The death toll in clashes in the Jamaican capital climbed past 50 on Wednesday as the government struggled to regain shaky control of slums where a reputed drug lord is headquartered. The man, a local hero in some parts of the Caribbean island but wanted for extradition by the United States, remained a fugitive and may have escaped the offensive launched to capture him.
"I could not say if he is in Jamaica," Information Minister Daryl Vaz said of alleged drug trafficker Christopher "Dudus" Coke. "It's very difficult to tell."
On a fourth day of smoldering urban violence, Kingston continued under a state of emergency, many streets deserted and gunfire erupting sporadically.
Jamaican security forces, who responded with a major assault on armed gangs Monday, were securing positions and searching block by block in the disputed Tivoli Gardens area, Coke's purported stronghold.
More than 500 people have been arrested, the government's Jamaica Information Service said Wednesday.
Earl Witter, the Jamaican public defender, said after inspecting Tivoli Gardens that at least 35 bodies, mostly those of young men, were in the morgue, with nine additional deaths reported. The government has said four soldiers and police officers were killed.
Witter said he expected the toll to rise.
The violence in some ways was a consequence of the government's risky tolerance of — and even collusion with — Coke and similar gang bosses who lord over Kingston neighborhoods, analysts and experts said.
A succession of Jamaican leaders has allowed alleged drug "dons" to operate mini-fiefdoms in parts of the impoverished capital in exchange for turning out political support for candidates, most from the ruling Labor Party, and for maintaining a form of law and order.
The United States alleges that Coke has been trafficking cocaine into New York since the 1990s, often using young Jamaican women as mules, and is demanding his extradition to face drug and gun-running charges. He is the reputed head of the Shower Posse, so-called for its penchant to "shower" enemies with bullets rather than the standard firing of a shot or two.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.