If we do not appreciate and learn lessons from history, then we are veritable fools. And if social calamity strikes as a result of our indifference and blind political servitude, then we have no one else to blame but ourselves. And this holds true whether Caribbean people are located in Frigate Bay, Laventille, Layou, Cité Soleil, Deacons Farm or Tivoli Gardens.
The rise and fall of Tivoli Gardens’ strongman, drug lord and community leader’ Christopher Dudus Coke has been well documented. It was widely publicized that the aptly named Coke inherited his illegal drugs business from his father and was very popular in Tivoli Gardens because of his calculated gestures to persons in that community. He reportedly gave money to residents, helped set up meeting centers, staged social events in the community, and the like. His major influence, though, was reputedly derived from his close connections to politicians, primarily those of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). He reportedly maintained these links and enjoyed political favour despite his name being linked to murders, gun violence and major drug trafficking in Jamaica and the United States.
Such was Coke’s reported closeness to the JLP that when the United States sought to extradite him from Jamaica, the prime minister at the time Bruce Golding initially refused in 2009. He would however relent in 2010 and Coke’s extradition was settled. Coke’s father before him, Lester Coke, also reportedly had ties to the JLP, particularly Edward Seaga who was one of the principals behind the dismantling of the slum district of Back O Wall and the creation of Tivoli Gardens. Politicians and criminals figuratively broke bread and drank wine together for their mutual purposes – ensuring political support on the one hand and extending criminal enterprise on the other. In many instances, communication between these individuals was stated to be a simple phone call away.
But this unholy union had severe consequences. The subsequent attempt by Jamaica law authorities to apprehend Coke in 2010 resulted in mayhem as misguided residents of Tivoli Gardens sought to prevent his arrest. 76 persons were confirmed killed in the melee that followed. This situation had been allowed to fester and it eventually exploded in a community that had lost its way and its soul because of political neglect, poverty and the exploitation of those dynamics by a thug emboldened by political patronage.
Across the globe wherever drug barons are to be found, they appreciate the advantage to their illegal activities of having close ties to politicians as well as the façade of being community benefactors. Conversely, politicians whose primary focus is always on the acquisition or retention of power, are keenly aware of the influence which these community ‘leaders’ wield, especially among young and/or impressionable indigent voters. There are documented instances in some Caribbean countries where individuals aligned with criminal enterprises suddenly become government-contracted builders, excavators, landscapers, and the like. Of course, it is an excellent measure if these opportunities are provided by a government to motivate persons away from criminality. But often, as has been chronicled, the opportunities are mainly politically self-serving, do little to steer individuals away from crime and in many instances act as cover for further drug-related endeavours.
When these developments are met with weak law enforcement, or more to the point, compromised law enforcement, then regional societies are faced with a three-headed monster. There was a time at the height of Coke’s power and influence when Tivoli Gardens was viewed as its own government within the state. It is instructive that the real government had so ceded that community to criminals that as previously reported there were instances when police officers had to gain permission from Coke and his cronies to enter Tivoli Gardens. Additionally, members of the JLP’s rival party, People’s National Party (PNP), conducted political campaigns in that community if they dared and at their own personal risk.
It is true that any government is the government of all its people – the good, bad and indifferent. But it would be foolhardy to view all individuals as simply a means to an x on a ballot paper and thus pamper or ignore the threat they pose to civil society and the rule of law. Too often the desire to perpetuate influence and access political power leaves the line between doing the right thing and that which is expedient extremely blurred. The advantage, though, which most Caribbean countries have is their small size. The drug lords and criminal elements are frequently well known in regional societies. The connections which they have to politicians are also well known. Those law enforcement practitioners likely to kowtow to both politicians and drug lords are eventually revealed. In such circumstances, law-abiding citizens must be their communities’ eyes, ears and conscience, always willing to promote a safe environment for themselves and their families. They must hold their political leaders to account and when their actions place their societies at risk, they must punish them with that which they fear most at the constitutionally appointed time. Social commentators must also hold up law enforcement officials to public scrutiny when they appear to forget their primary function and bend unnecessarily to rabid political coercion.
Illegal drugs, gun violence and the erosion of values are major problems here in Barbados. Thankfully, we can proudly state that we are not yet at the stage where police officers need to seek permission from criminal ring leaders to enter any community. We can also proudly state our politicians need not fear entering any community to put forward their political message – yet. Yes, we do have political polarisation and spin doctors who often cloud our vision to the motivations, realities and inefficiencies of many in authority. Thus, it is incumbent upon all of us that we renounce to the high heavens any acts of political tomfoolery that could be the precursor to a red sea of blood, violence and lawlessness in our communities.