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

The government of Jamaica should turn the hunt for an alleged drug lord wanted in the U.S. into a national initiative, so as to break the hold gang leaders have on politicians, and on society.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding called the violent confrontation between security forces and supporters of Christopher "Dudas" Coke a turning point for the Caribbean island, and a chance to demonstrate to the world that Jamaica is a "land of peace, order and security."

But he has been surprised by the intensity of the conflict, and the loyalty of Mr. Coke's followers.

More than 1,000 soldiers and police dressed in full combat gear and armed with rifles are going home to home in the Tivoli Gardens district in West Kingston, searching for the 42-year-old don of this poor neighbourhood, known locally as "the mother of all garrisons."

Mr. Coke, who appears in one photo as a short, unassuming man with a pot belly, is viewed in Tivoli as a Robin Hood figure, and called the "president." His supporters have stockpiled arms and set up barricades around the slum, vowing to guard him with their lives.

Already 44 people have been killed and hundreds of residents are trapped in their houses, without running water. A month-long state of emergency has been declared in parts of the capital.

Mr. Golding should have acted sooner. Instead he protected Mr. Coke, who faces drugs and arms trafficking charges in the U.S. This exposes the devastating link between politics and crime in Jamaica. Mr. Coke is known to have ties to the governing Jamaica Labour Party.

For nine months, Mr. Golding opposed the extradition of Mr. Coke on the grounds that the wiretap evidence used by the Americans was obtained illegally. The prime minister only changed position after being caught in a falsehood about the hiring of an American law firm to lobby Washington to withdraw the extradition request.

Mr. Coke is the alleged leader of the Shower Posse gang, based in the constituency that Mr. Golding represents. The gang is one of many that politicians created in the 1970s to bring in votes, but they long ago lost control of them. The Shower Posse has been linked to the sale of drugs in Jamaica, New York and Toronto - where earlier this month 12 alleged members were arrested. Organized criminal networks are also involved in gun smuggling, an activity that contributes to Jamaica's ranking as a country with one of the world's highest per-capita murder rates.

This escalating conflict may indeed be a turning point for the country, and help put it on the road to reform. At the very least, Mr. Golding, who has apologized for his earlier missteps and for the loss of life, has finally shown a willingness to take on garrison politics, without counting the cost. He is right to carry out the operation until Mr. Coke is captured and his group disarmed.