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Critics: Rising Jamaican Death Toll Rooted in So-Called “War on Drugs”

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Jamaica’s death toll continues to rise in the search for alleged drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke, wanted by the United States. Jamaican police have confirmed that seventy-three people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in clashes between security forces and Coke’s armed supporters. Rights groups are raising questions about possible unlawful killings by security forces. We speak to Carolyn Gomes of the Kingston-based group Jamaicans for Justice and professor and author Benjamin Bowling, who writes that “the chaos in Kingston is symptomatic of the failure of US-led cocaine prohibition.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We go now to Jamaica, where the death toll continues to rise in the search for alleged drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke, wanted by the United States. Jamaican police confirmed Thursday that seventy-three people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in clashes between security forces and Coke’s armed supporters. Rights groups are raising questions about possible unlawful killings by security forces in the Tivoli Gardens area of the Jamaican capital of Kingston. Amnesty International has called for a thorough investigation.

Meanwhile, Coke himself is still eluding arrest. American prosecutors describe him as the leader of the Shower Posse gang that murdered hundreds of people during the cocaine wars of the 1980s. Jamaica’s former national security minister recently described Coke as the most powerful man in the country. After months of resisting US pressure to extradite Coke, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding reversed his position and declared a state of emergency Sunday, vowing to capture him.

AMY GOODMAN: Coke had previously mobilized votes for Golding’s party, and the Prime Minister even hired a lobby firm in Washington — Manatt, Phelps & Phillips — to try to get the US authorities to drop the extradition request.

Well, for more, we’re joined now by two guests.

Benjamin Bowling is professor of criminology and criminal justice at King’s College, London, and author of the forthcoming book Policing the Caribbean: Transnational Security Cooperation in Practice

. His latest piece in The Guardian is called “Jamaica Bleeds for Our War on Drugs,” where he writes, quote, “the chaos in Kingston is symptomatic of the failure of US-led cocaine prohibition.”

And on the line from Kingston, Jamaica, we’re joined by Carolyn Gomes. She is the executive director of the group Jamaicans for Justice.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s start in Jamaica with Carolyn Gomes. Tell us what’s happening on the streets right now and what you think needs to happen.

CAROLYN GOMES: It seems relatively calm. Certainly the attacks on police and police stations, the attacks — the broad-based attacks across the island, Spanish Town, that seems to be tuning down, calming down. What needs to happen is that we need to get smart in this “war” that — quote-unquote, that we are fighting. We need to stop and show that the abuses of citizens’ rights, which have characterized the operations of our security forces over many, many years, are not occurring, and that if any — that we have independent oversight of the operations as they are occurring right now. And we need clear, clear assessment of what happened in the last few days.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, there has been a history in Jamaica by the security forces of killings of civilians that have not been properly accounted for?

CAROLYN GOMES: Absolutely. We’ve reported on it to the Inter-American Commission. There are numerous reports. Over decades, the police, our police — rate of police fatal shootings is one of the highest in the world. Last year, our police killed 246 civilians. And there has not — in the last ten years, there’s been one prosecution of a policeman for illegal use of force. It’s a real problem that we have a complete and total impunity for abuse of rights in Jamaica.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bowling, you’re saying this is a failure of the war on drugs. Can you explain what you see is going on right now in Jamaica? You have the former minister of national security, Dr. Peter Phillips, saying Tivoli Gardens — that Christopher “Dudus” Coke is possibly more powerful than the Jamaican Labor Party itself.

BENJAMIN BOWLING: Well, I think that, in the broadest context, the prohibition of drugs has led to the creation of a clandestine market, which is a kind of straightforward and obvious point, really, that if the war on drugs, in its pursuit of what is seen by many people as a kind of evil, fails to actually, you know, prevent the growers and the kind of shippers and the consumers in the US and in Western Europe from using cocaine, then the only way that people can get hold of it is on the clandestine market. So prohibition creates the clandestine market, which then requires arming in order for the traffic to proceed. The US is — the flow of firearms southwards from the US via the Gulf states and Puerto Rico is extreme. Jamaican people have complained for many, many years that the northwards — the pressure to prevent a northwards flow of drugs has not been matched, to any extent, by the US attempt to prevent the southward flow of guns. That then links with a long-established, ongoing kind of political corruption and links between the so-called “garrison communities,” organized crime groups, the dons, right up through the political structure. So cocaine has essentially created a massive funding base for people who understand themselves and see themselves and present themselves as businesspeople. And that organized crime now reaches right through to the very heart of government. And when it’s threatened, when this sort of terror state of the dons and the posses is threatened, they clearly respond with armed violence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, what do you make of the fact that the Jamaican government, after resisting the extradition, then does this massive attack and somehow still has not captured the object of their search, Christopher Coke?

BENJAMIN BOWLING: Yeah, I mean, it’s absolutely extraordinary. It’s tragic. And, you know, my heart goes out to the families of the people who’ve lost loved ones and the people who have been injured in this, you know, in my view, entirely wasteful folly, and clearly not just unproductive, but counterproductive, in terms of loss of life. And, I mean, I think the first thing is that, you know, as Carolyn says, the way in which the police have conducted themselves over recent years — over many years, in terms of extrajudicial executions, in terms of political corruption within the police and across government, it’s hardly surprising that the government should have attempted to conceal their wrongdoing and to lobby to protect people who many within the community, many within the political class, see as their own.

Why exactly at this point the government has chosen to turn a kind of resistance of handing over Coke into an offensive will need to be explored by an investigation, which I think absolutely needs to happen. It isn’t just how the police have conducted themselves on the street that needs to be investigated. What is now needed is a thorough-going investigation, a public investigation, of corruption within the police service, within government, the links with organized crime on the extrajudicial executions, and how all this links together, because in order to respond to it, in order for Jamaica to move forward, there needs to be something, in my view, close to a truth and reconciliation process and a disarmament of the people on the streets who understand themselves, within the organized crime groups, within the streetcorner groups, as soldiers. And that is — you know, we need to talk disarmament. We need to talk demobilization of people who see themselves as soldiers. And a more thorough-going and positive response, not warfare. That approach is not working.

AMY GOODMAN: Benjamin Bowling, we’re going to have to leave it there. Carolyn Gomes, as well, thank you very much, from Jamaicans for Justice. And finally, that comment at the beginning of this segment, the blue-chip law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips signing a $400,000 contract to lobby on behalf of the government of Jamaica. Charles Manatt is the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, who also represents the Dominican Republic, where he was an ambassador ten years ago, hired to fight the extradition of Christopher Coke.

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