of robberies,” the 67-year-old woman said just outside the bullet-pocked ghetto where’s she’s lived for four decades. “We want Dudus to come back here, but I doubt he ever will.”
Coke faces up to 23 years in prison after pleading guilty in August to federal racketeering and assault charges. He could have faced a life sentence on the initial charges filed against him.
Still, he remains in the spotlight in Jamaica. Many islanders speculate that he has told prosecutors of politicians, businessmen and others linked to crime, possibly opening a new chapter in the fight against corruption.
“I don’t see the U.S. government being so generous to him without a cost. They are obviously trying to get as much as possible out of him about who are the people at the top,” said Hilton McDavid, a social sciences lecturer at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies who has researched the aftermath of the May 2010 security raids in Tivoli Gardens.
Although U.S. authorities portrayed Coke as among the world’s most dangerous drug barons, McDavid says more powerful figures still lurk in the shadows.
“Dudus is basically a sergeant major. We haven’t touched the officers as yet: the generals, and the colonels and the majors. And they are probably people who are living very comfortably, people in high circles at the upper echelons of society,” he said.
National Security Minister Peter Bunting said last month that officials are trying to crack down on more kingpins and facilitators for organized criminal networks, not the sort of underlings arrested in recent years.
Coke followed in the footsteps of his father, Lester Lloyd Coke, better known as Jim Brown, a leader of the notorious Shower Posse during the 1980s cocaine wars. Authorities say he took over the organization when his father died in a mysterious fire in a Jamaican prison cell in 1992.
In Tivoli Gardens, people said Coke often paid the bills of those in need and made sure the streets were clean. Since everyone knew the penalty for street crimes was severe, thugs committed their assaults elsewhere.
But anyone who disobeyed Coke could suffer harsh punishment. One person accused of thievery “was brought to the ‘jail,’ tied down and killed by Coke with a chain saw,” according to court papers.
Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the Jamaicans For Justice rights group, said there have been few changes in Jamaica since Coke’s capture and extradition. She said murders and other crimes dropped last year, but gang violence has been ticking back up in recent months, even after peaceful general elections in December.
The sense of impunity for crime dons “was broken with the extradition of Dudus,” Gomes said. “(But) we have not seen any work at all done in communities to sever linkages with politicians and dons.”
For nine months in 2009 and 2010, former Prime Minister Bruce Golding denied the U.S. extradition request for Coke because his justice minister said that U.S. investigators had used wiretaps in violation of Jamaican law.
When his government finally backed down in May, Jamaican security forces launched a hunt for Coke in Tivoli Gardens in a confrontation that left more than 70 people dead. He was captured by Jamaican authorities in June 2010 and extradited to the U.S., but investigations into the deaths have barely begun.
Jamaica’s two major political parties have long relied on underworld bosses to help produce votes among slum dwellers.
At a recent press conference, Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said Coke’s Shower Posse is significantly weakened but remains active in West Kingston.
In the rough area of Denham Town, a maze of narrow roads just across the street from Tivoli Gardens, a spray-painted scrawl in Jamaican patois still vows lifelong allegiance to the crime boss: “Coke fi Life, Dudus.”
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