How Homeland Security Helped Jamaica Massacre 73 Civilians

The New Yorker has just posted Mattathias Schwartz's excellent piece in last week's magazine on the disastrous raid to arrest Jamaican druglord Christopher "Dudus" Coke. At the DEA's insistence, Jamaican authorities reluctantly raided Tivoli Gardens, the West Kingston slum Coke ran as a de facto governor, two years ago. Coke didn't turn up, but Jamaican police officers killed 73 civilians, many of them allegedly in cold blood. A Department of Homeland Security surveillance plane was overhead the whole time.

Coverage at the time portrayed the raid as a military-style showdown between Coke's heavily fortified forces and Jamaican shock troops. But Schwartz, who spent three months in and around Tivoli Gardens reconstructing the battle, reports that Coke's forces actually faded away shortly after the conflict began. Jamaican security forces claimed that many of the civilian casualties—among them a 25-year-old American citizen—were Coke's gunmen. But they only recovered six guns. Only one police officer was killed.

According to Schwartz, many of the dead were summarily executed by police officers as they went house-to-house looking for Coke.

Residents, government officials, and sources close to the police there told me that the killings occurred in two waves. The first took place in the morning, while the security forces were rounding up residents and gaining control of the neighborhood. The second began in the afternoon, when police started conducting house-to-house searches for weapons and gunmen. Some used tissue swabs to test residents' hands for traces of gunpowder. Often, the question of who was a gunman and who wasn't was decided on the spot. If an unarmed man's claims of innocence seemed unconvincing, the police might kill him.

"What are you doing in Tivoli Gardens?" a policeman asked George Lewis, a portly middle-aged man who installs wood floors in Brooklyn. He was visiting Jamaica and had come by a friend's apartment on May 24th. He and the policeman were sitting, Lewis remembers, in the living room. The policeman had his rifle pointed at Lewis's chest.

"It's guys like you bringing in the loads of guns," the policeman said.

"I've always been a law-abiding citizen," Lewis said, trembling. Moments before, he had heard gunfire from the apartment next door. A second police officer leaned in, looking shaken, and asked what to do with the bodies. "Tie a sheet around them and carry them downstairs," Lewis's interrogator said.

While this was going on, a Department of Homeland Security surveillance plane was circling overhead, providing Jamaican authorities with intelligence and videotaping the whole thing. Schwartz obtained documentary evidence of the surveillance flight via the Freedom of Information Act, forcing the Jamaican government to retract claims it made at the time of the raid that the U.S. played no role.

But Homeland Security is refusing to release the video itself—even though it may contain evidence of atrocities committed by Jamaican police officers—in part on the preposterous ground that it would constitute an "invasion of personal privacy."

Coke was arrested one month after the Tivoli raids. He was caught in a roadblock, dressed as a woman and wearing a wig. He was extradited to the U.S. and pleaded guilty to racketeering charges; he's scheduled to be sentenced in Manhattan next month.

[Image via AP]