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Jamaica slum controlled by alleged drug kingpin in standoff with police over extradition to US

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — In a gritty slum, they are preparing for war. They are building barricades of junked cars and sandbags, making Molotov cocktails and pitching barbed wire over power lines.

They are waiting for the police, who they believe will come for Christopher "Dudus" Coke, a 5-foot-4-inch neighborhood boss that the U.S. Justice Department calls one of the world's most dangerous drug lords.

Kingston has been jittery since Prime Minister Bruce Golding this week reversed his long-standing refusal to extradite Coke to the United States on drugs and arms-trafficking charges.

The U.S., Canada and Britain have issued travel alerts, warning of possible violence and unrest, and most Jamaicans are steering clear of downtown Kingston entirely.

Dudus' headquarters, on the west side of the city, is the Tivoli Gardens housing project. Hundreds of residents, many dressed in white, marched peacefully outside a police station Thursday with signs reading: "No Dudus, No Jamaica!"

A sign affixed to a scruffy dog's back read: "Jesus died for us, we will die for Dudus."

Authorities insist they won't be swayed.

"We have and will be executing the warrant" for Coke's arrest, Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds, the officer in charge of operations, told the Jamaica Observer newspaper. "We won't tell you or anybody else what are the options we are foreseeing, but certainly they will be strategic and deliberate."

Golding had stalled the request for Coke's extradition for nine months with claims that the United States' indictment of the reputed drug trafficker relied on illegal wiretap evidence. The prime minister changed his mind amid growing public discontent, persistent questions about his ties to Coke, and a backlash against his use of a U.S. lobbying firm in Washington to urge authorities to drop the extradition request.

Golding's fight against the extradition strained relations with the United States, which questioned the Caribbean country's reliability as an ally in the fight against drugs. Locally, critics have asked for Golding's resignation, although his Jamaica Labour Party has continued to back him.

On Thursday, the matter claimed its first confirmed political casualty: Randall Robinson, deputy foreign affairs minister and a rising star in the party, resigned after saying he had two informal meetings with the U.S. firm last year to lobby Washington to drop extradition.

Coke allegedly leads one of Jamaica's gangs, which control politicized slums known as "garrisons." Political parties created the gangs in the 1970s to rustle up votes. The gangs have since turned to drug trafficking, but each gang remains closely tied to a political party. Coke's gang is tied to Labour.

Coke was born into Jamaica's gangland. His father was the leader of the notorious Shower Posse gang, a cocaine-trafficking band with agents in Jamaica and the United States that began operating in the 1980s and was named for its members' tendency to spray victims with bullets.

The son took over from the father, and expanded the gang into selling marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere, U.S. authorities allege.

Lawyers for Coke — who in addition to "Dudus" is also known as "Small Man" and "President" — have challenged his extradition in Jamaica's Supreme Court. Coke faces life in prison if convicted on charges filed against him in New York.

His lawyers say that Coke has instructed his followers to refrain from violence at Tivoli Gardens, the island's first housing project. They have not said whether Coke himself is there.

Police say Tivoli Gardens residents have stockpiled powerful weapons, including a .50-caliber sniper rifle with armor-piercing bullets. Others allegedly have stolen law-abiding residents' cell phones to prevent them from alerting authorities to Coke's movements.

So far, violence around the barricaded slum has been sporadic. On Wednesday, an armored vehicle was sprayed by gunfire shortly after forcing a trashed car from an intersection. No security forces were hit, but the Jamaica Defense Force quickly called up the army reserves.

"We urge the public not to panic because the police are equipped to deal with the situation," Security Minister Dwight Nelson said.

Golding also appealed to his Tivoli Gardens constituents to cooperate with authorities, saying he was assured that police would take care to "prevent any recurrence of the terrible atrocities that occurred in 2001" when a similar standoff between security forces and gunmen killed 25 civilians as well as a soldier and a constable.

Some Tivoli Gardens residents are nervous about a possible showdown and complain that Jamaican police are too quick to open fire in the "garrisons." Police have repeatedly faced criticism from human rights groups for extrajudicial killings.

"I just no want the police to come here and start shooting up the place," a burly young man said in Jamaican patois as he walked toward a corner where masked men guarded stockpiles of rebar and wooden pallets.

"We got no problem here, no problem with Dudus. Everybody stay calm."