June 20, 2010
Portrait of a Jamaican Drug Lord
Reputed Jamaican drug lord Christopher Michael Coke -- now the Caribbean nation's most wanted man -- was a "math whiz" in high school who startled teachers with his dazzling test scores.
After math, Coke had a second favorite subject: religion.
Coke did poorly in every other subject and had "inconsistent" attendance, according to confidential school records obtained by a Jamaican newspaper. Today, U.S. authorities call Coke -- known as "Dudus" to Jamaicans -- one of the world's most dangerous narcotics kingpins. He's wanted in the U.S. for drug trafficking and arms smuggling.
Coke is no ordinary drug thug, as it turns out. He attended an elite private secondary school in Kingston called Ardenne High School. In 1927, it was founded by an American husband-and-wife missionary team with the Anderson, Ind.-based Church of God. They'd first arrived in Kingston, the capital, in 1909 after it suffered a devastating earthquake. The school's motto: "Deo Duce Quaere Optima" -- "With God as Guide, Seek the Best."
How might the school founded by American missionaries from small-town Indiana have influenced Coke's reputed success in the world of organized crime? Interestingly, Coke was not known as one of Jamaica's typically "flashy" crime lords, or "dons," as Jamaicans call them. He was low-key: not one to party it up at night clubs with scantily clad women. He avoided the limelight. In a sense, he was not not unlike many denizens of the small towns and rural areas of America's Midwest: places like all-American Anderson, Indiana.
It's also interesting to speculate on whether Coke was immersed in a Protestant work ethic at Ardenne that later helped him in his career in crime -- an ethic that sociologist Max Weber contended was part of America's successful "spirit of capitalism."
Coke's math teacher at Ardenne recalled that "Michael" (the name the boy went by) was a "bright mathematics student" -- a boy who was quiet and well-behaved during the five years he taught him. Recently, the veteran teacher told a Jamaican newspaper that he had often wondered what happened to the gifted Michael Coke after he'd graduated, believing the boy "had all ingredients" for success.
It was not until years after Coke graduated that the teacher learned that his gifted student was the son of the late Jim Brown, one of Jamaica's most fearsome drug lords. In 1992, Brown died when a fire engulfed his jail cell, just days before he was to be extradited to the U.S. on murder and drug trafficking charges. He allegedly headed the Shower Posse, an international drug gang so named because of the penchant of its gunmen for showering bullets upon rivals and anybody who got in their way.
Some sons take over the family business and make a shambles out of it. Coke wasn't one of them. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Coke allegedly took the family business to new levels of success, while simultaneously functioning as a legitimate businessman and "community leader" in West Kingston.
Over the years, he obtained many government contracts for things like road work and construction, which allowed him to distribute jobs in the gritty area that he ruled. He staged a popular weekly street dance and a "dancehall" event. His stronghold in the Tivoli Gardens area of West Kingston is part of a so-called "garrison community" -- a mini-state within a state that has links to Jamaica's ruling and center-right Jamaica Labor Party. Other such "garrisons" have ties to the left-leaning People's National Party.
Coke, 41, is now on the run and is thought to be in Jamaica. Last month, security forces stormed his stronghold, provoking bloody shootouts with drug gangs aligned with Coke, whom Jamaica's government had pledged to extradite to the U.S. to face drug trafficking and arms smuggling charges. Scores of people -- civilians, alleged criminals, and police officers -- died as Jamaica declared a State of Emergency in parts of Kingston. Now, rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are calling for investigations into the deaths, though they never seemed to raise as much concern in the past over Jamaica's "garrison communities," where "dons" rule in a thuggish manner while delivering votes to local politicians. (Jamacan police recently said they'd discovered a "torture" chamber and shallow graves in the Tivoli Gardens area.)
Jamaica's newspapers are giving daily coverage to the ongoing manhunt for Coke and fellow gang members, along with the negative fallout on the country's tourism industry. But one of the most interesting bits of coverage that emerged was the revelation about Coke's high school days, contained in a fascinating front-page article in the The Gleaner, a respected daily newspaper in Kingston.
Gleaner reporter Tyrone Reid interviewed Coke's former math teacher, and the paper's news team somehow obtained Coke's confidential academic records. (Hey, would somebody please send these folks up to Cambridge, Mass. to pry some academic records away from Harvard that a certain U.S. president has declined to release?)
Regarding Coke's math prowess in high school, his former teacher said:
Math is the only universal language, and he spoke it very fluently. I taught him for five years straight. Basically, he was the model student; very quiet, and there were no problems in terms of discipline.
The veteran teacher, whom the Gleaner declined to name, expressed some empathy for the former student for whom he had such high expectations. "He would have been something better had it not been for the weight of the crown awaiting him," said the teacher. On the other hand, many middle-class Jamaicans do not view Coke as a Michael Corleone -- an innocent young man who got sucked into the family business due to circumstances beyond his control. "He made his choices. I have no sympathy for him," a Jamaican friend recently told me. That attitude seems rife among crime-weary Jamaicans, including many I knew while living for two years in Kingston, the capital, where I worked as a journalist.
A Different Life
What if Coke had made the right choices? What if he had immigrated to America for a college education and a new life, like so many Jamaicans have done over the years? Instead of allegedly distributing cocaine, crack, and marijuana in New York City and other cities, Coke may have been a good fit at a number of companies, including Macy's, Inc.
"Coming out of college, we really like to have kids who like math, study math, and get it," says Macy's, Inc. chief executive Terry J. Lundgren. "And so I'd like to make sure that there is an emphasis on math. I think there is a strong emphasis on marketing already, and we want that and we need that. But to me, the math piece is weak in most business school educations, and I'd like to have more emphasis on that."
It's not enough to just be able to use a calculator, Lundgren explains. "I don't think you should actually have to have a calculator for every decision that you make that has numbers attached to it. Some of that should just come to you quickly, and you should be able to quickly move to your instincts about that being a good or not good decision."
Macy's aside, maybe a faced-paced job at a Wall Street investment firm would have been a better fit. Interestingly, Coke appears to share some personality traits with men like Alan C. Greenberg, a native of Oklahoma City who is the former chairman of now-defunct investment firm Bear Stearns. "I'm very good in math, and I'm a logical thinker," says Greenberg, now with JP Morgan Chase. "I don't get wrapped up in things or even wrapped up in myself."
Why some people make disastrous choices in their lives can sometimes be mysterious and perplexing. What roles are played by our free will, genes, and environment?
It's a question many have asked about the Bulger family in Boston, Massachusetts -- and two brothers who took vastly different paths in life. One was a bad seed: James "Whitey" Bulger was an alleged "hit man" and boss of the Winter Hill Gang -- an Irish-American crime family. On the other hand, his brother William did the family proud. He became the popular leader in the state's Democratic Party and was president of the state senate. Later, he was president of the University of Massachusetts.
No doubt, "Whitey" Bulger was a smart guy to have been a successful mobster. That intelligence may explain why police never caught him. Now 80, he remains on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. The FBI describes him as "an avid reader with an interest in history. He is known to frequent libraries and historic sites."
Interestingly, Coke's academic records indicate a propensity for doing well in his favorite subjects -- but flunking those subjects that failed to interest him. This would suggest the up-and-down academic performance of some successful people with Attention Deficit Disorder, including those who become competent in certain high-stimulation careers: trial lawyers, surgeons, or investment bankers (in which daily adrenalin fixes are common).
The Gleaner's article didn't elaborate on Coke's interest in religion, the only subject besides math in which he got high marks. If he was religious, how could he justify his life in organized crime? Perhaps it was the same rationalization as that of Michael Corleone, who convinced himself he had a responsibly to his family and others who depended on him. In Coke's case, this would be his immediate family and poor Jamaicans who depended on his largess in what amounted to a mini-welfare state, Tivoli Gardens, over which he allegedly ruled in a sometimes thuggish manner -- dispensing rough justice when needed, along with things like free school uniforms or handouts of food.
Could life be imitating art (or Hollywood) in respect to Coke? A pivotal scene from The Godfather (and example of moral equivalence) comes to mind in an exchange between Michael Corleone and his estranged girlfriend, Kay.
"My father is no different than any other powerful man -- any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president," Michael explains, after succeeding his father as the family's crime boss.
But a misty-eyed Kay responds, "You know how naïve you sound? Senators and presidents don't have men killed!"
"Oh, who's being naïve, Kay?" says Michael.
The idealized portrayal of gangsters in The Godfather revolves around thugs murdering other thugs. But in Jamaica's war on drugs, it's often innocent people who get killed, as was evidenced several years ago when three marine divers employed to inspect the hulls of ships for illegal contraband were found murdered. Drug gangs reportedly killed them because they refused to accept bribes to overlook any drugs they discovered.
Prime Minister P.J. Patterson of the left-leaning People's National Party announced a program to educate the children of the divers. "They were the victims of a criminal element who murdered them because they dared to do their duty and refused to be compromised," said Patterson, a former protégé of Jamaica's Michael Manley, the fiery socialist prime minister of the 1970s who put Jamaica on a path of economic stagnation, while presiding over some of the worst years of its gang culture.
Patterson, of course, is a hypocrite, because Jamaica's political class over the years has allowed itself to be compromised as politicians from both parties made tacit deals with strongmen like Coke to maintain their grip on power.
The jury is out on whether Jamaica's government will capture Coke, extradite him to the U.S., and tear down its garrison communities. If it fails, more smart Jamaican youngsters with a flair for business -- who embrace an amoral worldview -- will surely be ready to become Jamaica's future dons.
David Paulin, an American Thinker contributor, lived for two years in Kingston, where he worked for the Associated Press and subsequently as a freelance foreign correspondent for papers in the U.S. and Canada. He blogs about other aspects of Jamaica and Christopher "Dudus" Coke at The Big Carnival.