The scion of a Jamaican gang family agreed Thursday to be extradited to New York, saying it was in his nation's best interests after clashes that killed 76 people.
Christopher "Dudus" Coke, whose supporters waged street battles with security forces last month in an attempt to prevent him from facing drug and weapons charges in the United States, waived his right to an extradition trial at his first appearance before a Jamaican judge.
Coke said he was deeply saddened by the lives lost in the fighting, which centered around his power base in the Tivoli Gardens slum. He said he hopes his decision will help Jamaica heal.
"I take this decision for I now believe it to be in the best interest of my family, the community of western Kingston and in particular the people of Tivoli Gardens and above all Jamaica," Coke said in a statement released to the news media, his first public comments since the U.S. requested his extradition in August.
Coke, 42, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. U.S. prosecutors say Coke, as leader of the notorious Shower Posse gang, has overseen large shipments of cocaine and marijuana to the eastern United States since the 1990s.
The 15-minute extradition hearing was held under heavy security at a military outpost in Kingston, the Caribbean nation's capital, out of fear of possible attacks by supporters.
Coke wore a gold chain over a blue striped shirt and was surrounded by security officers who towered over the 5-foot-4 strongman. He nodded to journalists on his way into the makeshift courthouse and acknowledged in a soft voice that he understood he will face trial in New York.
He expressed confidence that he will be found innocent and allowed to return to his family in Jamaica, saying he was leaving his mother in particular with a heavy heart.
His mother, Pauline Halliburton, still lives in the Tivoli Gardens slum where Coke commands widespread loyalty as a self-styled Robin Hood figure. Halliburton, 63 and blind, told CVM Television that she is praying for her son.
Coke's sister, a London resident who gave her name only as Pam in an interview with the television station, expressed relief that her brother was taken alive.
"They have no evidence of him selling anything," she said. "It's just word of mouth."
Coke was captured Tuesday after a monthlong manhunt. He was disguised in a wig and riding with the Rev. Al Miller, an influential evangelical preacher who said Coke was on his way to surrender at the U.S. Embassy.
His attorneys said U.S. authorities were expected to take custody of Coke on Thursday and fly him to New York immediately.
"The national security minister has only one document to sign and Coke should be out of the country," attorney Tom Tavares-Finson said.
Coke is the son of the famed gangster known as Jim Brown, who died in a 1992 prison fire in Jamaica while awaiting extradition to the U.S. on drug charges. Prosecutors say Coke then became the head of the Shower Posse, a name that by some accounts came from the gang's practice of "showering" its enemies with bullets.
The government initially resisted the extradition request in a nine-month standoff with the United States that became a political liability for Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who represents Tivoli Gardens' district in parliament. Golding, whose governing party has long-standing ties to gangs in Tivoli Gardens, narrowly survived a no-confidence vote over his handling of the case earlier this month.
After Golding announced he would relent on the extradition request, security forces and gunmen loyal to Coke clashed in four days of street battles that killed 76 people. The prime minister described the fight as a turning point in Jamaica's struggle with organized crime.
Jamaican Information Minister Daryl Vaz said the government's fight against gangs that control poor slums in Jamaica will not end with Coke's extradition.
"This extradition will be taking place," he said. "But this does not mean there will be any letup."
Associated Press writer David McFadden contributed to this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.