U.S. Embassy in Jamaica Curtails Service as Accused Drug Lord's Impending Extradition Spurs Deadly Violence
The United States Embassy in Jamaica is suspending all visa operations and nonessential services for Americans as violence continues to escalate in the island nation's capital, a State Department spokesman told FoxNews.com on Monday.
A travel alert remains in effect for the area.
The State Department issued the alert on Friday after masked men defending Christopher Coke, a reputed drug kingpin who the U.S. has been trying to extradite since August, went rampaging through the streets of Kingston. Three people were killed in the weekend violence, and Coke's supporters barricaded themselves behind a makeshift fortress of junk cars and barbed wire.
The Jamaican government declared a state of emergency as the situation intensified.
A State Department spokesperson e-mailed this statement to FoxNews.com:
"We have no indication that U.S. citizens are being targeted for violence as Jamaican authorities seek to apprehend and extradite Christopher “Dudus” Coke, nor that the current situation in Kingston will affect other countries in the region. The Department of State issued a Travel Alert on May 21 recommending that U.S. citizens consider the risks associated with travel to and within the greater Kingston metropolitan area; practice good security; and maintain a heightened situational awareness and a low profile. U.S. citizens in Jamaica are advised to monitor local news reports and consider the level of security present when venturing outside their residence or hotel."
The State Department alerted Americans in Jamaica of security concerns and will continue to provide them with updates, another spokesman, Darby Holladay, told FoxNews.com.
“When the U.S. Embassy in Kingston opens tomorrow after the local holiday, immigrant visa, non-immigrant visa and nonessential American citizens operations will be suspended, but other business operations will continue,” he said.
The U.S. continues to pursue the arrest of Coke, though the State Department would not say when or how this would take place.
“We continue to work with the government of Jamaica collaboratively to counter illicit trafficking,” Holladay said. “We are not going to discuss specifics of that cooperation or of the Coke case.”
Coke was indicted in August 2009 by the Southern District of New York on conspiracy charges stemming from his leadership role of an international criminal organization called the “Shower Posse,” which the government alleges built its criminal empire by trafficking a steady and deadly supply of cocaine, marijuana and firearms into the U.S.
A Southern District spokeswoman declined to add any details about the Coke case.
The government declared a state of emergency as sporadic gunshots rang out in gritty West Kingston, the stronghold of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, a Jamaican "don" charged in the U.S. with drug and arms trafficking. His defiant supporters turned his Tivoli Gardens neighborhood and other areas into a virtual fortress with trashed cars and barbed wire.
Four police stations came under heavy fire from gangsters roaming the streets with high-powered guns. In barricaded Hannah Town, close to Tivoli Gardens, black smoke spiraled into the sky after debris was set aflame by molotov cocktails.
Officers fled the burning station in impoverished West Kingston, where a 2001 standoff between gunmen and security forces left 25 civilians dead. A soldier and a constable were also killed in the violence.
Authorities said two security officers had been wounded by Sunday night.
SLIDESHOW: Violence Erupts in Jamaica
Police said the attacks were unprovoked and called for all "decent and law-abiding citizens" in the troubled areas to immediately evacuate their homes. Officials said security forces would lead residents to a safety.
Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said "scores of criminals" from gangs across the Caribbean island had traveled to West Kingston to join the fight. "It is now clear that criminal elements are determined to launch coordinated attacks on the security forces," he said.
In the gritty section of Kingston known more for reggae and resorts, the violence erupted after nearly a week of rising tensions over the possible extradition of Coke to the United States.
Prime Minister Bruce Golding had stalled the extradition request for nine months with claims the U.S. indictment relied on illegal wiretap evidence. After Golding reversed himself amid growing public discontent over his opposition, Coke's supporters began barricading streets and preparing for battle.
Before Sunday's shooting started, police urged the neighborhood boss to surrender, calling the heavy barricades encircling his slum stronghold a sign of "cowardice."
The U.S., Canada and Britain issued travel alerts Friday warning of possible violence and unrest in Jamaica. Most islanders have been avoiding downtown Kingston.
The state of public emergency, limited to the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew, will be in effect for one month unless extended or revoked by lawmakers, the government said.
In a national address Sunday night, Golding said the order gives authorities the power to restrict movement and effectively battle violent criminals. Security forces also will be able to conduct searches and detain people without warrants.
Golding stressed that Kingston "is not being shut down," and schools and businesses outside the battle zone will be open.
Coke is described as one of the world's most dangerous drug lords by the U.S. Justice Department. He has ties to the governing Jamaica Labor Party and holds significant sway over the West Kingston area represented in Parliament by Golding.
Golding's fight against the extradition strained relations with Washington, which questioned Jamaica's reliability as an ally in the fight against drugs. His handling of the matter, particularly his hiring of a U.S. firm to lobby Washington to drop the extradition request, provoked an outcry in Jamaica that threatened his political career.
Coke, who typically avoids the limelight, has remained silent. He faces life in prison if convicted on charges filed against him in New York.
Jamaica's political history is intertwined with the street gangs that the two main parties helped organize — and some say armed — in Kingston's poor neighborhoods in the 1970s and '80s. The gangs controlled the streets and intimidated voters at election time. In recent years political violence has waned, and many of the killings in Kingston now are blamed on the active drug and extortion trade.
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 U.S. that began operating in the 1980s and was named for its members' tendency to spray victims with bullets.
U.S. authorities allege the son took over from the father, then expanded the gang into selling marijuana and crack cocaine in the New York area and elsewhere.
Lawyers for Coke — who in addition to "Dudus" is known as "Small Man" and "President" — have challenged his extradition in Jamaica's Supreme Court. As a West Kingston community "don," Coke has acted as an ad hoc civic leader and provides protection and jobs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report