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.
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, 41, 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 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 Jamaican that the U.S. Justice Department calls one of the world's most dangerous drug lords show an unassuming man with a pot belly.
The conflict, which prompted the government to declare a state of emergency over the weekend, pits supporters of Coke against the government of Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who has relied on Coke's influence to win votes in the neighborhood both share.
Golding had initially fought an effort by the United States to extradite Coke. But when criticism grew both at home and abroad and his government hung in the balance, Golding backed down and agreed to send Coke to face the charges against him in New York.
That is when Coke's backers began barricading streets and wielding weapons in his Tivoli Gardens stronghold to keep the police and soldiers at bay. The battles in Kingston have showcased the brazenness of the drug gang members, who have attacked five police stations since Sunday.
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 and the government appealed for blood donations for the wounded.
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.
By exposing the ties between gangs and politicians, some hope the explosion of violence will put Jamaica on a path to reform.
"I think it certainly has been a wakeup call for the entire country," said Peter Bunting of the opposition People's National Party.
A Justice Department report last year said Jamaican gangs like Coke's Shower Posse work in many North American cities to distribute marijuana and cocaine from Mexican and Colombian traffickers. His father, Lester Coke, was once also the leader of the Shower Posse, which earned its name from the shower of automatic gunfire it often sprayed into its victims' bodies. In 1987, the elder Coke was deported from the United States for allegedly setting up cells of the Shower Posse in dozens of American cities; he died in a Jamaican prison in 1992.
Police spokesman Corp. Richard Minott told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the fighting in West Kingston alone has killed 26 civilians and one security official. Police reported that earlier fighting killed two officers and a soldier.
By Tuesday, about 10 percent of the capital was cordoned by security forces.
The violence has not touched the tourist meccas along the Caribbean island's north shore, located more than 100 miles from Kingston, or the nearby Montego Bay airport. Several hotels, however, reported cancellations and Air Jamaica rescheduled four flights on Tuesday because of the unrest in Kingston.
"I'm very concerned," said Wayne Cummings, president of Jamaica's Hotel and Tourist Association. "The entire Caribbean and the world is trying to pull itself out of a recession. This kind of hit, if one can call it that, comes at a very, very bad time."
Along the pitted and trash-strewn streets of West Kingston, residents say Coke is feared for his strong-arm tactics, but also is known for helping out slum dwellers with grocery bills, jobs and school fees.
Coke solidified his authority by taking charge of punishing thieves and other criminals in the ghettos, where the government has little presence and police rarely, if ever, patrol.
His influence extends well beyond the capital. Police say gunmen from gangs that operate under the umbrella of his Shower Posse elsewhere on the island have been flocking to his defense.
"Mr. Coke is a strongman whose tentacles spread far and wide," said the Rev. Renard White, a leader of a Justice Ministry peace initiative that works in Jamaica's troubled communities. "He has great wealth, benefited from government contracts, and owned businesses doing imports, exports, construction. He has all of these things — and everyone knows it."
Information from AOLnews.com was used in this report.