KINGSTON, Jamaica - Thousands of police and soldiers Tuesday stormed the Jamaican ghettos in search of a reputed drug kingpin wanted by the United States, intensifying a third day of street battles that have killed at least 30 people.
The masked gunmen fighting for underworld boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke say he provides services and protection - all funded by a criminal empire that seemed untouchable until the United States demanded his extradition.
Coke has built a loyal following in Tivoli Gardens, the West Kingston slum that is his stronghold. U.S. authorities say he has been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York City since the mid-1990s, allegedly hiring island women to hide the drugs on themselves on flights to the United States.
On Tuesday, masked gunmen in West Kingston vanished down side streets barricaded with barbed wire and junked cars. The sound of gunfire echoed across the slums on Jamaica's south coast, far from the tourist meccas of the north shore. Schools and businesses were closed across the capital, and the government appealed for blood donations for the wounded.
At the epicenter of the violence are the West Kingston slums, known as garrisons. The son of an alleged gangster, Coke, 41, has ties to the governing Jamaica Labor Party, which has counted on gunmen inside his Tivoli Gardens slum to intimidate election rivals.
Members of Coke's Shower Posse and affiliated gangs began barricading his stronghold last week after an announcement by Prime Minister Bruce Golding that he would approve Coke's extradition on drug- and gunrunning charges.
Golding, who represents Tivoli Gardens, had stonewalled the U.S. request for nine months, straining relations. Putting pressure on Golding, a State Department report earlier this year questioned the Caribbean island's reliability as an ally in the war against drugs. That came as Golding also faced domestic opposition that threatened his political career.
Golding moved Sunday to impose a monthlong state of emergency for the Kingston area. By Tuesday, about 10 percent of the capital was cordoned by security forces.
Coke has solidified his authority by taking charge of punishing thieves and other criminals in the ghettos, where the government has little presence and police rarely, if ever, patrol.
His influence extends well beyond the capital. Police say gunmen from gangs that operate under the umbrella of his Shower Posse elsewhere on the island have been flocking to his defense. Federal prosecutors in the southern district of New York say drug traffickers in the United States also routinely sent him gifts.
The violence has its roots in the 1970s, when political factions armed gangs to intimidate opponents ahead of the 1980 general elections. But the politicians long ago lost control of the gangs.
But by exposing the ties between gangs and politicians, some hope the explosion of violence will put Jamaica on a path to reform. "I think it certainly has been a wake-up call for the entire country," said Peter Bunting of the opposition People's National Party.