Witness provides compelling account of Jamaican ‘garrisons’

A raid by police and troops on Tivoli Gardens to capture Coke, a Robin Hood figure with deep support in the ramshackle slums of West Kingston, ended in the deaths of 73 civilians.

The son of one of Jamaica’s most legendary dons, Lester Coke, also known as Jim Brown, who died in 1992 in a mysterious fire after being taken into custody, Coke made a name for himself as a businessman, political player and chief of the “Shower Posse”. 

Coke’s gang effectively controlled Tivoli Gardens, an impoverished area of western Kingston where he created a mini-economy providing both livelihoods and protection to residents desperately seeking both.

The witness described himself as one of Brown’s bodyguards in the late 1980s and subsequently played a similar role for Coke, who succeeded his father and brother as head of the Shower Posse, which was headquartered in Tivoli Gardens and was involved in activities such as murder, extortion, armed robbery, narcotics trafficking and firearms trafficking, in Jamaica and in the United States.

Posse members who relocated to the United States from Jamaica were obligated to contribute a portion of their illegal gains back to Jamaica to support the gang. Contributions could be made in the form of cash, goods such as clothing or appliances, or firearms. Relatives of these US­ based Shower Posse members who remained in Jamaica were at risk of physical harm by members of the gang if these contributions were not forthcoming, the witness said.

The witness referred to Tivoli Gardens as a “garrison community”, which means, he said, a neighbourhood whose members are armed by the leader of the community and also a neighbourhood that is loyal to and affiliated with one of the major Jamaican political parties — in the case of Tivoli Gardens at that time and through the present time, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP).

The residents of the Tivoli Gardens community (and of similar “garrison” communities in Kingston) are generally among the poorer citizens of Jamaica. The housing in which most residents of Tivoli Gardens live was built by the government, when the JLP was in power. The vast majority of these residents do not pay rent, nor do they pay for utilities such as electricity and water, the witness explained.

As the area leader, Coke, like his father and brother, provided certain services to the community. For example, he assigned paid work to members of the community arising out of government contracts that he obtained — such as contracts to clean streets, fix roads or engage in other construction projects. For these projects, Coke would deduct from the salaries paid a portion of funds as a contribution to the “System” — essentially a required payment to the gang, which the witness said was used to purchase guns and ammunition and also to provide assistance to the members of the community.

Coke also provided funds to individuals on an as needed basis — generally for food, medical care, school supplies or other necessities. He also held what was known as “treats”, which are community events where various artistes would perform for the community, for free, and at which necessities would be handed out to community members, such as school supplies, packages of food and holiday gifts.

In addition, Coke held “dances” — events that were also open to outsiders as well as community members, for a fee. Dances were held to raise money for medical care or other community needs.

The witness said Coke imposed a strict code of behaviour and discipline within the community, which was enforced at times through violence.

The witness described how Coke, like his father and brother before him, maintained a group of loyal, armed men referred to as “Shotters.” There were approximately two hundred Shotters at any one time, although not all were active. The Shotters were paid by Coke and their duties included protecting Coke and the Tivoli Gardens community from attacks by members of rival communities and to prevent law enforcement or military personnel from entering Tivoli Gardens.

The Shotters also enforced the code of community discipline imposed by Duddus, including by engaging in acts of violence.

As a result of the Shotters’ activities, the witness said, very few crimes were committed within Tivoli Gardens and the surrounding communities, except those crimes that Duddus authorized. Shotters were also deployed to “campaign” on behalf of the JLP, primarily outside the Tivoli Gardens community. In that capacity, the Shotters (who were armed at the time) went door-to-door in different areas to ensure that voters living in those areas supported the JLP, including through use of intimidation.

During the time that Coke was in control of Tivoli Gardens, he, like Jim Brown, imposed a strict code of conduct upon members of the community, which he personally enforced. Residents of Tivoli Gardens and surrounding areas such Denham Town did not report crimes or acts of violence to the Jamaican Constabulary Force. Instead, residents of Tivoli Gardens reported such incidents to Coke directly, the witness said.

Coke would listen to both parties and make a determination about who was right and who was wrong, then directing the Shotters or other senior members of the gang to impose a penalty.

For domestic disputes brought to Coke’s attention that could not be settled amicably, Coke would typically direct that a beating be given to the party that was in the wrong, whether male or female.

When the wrong involved stealing, for example from stalls in Coronation Market, the penalty would be a shooting, usually in the hand or foot.

The witness said he had several conversations about firearms with Coke, who said he needed heavy firepower to maintain his control over the gang and within Jamaica. Coke told the witness that he obtained the majority of his firearms from Miami and New York and that he was primarily interested in receiving rifles or “long guns” because he already had a lot of handguns or “short guns”.

Coke explained to the witness that firearms sent from the United States were packaged in appliances, refrigerators and deep freezes and that handguns and ammunition could also be sent down in foodstuffs, including rice and flour, as well as in soap boxes.

The witness said he has seen the Shotters and high-level members of the Shower Posse, in Coke’s presence, dismantling these appliances and taking apart the foodstuffs to retrieve the firearms.

Like his father and brother before him, the witness said Coke directed that he was the only person within the community of Tivoli Gardens and the surrounding area who could sell crack cocaine.

The witness also described how Coke arranged for females to transport cocaine into the United States, giving them partial payment in US dollars and airplane tickets — to either New York or Miami. They would be paid in full when they returned to Jamaica.

Many of the females were said to be “higglers” — informal commercial importers who sold various types of goods in the local markets in Kingston such as clothing and foodstuffs. The females had visas allowing them to travel to the US.

The witness also described how Coke engaged in extortion in Coronation Market, a large area within Tivoli Gardens where individual vendors sold food, clothing and other items.

The vendors were required by law to pay the Jamaican government for the space to sell their goods and Coke also required that vendors pay a fee to him in order to sell their goods in the market area. Coke tasked a senior member of the gang to inform vendors that they had to pay this fee, and to collect the fee. The fee was collected on a monthly basis and anyone who did not pay the fee was told that he or she could not sell in the marketplace anymore. 

The witness said he was aware of anyone who refused to pay the fee, but it was well-known that those who did not pay would be subject to physical harm by members of the gang if they continued to sell their goods in market. In addition, when a “treat” or other community event was held, other senior members of the gang, at Coke’s direction, would require the local businesses to contribute goods, or cash. If the businesses refused to do so, they would not be allowed to operate in the area.

Following his eventual capture in Jamaica, Coke was extradited to the US, where he pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy for trafficking large quantities of marijuana and cocaine into the United States, as well as to conspiracy to commit assault in aid of racketeering for approving the stabbing of a marijuana dealer in New York City.

A sentencing hearing is currently underway in New York federal court

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