by Charles Lemos, Thu May 27, 2010 at 10:42:46 PM EDT
I have a friend from college who used to go down to Jamaica every year. Curious as to why someone would do this year in and year out, given the dozens of other exciting destinations in the Caribbean, I asked him well why Jamaica. He demurred that he enjoyed "smokin' Jamaica." My retort then was that he should try smoking Belize.
My point with the above anecdote is that there has been for some time now a drug culture throughout the Caribbean. If a cannabis infused vacation is your thing, well, the lands beyond the Rio Grande offer an array of exotic, if dazed, experiences. Still given this week's events in the Kingston slum of Tivoli Gardens, I'm not sure how many are now willing to head down to Jamaica. That's likely a problem for a country whose largest primary foreign exchange earner is the tourist trade even if most tourists never venture far from the beach of their walled off hotel.
The news out of Jamaica, while shocking, should not surprise. What once we could term "banana republics" are now fully dysfunctional narco-states and Jamaica isn't even Exhibit A. Try Honduras for that. Put down Haiti as Exhibit B. On the list of Western Hemispheric narco-states, Jamaica is perhaps Exhibit E or F. While the on-going drug wars in Colombia and Mexico garner more attention, the reality is that by virtue of their size drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) are unlikely to ever capture the Colombian or Mexican state even as they made significant inroads in corrupting the state and society. While the drug trade is a multi-billion industry in Colombia, it is now less than one percent of Colombian GDP - the 2008 UN estimate is that the drug trade accounts for 0.8 percent of Colombian GDP down from 7 to 8 percent at its peak in the late 1980s. It's not so much that drug trade has been curtailed but rather that the Colombian economy has grown.
That's not the case in Jamaica, which lacks a diversified economy. Other than people, Jamaica's largest export is bauxite. Apart from Botswana and Chile, it's hard to think of a successful developing world economy based on its mining sector. Certainly for Jamaica, bauxite has not proved a road to riches. Jamaica still produces an array of tropical agricultural products from bananas to sugar and coffee but even so Jamaican agriculture sector is undercapitalized and largely inefficient. But for favorable entry into the EU, Jamaican bananas could not compete with Ecuadorian or Central American bananas. Still the country's biggest problem is that it lacks a value-added manufacturing sector. Unemployment is about 15 percent with perhaps an additional one in three underemployed. In short, the dire economy has made Jamaica ripe for DTOs willing to exploit vulnerable Jamaicans. Sixty-three percent of all arrests at US airports in 2007 for cocaine possession involved passengers on flights from Jamaica. The cocaine may be Colombian but the mules are Jamaican.
There is one other thing you have to know about Jamaica and its political system. The country doesn't have political parties as much as it has armed gangs that compete in electoral contests. In the 1960s, Jamaica's two main parties, the Jamaican People's National Party and the Jamaican Labour Party, began arming the gangs of inner-city Kingston and Montego Bay. Guns for votes. Deliver the votes and you can run your neighborhood. The formula has made Jamaican elections the deadliest in the world.
And the presence of armed gangs that controlled whole sectors of the island only facilitated the entry of Colombian DTOs. And as Jamaica's role in the global drug trade grew, that cancer began to eat away at Jamaican state. All this was brought home in April 2001 when a drug kingpin named William Moore better known as Don Willie Haggart was killed for running afoul of his Colombian handlers. Now what was impressive about Don Willie Haggart was the funeral he got.
His body lay in state in Kingston's national arena, an honour reserved for only the greatest Jamaicans, such as former Prime Minister Michael Manley and reggae great Bob Marley. According to the press reports at the time, it took three and a half hours for his black Mercedes hearse to push through the crowds to the arena, where more than 5,000 people waited, including the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Housing and the Minister of Transport and Water, all from the then ruling People's National Party, the PNP.
So am I surprised that the current Prime Minister Bruce Golding of the now ruling Jamaican Labour Party, the JLP, tried to protect our current hero of Tivoli Gardens, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the most aptly named drug gangster ever, from extradition? Not in the least. I'm more surprised that Prime Minister Golding signed his own political death warrant by agreeing to extradite the aforementioned Coke to the US. In the greatest of ironies, Prime Minister Golding's parliamentary district includes Tivoli Gardens and much of West Kingston. But I suspect that to most residents of Tivoli Gardens, it is Christopher "Dudus" Coke who is effectively the state in that area. It is Christopher "Dudus" Coke who provides jobs and largesse to desperate residents. You and I may not think of men like Christopher "Dudus" Coke as Robin Hoods but the locals sure do and it's their opinion that matters.
Tivoli Gardens and West Kingston is now a war zone. The Jamaican state has no choice but to act. Whether Christopher "Dudus" Coke is captured or not is no longer relevant but what is relevant is that yet again the world is witness to the on-going failed war on drugs. If Christopher "Dudus" Coke is captured there are hundreds ready to take his place in the drug hierarchy.