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Originally published May 26, 2010 at 6:30 PM | Page modified May 27, 2010 at 7:17 AM

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Jamaican drug lord may have fled country

The reputed drug kingpin who was the target of a deadly Jamaican slum raid may have fled the country, the government said Wednesday.

The Associated Press

KINGSTON, Jamaica — After a slum raid that left nearly 50 people dead in four days of gunbattles, the reputed drug kingpin who was the target may have fled the country, the government said Wednesday.

Strongman Christopher Coke, who helped the prime minister win elected office, had months to stockpile weapons in his slum stronghold while the premier wavered over U.S. demands for his extradition.

"I could not say if he is in Jamaica," Information Minister Daryl Vaz said of Coke, who is known as "Dudus." "It's very difficult to tell."

Police and soldiers who fought their way into the barricaded Tivoli Gardens slum in gritty West Kingston were conducting a door-to-door search, and the government reported calm Wednesday. Coke's lawyer has declined to confirm his whereabouts.

Gray smoke was rising from recently extinguished fires inside Tivoli Gardens. Sporadic gunfire rang out elsewhere in West Kingston, and security forces barred journalists from entering the battle zones around the capital on Jamaica's south coast.

The violence did not surprise island police and community groups who warned that Coke had been stockpiling weapons and preparing to defend himself since the U.S. demanded his extradition last August. According to the U.S. indictment, he has built a private arsenal of firearms smuggled in by U.S. gang members, sharing guns with other criminals to solidify his power as a major underworld boss.

"The situation at Tivoli is dreadful, but it's been something that's been simmering for a long, long time. And everybody knew that if they made the move for Coke that there would be trouble," said Susan Goffe, spokeswoman for local human-rights group Jamaicans for Justice.

At least 44 civilians have been killed, said Bishop Herro Blair, Jamaica's most prominent evangelical pastor, who was escorted into the slum by security forces. At least four soldiers and police officers also have died.

Jamaican politicians and gang leaders who control ghetto fiefdoms have had cozy ties for decades. Political parties created Jamaica's street gangs in the 1970s to rustle up votes. Since then, the gangs have turned to drug trafficking, but they remain staunchly and often violently loyal to their parties and live in poor neighborhoods called "garrisons."

The slum presided over by Coke, the alleged leader of the "Shower Posse" gang, has long been a bastion of support for the governing Jamaica Labor Party. It is part of the district represented in parliament by Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who stonewalled the U.S. extradition request for months before reversing himself under pressure from the U.S. and the local political opposition.

A federal indictment in New York accuses Coke of trafficking marijuana and cocaine to the United States, and the U.S. Justice Department has named Coke one of the world's most dangerous drug kingpins.

The 41-year-old Coke, also known as "general" and "president," allegedly relied on a band of gunmen to keep control of Tivoli Gardens. He solidified his authority by dispensing charity and street justice.

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Vaz, the information minister, said bosses like Coke have been able to thrive, in part, because Jamaica has failed the poor slums.

"The necessary financial commitments have never been provided in these neighborhoods. That vacuum has been filled by these criminal elements," he said.

The 44 civilians killed were mostly males under age 30, said public defender Earl Witter, who toured the slum with Blair to probe for any human-rights violations. In comments to the Jamaica Observer, he said they did not see any signs of abuses.

Since security forces occupied Tivoli Gardens, Vaz said the government has been delivering food and medicine to hundreds of needy residents.

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