EVENTS over the past 10 months — between the US request for the extradition of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke last August and his capture and subsequent departure Thursday to face drug and gun charges in New York -- have the potential to change politics, governance and law enforcement in Jamaica, for the better.
The events demonstrate that the command and control criminal structure of garrison politics can be dismantled or severely degraded; political leaders can be held accountable to their responsibilities; and the security forces -- freed from partisan political control -- can be effective in law enforcement without abusing the rights of citizens to the constitutional guarantees of due process and equality of treatment under the law.
We are not there yet. The change will only come if there is unity of purpose and action among the broad cross-section of civic, social, economic and political forces that pressured Prime Minister Bruce Golding to abandon his old-style defence of the 'don' in his West Kingston constituency; follow the law; and set in train the series of events leading to Coke's appearance in court Thursday, waiving his rights to a hearing and opting to go to New York to face his American accusers.
There are several matters arising. One is getting a better understanding of how Coke was able to elude investigators for nearly a month since he fled his former stronghold in Tivoli Gardens. Were there criminal co-conspirators involved?
Another is the charges of "perverting the course of justice" and "harbouring a fugitive" that police levelled against Rev Al Miller Thursday. Coke was travelling in a car with Rev Miller when he was held in an apparent motor vehicle spot check set up by the police on Mandela Highway Tuesday.
Coke's capture came just short of a month after he escaped from his former stronghold of Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston when the security forces stormed the community to execute an arrest warrant on him and restore order after gunmen loyal to him barricaded all entrances to Tivoli and launched unprovoked attacks on the State.
Exciting as they undoubtedly are, the dramatic events surrounding the capture and extradition of Coke should not be allowed to distract us from the more critical matters arising or to paralyse the momentum for change set on track in the wake of the realisation that the prime minister had misled Parliament and the country about his administration's efforts to frustrate the extradition request, and Mr Golding's own role in the matter.
Initially, groups from across the political and social spectrum were united in the view that the prime minister should be held accountable, and many of us felt he should have resigned, thus raising the bar of public accountability.
Over time the unity began to fade as some argued that the prime minister had done enough by way of his apology and signal of a new beginning by freeing the security forces to go after Coke and begin to dismantle the criminal networks which were apparently managed from Tivoli Gardens.
In the past week, the potential for genuine disagreement among well-thinking people was further illustrated by the intensity and sharpness of the public debates over two controversial measures; namely, continuation of the State of Emergency for another 30 days in Kingston and St Andrew and expanding it to St Catherine, and the six anti-crime Bills that were passed in the House of Representatives but which must also get final approval in the Senate before becoming law.
In the House, Government and Opposition unanimously supported the State of Emergency expansion, but the Opposition backed only one of the six Bills. Given the Government's majority, the measures were approved by a vote of 28 in favour, 10 against and two abstentions (Opposition members Fitz Jackson and Sharon Hay-Webster).
Interestingly, 22 Opposition MPs were in the House when debate on the Bill started but 10 of them chose to be away at the time of the vote. It was not immediately clear if their absence indicated disagreement with the official party position on the Bills or whether, as explained by People's National Party general secretary Peter Bunting, they left because it was late -- 9:00 pm -- and they had to get home to far-away constituencies.
There are fundamental issues with many provisions of the anti-crime Bills, including the power to hold suspects in certain serious crimes for up to 60 days without any possibility of bail; and removal of judicial discretion in sentencing in some instances.
The concerns are rooted in experience. The Suppression of Crimes Act and the Gun Court Act gave extraordinary powers to the police to deal with what was acknowledged to be runaway murder in the 1970s.
Over the 30 years, however, the murder rate has increased; the police have lost a great deal of trust due to their reputation for corruption and lack of respect for the rights of citizens, especially the poor and powerless who live in inner city communities. With that history some of us are genuinely worried that this is not a time to give draconian powers to the police.
Further, these powers do not go to the heart of the problem of crime and violence Jamaica faces and the link between garrison politics, police corruption and organised crime; the extent to which the state has lost effective control of many communities right across Jamaica; the collusion of major private sector players and the facilitation they offer to criminal networks by the wide array of legal, financial, accounting and other professional services available to them.
These crimes cannot be solved by sledge hammer policing but by painstaking efforts to modernise the infrastructure of law enforcement and the judicial process, better equipping of the police force, using plea bargaining with the little fish to get the king fish, separating criminal dons from the illicit proceeds of crime, more DNA evidence in criminal cases and allowing videotaped witness statements, among other measures.
Despite these genuine concerns, it must be recognised that the current period offers a unique opportunity to break the historic paralysis in dealing fundamentally with violent crime.
The painstaking way the police searched for Coke when he was on the run, the patience shown in tracking him until he was captured Tuesday and the treatment while he was in their custody suggest that the police are capable of turning the corner. They need to demonstrate that this was not an isolated case.
They also seem ready to go wherever the scent of crime takes them. If Coke was indeed the major drug don as the United States has alleged, he could only have operated successfully with high level political protection, alliances with elements in the business community and corrupt policemen. These connections must be established and exposed.
Police Commissioner Owen Ellington was promising Thursday at least 20 of the persons detained under the State of Emergency could be stripped of their assets as part of a wider programme to separate crime bosses from illicit proceeds of crime.
Then there is the matter of Mr Golding, whose only way back from the political abyss created by his misrepresentations about his role in handling the Coke extradition is to rebrand himself as tough on crime and gang leaders.
No doubt this has caused unease among critics, including persons in the Opposition who believe the prime minister does not have the credibility to lead the fight.
The reality, however, is that the fundamental problems long predate Mr Golding's mishandling of the Coke extradition and the electorate continually demonstrates a loss of trust in politicians of all stripes. If there is a unique confluence of circumstances to make a break with the past now, that opportunity should not be missed. This may be such a time.
Meantime, the prime minister must still answer the many unanswered questions about the Manatt affair. And the emerging coalition of civil society activism must remain steadfast to the mission of insisting on a governance structure where leadership considers itself accountable; insist on the appointment of a special prosecutor to fight corruption; laws to regulate political party financing; and criminal sanctions for breaches of the award of contracts.
Absent these things, a new don will rise up to take Coke's place and thug rule will continue to dominate the lives of those with the fewest choices.