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Jamaica Planning Island-Wide Assault On Gangs

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KINGSTON, Jamaica — Jamaica will launch a sustained assault on gangs that control poor communities across the island and fuel one of the world's highest murder rates, the prime minister said Tuesday.

Prime Minister Bruce Golding said last week's bloody raid on the West Kingston stronghold of reputed drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke was a turning point in the government's approach to criminal networks – many of which have benefited from ties to the two major political parties for decades.

"Gunmen who no longer flee when the security forces approach but engage them with vicious firepower must be confronted with the full force of the law. The time for equivocation is over," Golding said.

Golding addressed parliament before he survived a no-confidence motion by the opposition People's National Party. On a 30-28 vote, lawmakers rejected censuring him over his handling of the U.S. extradition request for Coke.

Golding, whose Jamaica Labor Party has long counted on the support of gunmen inside Coke's Tivoli Gardens slum, opposed the extradition request for nine months before reversing himself under pressure that threatened his political career.

Opposition leaders have complained that Golding's wavering gave Coke and his supporters too much time to prepare for a confrontation that killed 73 civilians and three security officers over four days of fighting. Coke remains at large.

The opposition also argued Golding had no credibility following his admission in May that he sanctioned the U.S. law firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips to lobby against the U.S. extradition effort for Coke.

Golding had denied any knowledge of those ties when it was first raised in parliament in March.

"I've already expressed regret. I should have volunteered the information when asked (in parliament) since I was aware of the (governing Jamaica Labour) party's engagement with Manatt. I have expressed regret that the party ever got involved in the matter and I have apologized to the house and to the parliament."

In his address to parliament, Golding declined to say when the new anti-gang operations will begin, citing security concerns.

While Tivoli Gardens ranks among the most notorious slums, violent gangs are also deeply entrenched in Spanish Town, just west of Kingston, and the northwestern coastal parish of St. James, which includes the resort city of Montego Bay. Fighting between the gangs for control of drug trafficking and extortion rackets was blamed for the vast majority of the 1,660 homicides last year on the island of 2.8 million people.

Many of the gangs have roots in political violence during the 1970s, when factions armed criminals to help intimidate election opponents, and affiliations with the two major parties have continued to provide a measure of protection. But Golding said any such ties of loyalty will be irrelevant to his government's crackdown.

"It is a campaign that will be sustained and intensified. It is a campaign that will target criminal gangs wherever they exist, irrespective of their political alliances or whether they have any such alliances," he said.

Coke is wanted in New York on charges he trafficked cocaine and marijuana as well as weapons between Jamaica and the United States. Also known as "President" to the people of his slum, Coke served as community leader and enforcer in a gritty neighborhood in an area that the government acknowledges it had long neglected.