KINGSTON, Jamaica — Before Jamaican security forces stormed into his poor West Kingston neighborhood, George Green got jobs and help with food bills from a fugitive slum boss. Garbage trucks left the cracked streets spotless.
Today, the walls of the Tivoli Gardens housing project are pockmarked with bullets and trash is strewn about after fighting between security forces and gunmen loyal to reputed drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke that left more than 70 people dead.
“I was safe before,” the 48-year-old Green said after being frisked by soldiers who have taken over the complex. “Now, I’m scared just talking to you.”
Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s pledge to crush street gangs and replace their strong-armed rule with social programs for the poor has a hollow ring to it in slums where “dons” like Coke have long provided services and imposed a disciplined law and order the government could never achieve. Slum dwellers have a deep distrust of the police, whom they often see as agents of the country’s elite.
Many Jamaicans also express skepticism that their two main political parties can wean themselves from their decades-old alliances with the underworld bosses.
The political parties built the gangs: Dons received government contracts, and in exchange delivered the votes of their people. Residents were caught in the middle: “The poor are exploited from both sides,” said Yvonne McCalla Sobers, head of the Jamaican rights group Families Against State Terrorism.
For years, citizens turned a “blind eye to escalating criminal violence, accepting as a part of the status quo the acknowledged links between our political actors and organized crime elements,” said Joseph Matalon, head of the island’s private sector group.
But the public has begun to clamor for change after Golding’s initial refusal to extradite Coke — who is wanted in the United States on arms and drug-trafficking charges — and the fatal results of the police raid he later launched to find the fugitive.
Some islanders have taken to the airwaves to angrily demand that Golding cut all ties to the gangs, and business leaders are demanding the government stop awarding contracts to the dons, fearful that foreign investment will dry up.
The main opposition party staged a no-confidence vote against the prime minister, which he survived Tuesday after promising a sustained assault on the gangs.
In the coming days, Golding said, crime laws will be amended to give security forces more resources to battle the gangs, while the government will create new social programs in the slums. He released few details.
“The state must reassert both its authority and responsibility in these communities,” he told Parliament. “But it must be a helpful — not hostile — state.”
But many islanders doubt the sincerity of a man whose career, some say, the gangs helped build.
They cite strong ties between Coke and Golding’s governing Labour Party and say the prime minister could not have been elected to his seat in Parliament representing West Kingston without the gang leader’s support. They note that Coke also thrived under the opposition People’s National Party, which led the island for nearly two decades before Labour’s 2007 win.
Golding denies any ties to Coke, and even resigned from the Labour Party in the mid-1990s to form a new party that would be free of gang links. He rejoined Labour in 2002.
But some say his ties to the gangs are deep. Most go so far as to say that Coke acted as kingmaker in Golding’s district, choosing the future prime minister to represent the poor area after former Prime Minister Edward Seaga left.
“There is quite a bit of speculation that Dudus chose Bruce, not for any affection for him, but because it seemed he thought Bruce had a chance to be prime minister,” Sobers said.
Jamaica has a long history of politicians forging alliances of convenience with gangsters.
In the 1960s, then-opposition leader Seaga gained fame for bulldozing an infamous slum and building Tivoli Gardens, the island’s first public housing project that he filled with supporters of the Labour Party. The project became a hotbed of political violence. Seaga was swept into power as prime minister in 1980 after partisan clashes killed nearly 800 people islandwide.
Another architect of Jamaica’s gang system was Anthony Spaulding, a socialist politician in the 1970s who oversaw the building of 40,000 public apartments as housing minister for the People’s National Party. Spaulding referred to himself as the “general of the streets” for his effectiveness in turning slums into patronage machines.
Powerful gangsters such as Coke’s father, Lester Lloyd Coke, better known as Jim Brown, were hailed as latter-day Robin Hoods by their desperately poor dependents. Brown died in a 1991 prison fire while awaiting extradition, and U.S. prosecutors say Christopher Coke took over the gang.
The slums became a patchwork of battlefields, with front lines marked by scrawled graffiti professing allegiance either to Labour or the People’s National Party.
But the system became more complicated as the gangs moved into criminal enterprises that have fueled one of the world’s highest murder rates: The nation of 2.8 million people had about 1,660 homicides in 2009. Labour and the PNP gradually ceded power over the slums to the gangs, who acted as community leaders and established their own laws.
In West Kingston, the few people who dare to speak Coke’s name express a loyalty bordering on fondness. They say the gangster instilled discipline — even meting out punishment for crimes — in areas where authorities rarely ventured.
Many locals insist that what authorities call the residents’ “protection” payments to Coke were actually gifts of thanks.
Ian Dyson, a resident of Denham Town, a West Kingston slum that saw fierce fighting last week, said Coke — not the government — has taken care of his community, starting with its children.
“Most of the youths, they come up and respect him” and other gang leaders. “The youth, they see that they’re looking out for them.”