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EDITORIAL - Other Cokes are possible

Published:Friday | May 25, 2012 | 12:00 AM

It was symbolic that two years since Jamaica's security forces entered Tivoli Gardens to arrest Christopher Coke, he sat in a New York court listening to testimony by former cronies about the ruthlessness with which he managed his criminal enterprise.

By the time of last week's proceedings, Coke had already pleaded guilty to having exported cocaine into, and running guns from, the United States. So the evidentiary hearing was to help the presiding judge decide on the extent of his sentence, which is still outstanding.

The latest episode of the Coke saga raises profound questions for Jamaica, including how its justice system works, and the organisation of its politics. Christopher Coke represented the seamier side of Jamaica's politics.

In that regard, it is important to place Christopher Coke in some context. First, he was not merely someone who the Americans declared a 'drug kingpin' and placed on their most-wanted list.

Powerful criminal

In Jamaica, he maintained the thin veneer of a legitimate businessman, whose companies received government contracts. Tivoli Gardens, Coke's home base and redoubt, is the urban power centre of the Jamaica Labour Party. Coke, essentially, was overlord of Tivoli Gardens and, it has emerged, the most powerful figure in the island's criminal underworld.

In other words, Tivoli Gardens was the archetypal garrison community, an area of hegemonic control by one party, guaranteed by the muscle of favoured loyalists. In old days, men like Coke paid obeisance to politicians. But as the State's largesse dwindled, dons grew independently wealthy from crime and established quasi-legitimate businesses - a role reversal. It is, perhaps, fathomable that the then Jamaican administration resisted, for nine months, America's request to extradite Coke and engaged in unseemly behaviour to have Washington change its mind.

When Jamaica finally relented, outsourcing the Coke problem, as has been the case with others, was the easier option, rather than placing the weight on the country's creaky justice system.

Coke did not go quietly. His private militia fought back, an episode that cost more than 70 lives and seriously threatened Jamaica's stability.

Hope deferred? or dashed?

With the collapse of Coke's empire, there was optimism for fundamental change in Jamaica. A one-third decline in Jamaica's homicide numbers, which remain stratospheric, is positive.

But two years on, there are still questions of whether anything fundamental has changed in Jamaica's political culture. We, unfortunately, do not believe that much has.

Tivoli Gardens is now a more open community than it used to be, reintegrated into the national territory rather than, as it used to appear, an enclave apart. But the fundamental change has to be in the politics, and how the parties organise themselves.

Maybe, intellectually, the leaderships of the parties are committed to this change. We, however, do not sense the will, or courage, to make a clean break with the past, which demands more than fine declarations of intent.

Such statements must be followed by concrete action of disavowal of the hard men of violence, inside, or on the periphery of, the parties, no matter their diction or accents, how they dress, what sport they play, or whether they sit in a legislature or not.

But worse is the apathy that continues to attend the approach to Jamaica's inner cities, which are overridden with crime, unemployment and poor education - the environment in which the likes of Coke thrive.

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