Editorial | Get serious about extortion
The weekend report of typewritten letters of demand to business people for periodic payments to extortionists, while bizarre in its form, would cause little surprise or shock to shop operators across Jamaica.
Unfortunately, extortion and the threat of deadly consequences have long been operational hazards to business in Jamaica, especially in zones dominated by gangs who use inner-city communities as power centres and recruitment sources.
This newspaper only last Friday carried a story about reports of extortion drying up in Spanish Town, not, we believe, because there has been an exodus of criminals from the St Catherine capital, but that there might have been a near-total collapse of confidence in the police force to reverse the rot.
Many Jamaicans baulk at what they consider to be high prices of goods and services in this country, but often forget that there are hidden costs, such as apparently benign requests for contributions to charity, or more forceful demands, under the barrel of a gun, to pay out specific sums to hoodlums toting brown paper bags.
LACK OF FAITH
We cannot pronounce on the credibility and authenticity of the generally grammatically coherent letters doing the rounds on the weekend, but raise the larger issue of a lack of faith by business people, and civilians generally, in the integrity and capacity of the constabulary. For we suspect that business operators capitulate to extortionists on three main counts:
1. They are unsure that the police to whom they make reports are clean and that they will keep their identities and other details confidential.
2. They doubt that the police will sufficiently maintain a heavy presence on the streets and will, in the end, surrender public spaces to chaos and crime.
3. The extortionists' network, or "system", as the weekend letter dubbed it, actually works in deterring some crimes - at least crimes besides extortion - but such protection comes at heavy cost.
But we will not glamorise or validate parallel systems of law. There must be one order, and not the Spanish Town kind.
CULTURE OF SILENCE
These peddlers of fear ultimately leach business confidence, hike prices and sap entrepreneurial ambition. The police are quick to blame business owners and operators for not cooperating with investigators, but that culture did not emerge overnight. It did so because the police have repeatedly ceded ground to criminals after every temporary advance. Legislation and police ops will not be curative if smashed gangs are allowed to regroup and strike again.
If Novelette Grant, or whoever else is confirmed as police commissioner in a matter of weeks, is to inspire confidence, she or he must resist the legacy of lethargy and treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves.
Western Kingston and other sections of the downtown commercial and residential district stand as testament to how a massive show of strength, as in the 2010 get-Dudus operation, followed by a surrender to extortionists and murderers, destroys belief among business operators that they won't be left to fend for themselves, eventually, when the security forces retreat.