AGUASCALIENTES, Mexico - The death toll in clashes in the Jamaican capital climbed past 50 yesterday as the government struggled to regain shaky control of slums where a reputed drug lord is headquartered. The man, a local hero in some parts of the Caribbean island but wanted for extradition by the U.S., remained a fugitive and may have escaped the offensive launched to capture him.
On a fourth day of smoldering urban violence, Kingston continued under a state of emergency, many streets deserted and gunfire erupting sporadically.
Jamaican security forces, who responded with a major assault on armed gangs Monday, were securing positions and searching block by block in the disputed Tivoli Gardens area, the purported stronghold of alleged drug trafficker Christopher "Dudus" Coke.
More than 500 people have been arrested, the government's Jamaica Information Service said yesterday.
Earl Witter, the Jamaican public defender, said after inspecting Tivoli Gardens that at least 35 bodies, mostly those of young men, were in the morgue, with nine additional deaths reported. The government has said four soldiers and police officers were killed.
Radio Jamaica said it was receiving reports from residents of a number of bodies that still lay strewn on the streets of downtown Kingston. These tolls did not include other parts of Kingston where fighting also raged.
Witter said he expected the toll to rise.
The violence in some ways was a consequence of the government's risky tolerance of - and even collusion with - Coke and similar gang bosses who lord over Kingston neighborhoods, analysts and experts said.
A succession of Jamaican leaders has allowed alleged drug "dons" to operate mini-fiefdoms in parts of the impoverished capital in exchange for turning out political support for candidates, most from the ruling Labor Party, and for maintaining a form of law and order.
The U.S. alleges that Coke has been trafficking cocaine into New York since the '90s, often using young Jamaican women as mules, and is demanding his extradition to face drug and gun-running charges. He is the reputed head of the Shower Posse, so-called for its penchant to "shower" enemies with bullets.
Prime Minister Bruce Golding had resisted the extradition request for months but relented under intense pressure from Washington, which, in an increasingly loud voice, complained that Jamaica was an unreliable partner in the drug war. Domestic opposition also grew, jeopardizing Golding's hold on power.
The government's decision to execute an arrest warrant for Coke is what ignited the violence, as his supporters rose to his defense and barricaded Tivoli Gardens to keep authorities out. But analysts said that Golding shares responsibility for the violence because he allowed an unholy alliance to fester.