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Armed police officers patrol a street in Kingston, in this May 24, 2010 frame grab.REUTERS TV

It was a single Opposition question in Jamaica's Parliament that led to the three-day, bloody showdown between police and supporters of a fugitive gangster, a conflict that has left more than 60 people dead and highlighted the shadowy ties between the country's political and underworld leaders.

Hundreds of armed police officers surrounded an impoverished neighbourhood in Western Kingston called Tivoli Gardens and hospitals warned that they were running low on blood supplies as the hunt for Christopher (Dudas) Coke continued to tear apart the links between the worlds of Jamaican politics and crime.

A morgue at one of Kingston's main hospitals received three trucks carrying bodies, Agence-France Presse reported, including that of a baby. Although officials put the death toll at 30, hospitals were reporting more than 60 dead, mostly civilians. Most schools and businesses were closed and the capital remained under a state of emergency as the Tivoli resembled a war zone with security forces pouring in and residents building barricades.

Last week, after months of refusals, Prime Minister Bruce Golding of the Jamaican Labour Party announced that his government had approved the long-awaited extradition of Mr. Coke to the United States, where prosecutors have called him the don of the notorious Shower Posse gang, and indicted him on numerous charges of drug trafficking.

Mr. Golding's reversal, however, only came about after one of the government's chief rivals, Peter Phillips of the People's National Party, rose in Parliament on March 16 and asked about a strange and unexplained contract that had been signed between Mr. Golding's party and a prominent California law firm - Manatt, Phelps and Phillips.

Over the ensuing weeks, it slowly emerged that the firm had been hired to lobby the administration of U.S. President Barrack Obama about why it shouldn't seek Mr. Coke's extradition. The Washington Post reported that the law firm had at least six contacts with the U.S. federal government, including one with a Jamaican minister and officials from the U.S. departments of state and justice.

So why would a ruling Jamaican political party advocate so forcefully on behalf of a suspected drug lord? Because of a decades-old Jamaican tradition of political leaders and gangsters entering into mutually beneficial, "unholy alliances," said Michael C. Chettleburgh, a Canadian author and expert on street gangs.

Drug lords such as Mr. Coke have come to wield great power in Jamaica's poorest slums, and are often viewed as Robin Hood-type figures because of their largesse. In much the same way that cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was considered a hero in certain Columbian locales, Jamaican gangsters provide money to children's soccer teams and are able to land government labour contracts for the unemployed. In return for those contracts, as well as immunity from police, criminals such as Mr. Coke are expected to deliver votes, Mr. Chettleburgh said. In Mr. Coke's case, the member of Parliament that represents his neighbourhood of Tivoli Gardens is Mr. Golding, the Prime Minister.

The quid pro quo between criminal and political leaders began 30 years ago, when rival political parties agreed to arm street gangs in return for higher turnouts at polling stations, Mr. Chettleburgh said.

"This is a gang that was really seeded by political forces. And that's sort of the dirty little secret of Jamaican politics," he said.

If there is any upside to this week's violent street battles, it's that those unsavoury ties have been laid bare for the entire world to see, experts on Jamaican justice say.

"I think it brings into stark reality the threat that these criminal organizations really pose and continue to pose to our state," Peter Bunting, a Jamaican opposition MP, said on national radio.

"We have often buried our heads in the sand and try to pretend that they aren't vicious murderers. We gave them some sort of façade of legitimacy as community protectors and businessmen and it has now been exposed that that was just rubbish."

For Mr. Golding's part, he has apologized and offered to resign, an offer that his party declined. In a televised address, he acknowledged that the hiring of the law firm was a mistake.

"In hindsight, the party should never have become involved in the way that it did and I should never have allowed it, but I must accept responsibility for it and express my remorse to the nation," Mr. Golding said.


Garrison politics

Violence in Jamaica has long been intertwined with politics, which has been dominated by two political parties: the PNP and the Jamaica Labour Party. Both parties have relied on the empowerment of strong and violent armed leaders who would enforce the political agenda in each community and help create garrison communities through violence and intimidation. Adjacent communities also suffer because of confrontations between rival gangs from different garrisons vying for control.

Gang warfare

Between elections the gangs that run garrison communities are able to profit from their control of government contracts and extortion/protection rackets, among other, often illegal, activities such as drug trafficking. However, according to the National Committee on Political Tribalism, "political protection insulates them from the reach of the security forces." Thus, they are able to decide over the life and death of inner-city community inhabitants with impunity. The committee also noted that "many politicians have benefited from the unrest and displacement that are features of communities with high levels of unemployment, a proliferation of unskilled and virtually unemployable youth and pervasive poverty."

A history of violence

Historical accounts suggest that street violence with sticks and stones had been used by both political parties in the late colonial period to assure votes. However, after independence in 1962, and particularly during the 1970s, the involvement of organized armed gangs in the political process became entrenched and sticks and stones gave way to semi-automatic weapons. Political violence reached a peak in the 1980 elections when around 800 people were killed in clashes between rival groups.

Source: Let them kill each other: Public security in Jamaica's inner cities, by Amnesty International