Jamaica is paying a painfully high price to learn the elementary lesson that no government can afford to ignore or tolerate drug trafficking.
At last count, with gunshots still echoing across the capital Tuesday, at least 30 people had died in the slums of Kingston as police and soldiers fought to regain control of crime-ridden neighborhoods that drug kingpins and their armed gangs have long considered personal fiefdoms.
The mayhem involves reputed underworld boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke. His various nicknames include "Mister President," an indication of his power and status in Jamaica. It began after Prime Minister Bruce Golding dropped his nine-month refusal to extradite Coke to the United States to face federal drug charges in New York. Coke's ties to Mr. Golding and his Jamaica Labour Party were said to be behind the government's initial unwillingness to agree to the extradition.
This fight is about much more than a dangerous individual, however. Jamaica's drug problem has been festering for a long time, predating Coke's rise to power.
The violence has its roots in the period leading up to the 1980 general elections, when political factions formed alliances with local gangs to intimidate opponents ahead of the voting. Eventually, and predictably, the gangs become a law unto themselves in Kingston's poorest neighborhoods, brooking no government interference on their turf.
Other countries in the region have been through this travail. When Pablo Escobar was able to bribe and bully his way into becoming Colombia's most ruthless cocaine trafficker, he and others like him eventually became powerful enough to demand that they be allowed to operate with impunity -- or else.
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