KINGSTON, Jamaica — Thousands of police and soldiers stormed the Jamaican ghettos where reggae was born Tuesday in search of a reputed drug kingpin wanted by the United States, intensifying a third day of street battles that have killed at least 30 people.
The masked gunmen fighting for underworld boss Christopher "Dudus" Coke say he provides services and protection — all funded by a criminal empire that seemed untouchable until the U.S. demanded his extradition.
Coke has built a loyal following in Tivoli Gardens, the poor West Kingston slum that is his stronghold. U.S. authorities say he has been trafficking cocaine to the streets of New York City since the mid-1990s, allegedly hiring island women to hide the drugs on themselves on flights to the United States.
Called "president" and "shortman" by his supporters, Coke does not wear flashy clothes or hold court at Kingston nightclubs like other powerful gang bosses. The few published photographs of the 5-foot-4-inch Jamaican the U.S. Justice Department calls one of the world's most dangerous drug lords show an unassuming man with a pot belly.
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On Tuesday, masked gunmen in West Kingston vanished down side streets barricaded with barbed wire and junked cars. The sound of gunfire echoed across the slums on Jamaica's south coast, far from the tourist meccas of the north shore.
Schools and businesses were closed across the capital.
At the epicenter of the violence are the West Kingston slums, known as garrisons, which include the Trenchtown ghetto where reggae superstar Bob Marley was raised.
The son of an alleged gangster, Coke, 41, has strong ties to the governing Jamaica Labor Party, which has counted on gunmen inside his Tivoli Gardens slum to intimidate election rivals. By exposing the ties between gangs and politicians, some hope the explosion of violence will put Jamaica on a path to reform.