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As violence ebbs, Jamaica is calm but tense

Security forces remain on alert after days of violence with gang members loyal to Christopher 'Dudus' Coke. Hundreds of detainees are still corralled in a sports stadium.

May 28, 2010|By Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kingston, Jamaica — — Gun battles between drug gangs and security forces have receded, but tensions remained high here Friday as security forces remained on alert with hundreds of detainees still corralled in a sports stadium and many relatives of shooting victims anguished over not having been given access to loved ones' bodies.

A brief police-sanctioned tour of the eastern edge of the Tivoli Gardens slum, scene of much of the week's violence, hinted at the intensity of the conflict triggered Sunday night when the government served notice that it would arrest Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the city's most powerful "don" and alleged drug trafficker, and extradite him to the United States.

A three-story police station in Coronation Market was gutted by fire, one of four police posts that were attacked this week by forces loyal to Coke. The stalls of the usually thriving market serving Tivoli Gardens were nearly deserted, and the streets were littered with debris. One vendor watched troops in a nearby armored personnel carrier and refused to talk to a reporter. "I don't trust anyone at all," she said.

The official death toll after six days of violence stands at 73, although former Prime Minister Edward Seaga said in a television interview Thursday that he believes it could go as high as 150. Police efforts to arrest Coke were too heavy-handed, he said, adding that Prime Minister Bruce Golding should resign.

As many as 500 people may have been under arrest at one time, though many have been released. Contributing to the confusion, the New York Daily News reported that Coke was in New York preparing to give himself up to authorities there, although Jamaica Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said Friday that he believed Coke was in Jamaica.

American authorities requested Coke's extradition in August after his indictment by a federal court in New York on drug- and gun-trafficking charges. This week, as Jamaican armed forces conducted security sweeps, gang members loyal to Coke resisted, sparking gun battles.

As the city slowly recovers from the violence, multinational banks and aid groups were discussing holding an emergency summit next week, to propose a "mini-Marshall Plan" totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid for Jamaica, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

Talk of the plan comes after aid groups, along with the International Monetary Fund, approved a $1.2-billion assistance package in January for the economically hobbled nation.

Although many businesses in downtown Kingston reopened Friday after being closed much of the week, troops enforced a dusk-to-dawn curfew for most of the capital. The U.S. Embassy reopened Thursday, but a State Department advisory warning Americans to stay away is still in effect.

Crowds milled at the entrance of the National Arena in Independence Park, waiting for word on relatives picked up in the sweeps that began Sunday and continued through Thursday night. Relatives rushed a reporter to give him names of loved ones when a rumor spread that he was about to be allowed inside. Police have not allowed the media access to detainees.

Catharine Bremer, a street vendor, said her two sons, age 26 and 24, were arrested Thursday by plainclothes policemen. "The government doesn't give us a clue how they're doing so I am very worried," she said. "I can't eat and I can't sleep."

A dozen other relatives lingered in front of the Madden mortuary just outside a police cordon in Tivoli Gardens, where more than 50 bodies are in cold storage, according to a mortuary source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared government reprisal. As of Friday evening, police were still not allowing relatives to identify or claim bodies. Official autopsies won't be held until next week.

One of those waiting outside was Debbie Dale, whose son, Jamie, 21, was shot to death inside her house Wednesday in the Kingston Three neighborhood. She said about 10 officers knocked down her door and shot him at close range.

"They took me outside the house while they questioned him. Then I heard the shots. They dragged him out by the feet, threw him in a van and drove away. Only then could I go inside. There was blood everywhere," Dale said. "They said later he died in a shoot-out, but he didn't have a gun."

Residents alleged that some of the killings by security forces were random.

Speaking outside the mortuary, Lisa Jones said she was walking Wednesday with her boyfriend, Ian Gardner, in the Mountainview section of Kingston when security forces stopped them and led Gardner to a nearby store, where she said they shot him to death. A relative of Gardner said two officers had been killed in the area the night before and police were "looking for vengeance."

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