KINGSTON, Jamaica - After a slum raid that left nearly 50 people dead during four days of gun battles, the reputed drug kingpin who was the target may have fled the country, the government said Wednesday.
Strongman Christopher Coke, who helped the prime minister win elected office, had months to stockpile weapons in his slum stronghold while the prime minister wavered over U.S. demands for his extradition.
"I could not say if he is in Jamaica," Information Minister Daryl Vaz said of Coke, 41, who is known as "Dudus." "It's very difficult to tell."
Police and soldiers who fought their way into the barricaded Tivoli Gardens slum in gritty West Kingston were conducting a door-to-door search, and the government reported calm Wednesday. Coke's lawyer has declined to confirm his whereabouts.
Gray smoke was rising from recently extinguished fires inside Tivoli Gardens. Sporadic gunfire rang out elsewhere in West Kingston, and security forces barred journalists from entering the battle zones around the capital on Jamaica's south coast, far from the tourist resorts on the north shore of the Caribbean island.
The violence did not surprise island police and community groups who had warned that Coke had been stockpiling weapons and preparing to defend himself since the United States demanded his extradition last August.
According to the U.S. indictment, he has built a private arsenal of firearms smuggled in by gang members in the United States, sharing guns with other criminals to solidify his power as a major underworld boss.
"The situation at Tivoli is dreadful," said Susan Goffe, spokeswoman for the human-rights group Jamaicans for Justice, "but it's been something that's been simmering for a long, long time. And everybody knew that if they made the move for Coke, that there would be trouble."
At least 44 civilians have been killed, said Bishop Herro Blair, Jamaica's most prominent evangelical pastor, who was escorted into the slum by security forces. At least four soldiers and police officers also have died in the fighting.
Jamaican politicians and gang leaders who control ghetto fiefdoms have had cozy ties for decades. The slum presided over by Coke, the alleged leader of the Shower Posse gang, has long been a bastion of support for the governing Jamaica Labor Party. It is part of the district represented in Parliament by Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who stonewalled the U.S. extradition request for months before reversing himself under pressure from Washington and the local political opposition.
Golding disputes the allegation that his party is close to Coke. Political observers say he could not have been elected without the gang leader's support.
Police rarely, if ever, patrol inside Coke's slum. The last time they tried to assert control inside Tivoli Gardens, in 2001, clashes between gunmen and security forces killed 25 civilians, a soldier, and a constable. Former police officials have said officers receive subtle messages to stay out of certain areas controlled by politically connected gang leaders.
A federal indictment in New York accuses Coke of trafficking marijuana and cocaine to the United States, and the U.S. Justice Department has named Coke one of the world's most dangerous drug kingpins.