Leader under fire as bodies pile up in Kingston

2010-05-29 07:48

Jamaica’s leader faced growing criticism yesterday over a nearly

week-long assault on a slum to capture a powerful drug don as decomposing bodies

of civilians lay unclaimed for days.


The operation has left 73 civilians dead by official count and has

divided the island, with many Jamaicans hailing what they see as a chance to

fight rampant crime but some alarmed at the heavy humanitarian price.


An overpowering stench of death hung over a cemetery in the capital

Kingston, where more than a dozen bodies were left in simple wooden coffins.

Flies hovered over one, from which an exposed leg stuck out.


Faced with rising allegations of abuse, the military and police

went on the offensive, portraying residents of the destitute Tivoli Gardens area

almost as an insurgent force that had hidden explosives and girded for heavy

combat.


Forces descended last Sunday into the district seeking gang leader

Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who is wanted in the United States on drug trafficking

charges but is hailed by many residents as a Robin Hood figure who offers

security and small-time jobs on some of the world’s toughest streets.


Jamaica’s police chief, Owen Ellington, pledged a thorough

investigation of all allegations but vowed to find Coke.


Ellington said: “Five days ago, there were concerns in this country

as to whether the security forces have the capacity or the will to go inside

Tivoli Gardens and disrupt Christopher Coke. Today, he is on the run. And we

will catch him.”


But with no sign of Coke, rumours have floated around Jamaica on

his whereabouts with some convinced he fled and others suspecting he was

negotiating a surrender.


Ellington said he believed Coke was in Jamaica.


In Washington, State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said

the United States had no “knowledge about what Mr Coke is thinking or even where

he is.”


Ellington said bodies had been left outside for post-mortems

following accusations the police were trying to secretly dispose of corpses to

hide the death toll, but that they could be a public health hazard if left

inside.


But many of Coke’s sympathisers inside the barricaded area accused

troops of firing indiscriminately.

Sonia, 42, who fled from Tivoli Gardens, said

she did not know if Coke was even still in Jamaica: “Who said he here? Is that a

reason to destroy our place? Nobody knows where he is. We all just here,

mourning our dead.”


The slum dwellers received support from former prime minister

Edward Seaga, who used to represent Tivoli Gardens in parliament and is

considered by some to be the architect of Jamaican politicians’ close ties with

the underworld.


Seaga estimated that the real death toll was up to 150. He called

for the resignation of incumbent Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who succeeded

Seaga as the ruling Jamaica Labour Party’s parliamentarian representing Tivoli

Gardens.


Seaga, a close ally of former US president Ronald Reagan, said in a

televised interview: “I cannot think of any reason to cause the government to

continue with this very, very wicked act. What kind of country have we become?

This is what happened with Pinochet in Chile, it happens in Africa. It does not

happen here.”


Amnesty International also called for a thorough investigation of

the unrest, saying that Jamaican police had a “dire” track record on human

rights.


It pointed to the small number of weapons seized compared with the

death toll. As of Friday, the police said they had captured a few dozen firearms

or explosives.


However, many Jamaicans have hailed the crackdown as a way to

battle endemic crime.

Joseph Matalon, president of the Private Sector

Organisation of Jamaica, an umbrella group of businesses, welcomed efforts to

fight violence and “the incestuous links that exist between our political actors

and the criminal underworld”.

 

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