Courtesy Reuters

On June 22, Jamaican police stopped a car they had been tracking down a rain-sodden highway. Inside was a man rather poorly disguised to look rather like a woman on her way to a church convention. In fact, the man was Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the notorious gang leader whom police had been chasing for over a month. Two days later, Jamaica extradited him to the United States.

It has been a long journey from prince to pauper for the diminutive, media-shy Dudus. Since the early 1990s, after his father's mysterious death, he has been the powerful don of Tivoli Gardens -- Jamaica's most notorious garrison community. Now he faces gunrunning and drug-smuggling charges that could land him in prison for life. The story of Dudus, the Coke family, and Tivoli Gardens reveals Jamaica's creeping neo-medievalism, and how one man could plunge a country into civil war.

Jamaica obtained its political independence from the United Kingdom during the great wave of decolonization that followed World War II. As for many of the nations that emerged at this time, Jamaica's success was not preordained.

Initially, however, Jamaica seemed to manage the transition well. Riding a postwar economic boom, its economy showed healthy growth in its first decade after independence. New elites, drawn from the country's growing business and middle classes, occupied the shell of the old British regime. They consolidated their hold both by providing the trappings of a modern state -- public services, monumental architecture, and state patronage systems. To showcase its success, the proud new nation even staged international blowouts, such as the 1966 British Empire and Commonwealth Games and George Foreman's 1973 showdown against Joe Frazier.

Still, all was not well in the land. Despite apparent prosperity, agricultural output declined, and the capital-intensive development model favored by the new elites failed to generate sufficiently broad-based economic gains. Unemployment doubled, and thousands of migrants descended on Kingston in search of work. Finding none, they became restless and unattached, a problem depicted in the classic movie about the era, The Harder They Come.

To house and mollify the growing urban population, the state began to develop new communities. Before long, ruling parties began allocating control over these new "garrisons" to party bosses, thereby locking in the residents as supporters. It was but a short step for the party bosses to begin using violence to ensure their communities' loyalty. Enterprising young men sold such services to politicians; gunmen could even attempt to depopulate rival neighborhoods at election time. Once firmly in power, the thugs set up legitimate enterprises to route patronage to their followers.

Tivoli Gardens, a former police commissioner once said, was the "mother of all garrisons." It wasn't only the first; it was also the most thoroughly entrenched. Tivoli boasted a full range of public services, including schooling and entertainment, and was one of the city's safest communities -- all thanks to its ruling gang (which, in time, came to be run by the Coke family). The quid pro quo was absolute loyalty to the leader, or don, whose consent even the police required to enter the neighborhood.

By the early 1970s, just as the gangs cemented their hold over great swaths of Jamaica's cities, the failure of the country's economic model to produce growth led to a political crisis. In 1972, the opposition party won power and soon turned to socialism as a means to address the growing problem. Although social gains followed, the price was high: poor economic management led to a collapse that was only worsened by the decade's oil shocks. The country's economy never really recovered. In fact, over the last three decades, years of growth were offset by years of contraction, and Jamaican GDP more or less stagnated.

With the resources available to ruling parties more constrained, the dons -- who had relied on government contracts for revenue -- had to supplement their dwindling coffers with new income lines. The drug trade networks between South and North America were an obvious opportunity. As the dons became more autonomous, the state fought to remain relevant by maintaining what public services it could. To do this, it did what many poor countries did: it borrowed and ran up debt.

In the 1990s, the rate of borrowing soared, and by the early part of this century Jamaica's debt absorbed most of its revenue. The government had ceded some of its financial power to bondholders, who enjoyed a claim on most of the state's revenue, and shared security and service provision in the garrisons with the dons. The country was not a modern nation-state but a neo-medieval one; rather than ruling directly, Jamaica's politicians had allowed latter-day barons -- bondholders above, dons below -- to assume a share of power.

Fed up with the country's problems, in 2007 Jamaicans voted the People's National Party, which had ruled for 18 years, out of office. They elected instead the Jamaica Labour Party led by Bruce Golding, a cerebral, articulate man who, however, lacked deep reservoirs of popular support. Given the state of the economy, Golding moved into Jamaica House -- the prime minister's office complex -- with about the shortest menu of options for fixing the country's problems that one could imagine. When the global financial crisis hit shortly thereafter, it became even shorter.

Whereas other countries tried to right their economies by rescuing the faltering financial industries with infusions of capital, Jamaica, lacking capital of any kind, did not have that option. Instead, it negotiated a debt-exchange agreement with its bankers, which were supported by the International Monetary Fund. In return, the IMF demanded a program of fiscal austerity. Soon, interest rates fell, the currency stabilized, and, for the first time in years, it seemed that the economy might grow.

But a major problem still remained: the gangs. One could have accepted a decision to tackle one challenge at a time -- first the economy, then the guns. But the United States ruled that out last summer, when it requested that Dudus be immediately extradited to stand trial. This created an especially difficult situation for Golding, who was the representative for Tivoli Gardens in the Jamaican Parliament. Having been parachuted into that district when he became party leader in 2005, he was never particularly close to Dudus. But the United States is reportedly investigating three ministers in his government for alleged links to the gang.

Golding confronted the unpalatable choice of either siding with the United States and risk seeing his government fall as its members stood trial and as Dudus and his gang fought back, or siding with Dudus and risk alienating both the United States and the Jamaicans who elected him in hopes that he would tackle crime. Golding hedged, trying to buy time.

Matters grew worse when the opposition party revealed that Golding had retained U.S. lobbyists to pressure Washington to back off. Golding denied the claims, but in May admitted that he had misled the nation and offered to resign. Realizing they had no one to replace him, his party did not accept his offer. Backed into a corner, Golding announced that the time had come to fight the gangs and arrest Dudus.

In late May, the government imposed a state of emergency in Kingston, and the army mobilized for an assault on Tivoli Gardens. What followed in June was a localized, urban civil war. Golding has been criticized for his handling of the operation; his public announcement is said to have alerted the gangs before the strike, allowing them time to build barriers and plant booby traps. Yet a secret, surgical strike would probably not have saved the lives of the dozens who died in the fighting. And the state of emergency arguably served an important purpose: after the announcement, gang members flooded back to their bastions to prepare for a fight, limiting the territory the police and army had to cover.

At any rate, the gangs had overplayed their hand. Their constant threats and violence had alienated much of the population, which was -- at least temporarily -- united on the necessity of a military action. The image of the Jamaican don as a Robin Hood figure defending the poor against an oppressive regime had faded. Recent research by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, for example, suggests that the dons' hold over their subjects in at least some garrisons may no longer be as strong as once supposed.

As I argued in "The New Middle Ages" (May/June 2006), the neo-medieval governance structures that evolved in parts of Jamaican territory are hardly exceptional. As such, the struggle of Jamaica's political and economic directorate to reimpose some semblance of sovereignty will be a fascinating case study. Certainly, Jamaicans will watch the trial of Dudus rapt to see if he enters a plea bargain and reveals secrets that could bring down much of the political class -- and indeed cause Golding's government to fall. If it does fall, the question is whether Jamaica's neo-medieval system will come down with it.