Jamaica's war on dons brings chaos to streets

WHEN the powerful don of Matthews Lane – a neighbourhood in central Kingston – was jailed for life, the Jamaican government promised the residents they would not be forgotten.

Quickly, the drains were cleaned and the sewers fixed. Jobs and new housing were on the way, residents were told. The police promised to provide the security for Matthews Lane, previously handled by the crime boss Donald Phipps, known as Zekes.

But four years later, residents still regard the police as "them" and are hard pressed to name a project completed by the government.

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The pattern in Matthews Lane underscores the challenges the government faces, brought into sharp focus during recent attempts to execute an arrest warrant for Christopher Coke, the don of Tivoli Gardens, who is wanted in the United States on gun and drug trafficking charges.

Now Coke is on the run, and Tivoli Gardens is a garrison of a different sort, its narrow streets full of heavily armed soldiers, police officers and pockets of seething anger. At least 70 people were killed in circumstances that have not been fully explained.

The government has not said whether any of the people killed by security forces were armed. And although almost a thousand people were arrested and detained for days, all but 10 of them were eventually released without charge.

Walking near buildings in a part of the neighbourhood gutted by fire, Brizzel Nelson-Robinson, whose husband was detained for several days and whose small shop was ransacked in the unrest, summed up the changed environment. "We don't feel safe," she said.

Meanwhile, in Matthews Lane, Dale Bryan, 28, sat on a sidewalk with a screwdriver and tried to mend a fan. Zeke Phipps had fixed Bryan up with his first job, and in a neighbourhood full of semi-employed young men he is one of the few with a steady job working at the airport.

Bryan pointed to a stretch of fresh asphalt on the road in front of him, work the city had finally completed after leaving a hole in the street for years. "That's the only thing they do," he said. "They just pass through."

Mark Shields, a former deputy commissioner in the Police Department, said: "To sustain filling the gap is costly, and my concern is Jamaica does not have the resources to sustain it. Tivoli is a bigger area. I hope there is a strong plan to fill the vacuum created by removing dons. Otherwise they will be replaced by wannabe dons."

In recent days, private business and church groups have promised to create new social programmes in the garrison communities. An adviser close to Prime Minister Bruce Golding said the premier was committed to preventing a return of the dons.

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"There is no doubt that the Bruce Golding government is resolute about a targeted social intervention package," said Delano Seiveright.

In fact, money has flowed into those communities for decades, thanks to an arrangement in Jamaica in which politicians and dons share power.

Through extortion and the drug trade, the dons provide security, and by steering contracts and other funds to the neighbourhoods, the politicians count on the continued loyalty of voters.

The current unrest has shocked Jamaicans in part because it involves a politician's turning on the don in his district. Tivoli Gardens has voted for the Jamaica Labour Party, Golding's party, since the community was built in 1965 by Edward Seaga, who later became prime minister.

In the following decades, Tivoli Gardens and other poor neighbourhoods became the headquarters of Kingston's criminal gangs, armed encampments that often fought with one another or the state. Yet they were part of the system – in 1992, when Coke's father died under mysterious circumstances, Seaga led his funeral procession.

Asked about a push to eject the dons, Seaga, a sharp critic of Golding, who represents Tivoli Gardens in parliament, said: "If you say they shouldn't be allowed to operate, I'm with you. But I am not for law and order without justice. Because law and order without justice is to shoot people."

Removing the dons is not the only challenge. According to Rivke Jaffe, an anthropologist at Leiden University who has studied Kingston, many dons are more than just criminals who have inserted themselves between the impoverished streets and the bureaucracy. Coke does earn money from legitimate businesses.

They have provided residents with financial help and jobs. And while the police often treat their neighbourhoods as lawless enclaves, some dons, like Coke and Phipps, provided some order among people who saw the police and other institutions as corrupt and capricious, Jaffe said.

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And they provide a sense of belonging, she said. The dons are celebrated in the popular culture of places like Matthews Lane, where the annual dance is still called Spanglers, for Phipps's crew. The name Zekes appears on many wall murals, including one that features US President Barack Obama and the sprinter Usain Bolt.