NEW YORK – Jermaine Cohen was a young slum-dweller in Jamaica when he says Christopher "Dudas" Coke drafted him into his drug gang by giving him a gun.
The weapon came with strict instructions from the notorious kingpin: "Don't lose this gun or you'll lose your life." Also: "Don't shoot someone you're not supposed to shoot."
From that point on, Cohen says, "I belonged to the system."
Cohen, 37, detailed the system on Tuesday at a sentencing hearing for Coke, who pleaded guilty last year to racketeering conspiracy and assault charges.
Federal prosecutors called Cohen — an admitted killer who became a government cooperator as part of a plea deal — to the witness stand to try to persuade a judge to give Coke the maximum 23-year term. No sentencing date has been set.
Before his arrest in 2010, Coke was a divisive figure in Jamaica, where he followed in the footsteps of his father, Lester Lloyd Coke, better known as Jim Brown, a leader of the notorious Shower Posse during the 1980s cocaine wars. Authorities say he took over the organization when his father, also sought in the United States, died in a mysterious fire in a Jamaican prison cell in 1992.
Once in power, the 43-year-old Coke became a folk hero to some followers in the West Kingston slum of Tivoli Gardens. He has listed his good deeds in a letter to the judge — throwing Easter parties for seniors, passing out school supplies and Christmas gifts to children and starting a school to teach computer skills to the disadvantaged.
"I implemented a lot of social programs for the residents of my community — programs that teach them about self-empowerment," he wrote in a plea for mercy.
Charity earned Coke loyalty and political clout in Jamaica. But authorities allege his hold on power came at a severe cost that had repercussions in the U.S.
Prosecutors have described Tivoli Gardens as "a garrison community" patrolled by Coke's young henchmen armed with illegal weapons bought on the black market in the U.S. and smuggled into Jamaica.
Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, Cohen testified on Tuesday that he was among the enforcers — known as "shotters" — under the command of Coke. The men were expected to "protect and serve" Tivoli Gardens in return for no-show jobs and other illegal benefits, he said.
Anyone who committed crimes without Coke's permission were taken to a jail and subjected to harsh punishment, Cohen said in response to questions from a prosecutor.
"Some people get beaten, sir," he said. "Some people get shot and killed."
Under Coke's system, elections were controlled by posting armed men at polling places, Cohen said. Only voters for the Jamaican Labour Party were allowed. Anyone for the People's National Party was scared off.
The gang forced vendors to pay Coke a tax, women to be drug mules and the elderly to stash drugs in their homes, the witness said.
Asked why he agreed to cooperate, Cohen said that he wanted "to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, about my life in Jamaica."
Cohen, who hasn't been sentenced, faces a possible life term. But prosecutors can recommend a lighter sentence based on his cooperation.