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Madeleine Bair

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Casualties on the Battlefield of the "War on Drugs"

Posted: 01/10/12 01:18 PM ET

When the soldiers came to her door, Paulette told them her son was disabled. "He can't run and he can't walk, so he can't fire a gun," she explained. But to the uniformed men and women who crowded her living room, the lanky 29-year-old with a limp had the look of a gunman -- "a shotta," one of them told her. They'd need to take him in for questioning.

"The last thing I said to them was, 'Where are you taking him?'" she told me.

It was late May of 2010, and the third time in one week that that soldiers had come to her home. They had fanned across this impoverished section of Kingston searching for its strongman, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, wanted in New York on charges of international drug- and gun-running. But the residents there never welcomed security forces to their streets. To them, Coke provided more services than the government ever did, and on rare occasions when the police did enter this part of town, they were known to shoot first and ask questions later.

What began as a hunt for one man became an attack on an entire community. By the time soldiers arrived at Paulette's door, 73 residents, by the government's count, had been killed.

"They said, 'Mama don't fret. They're going to check him out and make him come back.'"

It was the last time Paulette saw her son alive.

On January 17, a Southern District Court Judge will determine the prison sentence for Coke, who has been held in a Manhattan jail cell since he was apprehended by Jamaican security forces last June and pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in September. Federal prosecutors and the DEA will consider the long chapter of his extradition resolved, and pat themselves on the back for one more victory in the "war on drugs:" a major don of the illicit underworld locked up.

But before they move on to the next traficante, capo, or don, they should ask themselves what Jamaicans, Mexicans, and others who inhabit the battlefields of this war are forced to ask: At what cost do we lock up the traffickers? And is it a price worth paying?

In Jamaica, at least at least 73 civilians, counting Paulette's son, and one soldier were killed in the hunt for Coke. A year and a half later, investigations into those deaths have not been completed, and no one has been held accountable.

Add to those lives the harm to the society as a whole. The killings in West Kingston further alienated the community from those charged with protecting it. Who would approach officers with valuable information when they have witnessed uniformed men kill their husbands and brothers?

For four days, Paulette walked from police stations to hospitals to funeral homes and back searching for Sheldon, or at the very least, his body. I met her on the fifth day, at a community center in Tivoli Gardens where authorities invited residents to view digital photographs of corpses and identify the dead.

Industrial fans in the windows couldn't clear from the air the oppressive sense of death that hung over the room. Its image was on the computer screens; its sound in the wails of an elderly woman, expressing the ineffable in tongues; its finality in the eyes of relatives, who by now had exhausted their tears.

Paulette looked past me as she recounted what had happened, her eyes focused somewhere far from there. Like most of those who had come to identify the dead, she gripped a photograph. In it, Sheldon wore jeans and a clean striped shirt and leaned to one side on his good foot.

She had found his body earlier that day. It was on a stretcher at a police station with a bullet through the pelvis.

"I'd like to have justice for him," she told me.

Every relative in the room had a picture, a story, and many, many questions.

I spoke to a young woman who hid from bullets under her bed for several days during the weeklong incursion. When soldiers finally allowed her to use a latrine in the courtyard, she found her brother's body there, wrapped in a bloody sheet.

Authorities told the media that soldiers were under attack from thugs defending Coke. But the residents gathered there told me a different story. "Me no see no gunmen," said one woman who had taken cover under a bed with her baby while bullets pierced the thin plywood walls of her home. "It's pure soldier shots me see."

The numbers alone demand scrutiny of the government's version of events. While the military contended it had been under attack by gunmen in West Kingston, only one soldier was killed there, compared with the military's count of 73 others. The public defender said that number is probably higher.

When authorities found Coke several weeks later and sent him to the U.S. for arraignment, American officials praised Jamaican authorities for a job well done. The trafficker was captured and justice would prevail.

The foreign press abandoned the violent streets of Kingston, and it wasn't long before the Jamaican media and politicians forgot about the bloody mess as well. Though Bruce Golding initially promised an investigation into the search for Coke, his words now ring hollow as no judicial or parliamentary inquiry took place before he stepped down as prime minister last October.

It has been a year and a half since I met Paulette. She has long since buried Sheldon's body and appealed to the appropriate channels of justice. But she is no closer today to any answers in his death -- to any satisfactory explanation of why her son was taken from her home and why he wound up dead. Nor are any of the families of those killed in Kingston last year. Jamaica's biggest drug don may be locked up, but for those who were killed during his manhunt, justice is far from served.
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Madeleine Bair is an I.F. Stone fellow working at Human Rights Watch and previously worked in Kingston, Jamaica, as a UC Berkeley Human Rights Center fellow with Jamaicans for Justice.