Twenty years ago, American authorities had Jamaica's most feared drug lord in their hands. In 1988, the aptly named Christopher Coke, aka "Dudus," was convicted of possession of stolen property in North Carolina. But instead of being sent to an American prison, he was deported to Jamaica. Since his return to the island, Dudus has cultivated an almost messianic following among his supporters in the West Kingston neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens. So when Jamaican authorities announced last week that they would extradite Dudus to the U.S., people took to the streets in protest, brandishing signs that read “Jesus died for us, we will die for Dudus.”
Lester Lloyd Coke rose to fame in the 1980s as the founder of the Shower Posse—the name comes from the practice of “showering” enemies and bystanders alike with automatic gunfire.
Die, they have. Over 70 people have been killed in Jamaica since the capital erupted in violence early this week—Dudus supporters had reportedly been stockpiling weapons since the extradition request was revealed last August, and now they're putting them to use. Christopher “Dudus” Coke is the heir to a powerful crime family with a history of trouble in the United States. He is the alleged head of a criminal gang known as the Shower Posse, and is sought by the U.S. government on charges of drug and gun smuggling.
Dudus’s popularity stems from his generosity toward the people of Tivoli Gardens. He pays for children to go to school, gives money to those in need, and provides them with a source of livelihood. He also keeps them safe and, in his own way, law-abiding. He enforces a strict 8 p.m. curfew for children across the neighborhood, and the Tivoli Gardens is said to be completely free of petty theft. But perhaps most crucially, he has the infamous Coke name, one of the most powerful names in the Jamaican underworld. As Karyl Walker, an online news editor for the Jamaica Observer, told NPR’s All Things Considered, Dudus “is revered by people in the lower strata of society, and he's well-connected with people in the upper strata of society.”
The connections with the upper strata have political roots. Dudus’s father, Lester Lloyd Coke, rose to fame in the 1980s as the founder of the Shower Posse—the name comes from the practice of “showering” enemies and bystanders alike with automatic gunfire. But the gang’s roots go back to the late 1970s, when Jamaican politicians began arming thugs in slums in order to create chaos and influence elections. The political violence reached its zenith during the 1980 elections, which left more than 800 people dead—over three-quarters of them at the hands of gunmen from the slums.
The elder Coke, also known as Jim Brown, was linked from the beginning to the Jamaica Labor Party—the party currently in power. He settled in Miami in the 1980s, but was arrested and deported in 1987 for his participation in a 1984 Kingston massacre in which 12 alleged enemies of the JLP were killed. After a witness changed his testimony, however, Coke was acquitted. There was no explanation at the time for the witness’ change of heart, but naturally people speculated that threats and governmental corruption had led to witness tampering. What is clear is that the acquittal was cause for celebration in Kingston. The news triggered a shooting spree outside the courthouse, where dozens of Coke's followers celebrated by firing their guns into the air.
After Lester Lloyd Coke’s release by Jamaican authorities, the U.S. sought to have him extradited back to America. They accused him of several drug smuggling charges as well as at least five murders. The extradition battle was as hard and bloody as the one currently raging for Dudus. When the elder Coke was arrested in Kingston in 1990 pending extradition to the U.S., graffiti demanding his release appeared across the Jamaican capital. The government delayed the extradition for over a year, and during that time, Dudus’sbrother, Mark Anthony Coke, took the helm of the Shower Posse. Mark Anthony was murdered in February 1992, and hours after his funeral—which was attended by over 40,000 people—his father was found burned to death inside his cell.
The deaths of Dudus’ father and brother sparked a wave of violence across Kingston unseen since the 1980 elections. Popular opinion was that the elder Coke was killed with the consent of the government because they feared that he would reveal too much if brought to a U.S. courthouse.
In contrast to his Latin American counterparts, who are fond of lavish displays of wealth and power, Dudus has strived to remain outside the limelight. He is said to be quiet and contemplative, a strict vegetarian who spends most of his time in his palatial mansion in Kingston. He took charge of the Shower Posse after his brother’s death, and true to his character, managed to keep a low profile for the gang for over a decade—until his indictment by a New York grand jury last year. He focused on expanding his crime underworld reaches as well as on building support among poverty-stricken Jamaicans. Referring to Dudus’ work in the Kingston slums, Desmond Richards, editor of the Jamaican newspaper Sunday Herald, told the Miami Herald that “you could describe it as a welfare system: They provide resources and operate what you could call a second-tier justice system.”
Dudus also kept and cultivated his father’s political connections. His lawyer until May 18th was Tom Tavares-Finson, who also represented the elder Coke during his extradition process. Tavares-Finson is a senator representing the ruling Labor Party, and an influential public figure himself. His ex-wife, Cindy Breakspeare, a former Miss World, was Bob Marley’s longtime girlfriend and the mother of his youngest son, musician Damian Marley.
Another prominent politician closely tied to the Coke family is former prime minister and Labor Party leader Edward Seaga. His presence at Mark Anthony Coke’s funeral in 1992 raised eyebrows, and he is believed to have been involved in the original arming of the gang that evolved into the Shower Posse. Seaga has repudiated this week’s crackdown on the gang, and has gone as far as calling for Prime Minister Bruce Golding to resign.
After a week of fighting, the government has confiscated 22 weapons in Tivoli Gardens, but Dudus remains at large. Authorities have now expressed concern that he has left the city, and perhaps even the country. An island-wide manhunt is under way for the drug lord, though he has reportedly agreed to surrender himself in New York. Whether he does or not, his devoted following back home continues to express their support. The death toll, perpetrated in his name, stands at 73.
This article has been updated to reflect the rising weapons confiscation and that Tavares-Finson is no longer Coke's lawyer.