Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Put an end to extortion

Published:Friday | July 15, 2016 | 7:10 AM

Extortion is a serious criminal offence but the police have failed to dent this illegal enterprise allowing thugs to use violence and intimidation to cash in on a multimillion-dollar business.

The Major Organised Crime Unit, which was established in 2003 to focus on dismantling extortion gangs, has failed spectacularly to produce results. After a lull in 2010 following the deportation of Christopher Coke, the activity has reportedly surged in downtown Kingston and parts of Spanish Town.

It's time to get tough on extortion, was the view expressed at The Gleaner's inaugural Fourth Floor talks, aimed at finding solutions to the country's intractable crime problem.

"The taximen are complaining," noted Rear Admiral Hardley Lewin who was himself confronted with the scourge during his tenure as commissioner of police.

Indeed, there is evidence that cabbies and bus operators, who deal strictly with cash transactions, are favourite shakedown targets for thugs. Those who refuse to pay may be killed or robbed instilling fear and forcing compliance in others.

The brutality of the thugs was exposed in an example given to The Fourth Floor. "They held up a taximan and asked him for $500 and he said he only had $200. He gave them the $200 and they shot him."


Extortion epidemic


The Spanish Town bus park has been going through an extortion epidemic. It is alleged that up to $1,000 is being demanded from bus operators daily. The police are aware of this yet the criminals are rarely caught and punished.

Another target group is the wholesale community, said to number about 1,000 in the Kingston metropolitan area. It is believed that the majority do pay up and then shut up, because they don't feel they can rely on the police to protect them.

Statistics indicate that fewer than a dozen arrests were made by MOCA since 2015 and no 'godfather' figure or mastermind has been held. Among those arrested was a man who threatened to reveal his relationship with a woman unless she paid him, and a young St Elizabeth schoolboy who was demanding money from fellow students. These are hardly the big fish that victims of extortion expect to be reeled in by the police. This proves that the risk of getting caught or charged with extortion is very low.


No target too small


Extortion is acute in parts of the Corporate Area. The activities of these thugs have sucked the commercial life out of once-thriving communities like Red Hills Road, Mountain View Avenue and Slipe Pen Road. It seems no target is too small for these criminals.

Recognising the pervasive nature of the extortion racket in Red Hills Road, an anti-extortion unit staffed by detectives was established at the Constant Spring Police Station a few years back. This came about after an orgy of murder and mayhem in the Red Hills Road business corridor. Efforts to find out how well the unit performed and whether it still exists were unsuccessful. One thing is evident, many businesses on Red Hills Road have been shuttered.

Nearly a dozen business persons were murdered in Spanish Town over the period 1993-2003. These persons paid with their lives perhaps by refusing to comply with the demands of thugs.

In addition to extortion, thugs are also engaged in pilfering goods from many of these stores in downtown Kingston.

There is something else affecting the efforts to counter extortion. It is called the wall of silence. The rear admiral recalls a high-level meeting with business people in Kingston touching on the difficulties they were having with extortionists. But none, except one of these prominent business persons admitted to paying. When asked how he managed his affairs, he shocked his audience with the response, "Mi buy a man".


Break the silence


The Fourth Floor insists that the conspiracy of silence has to be broken to bring the criminals to justice. But even with silence, the police could do much more because there are dozens of cases of persons showing up at business places to demand payment for protection and this happens on a regular basis.

In the classic example of a child living what he learns, The Fourth Floor heard how the son of a 'don', a mere first former at a prominent boys' school in the Corporate Area, was extorting his fellow classmates. The boy reportedly threatened to stab those who would not pay up.

With no real push to attack the problem and thwart extortion, with no tough laws against extortion, many businesspersons feel the threat of shakedowns will continue for a very long time. This lamentable state of affairs is a direct reflection on the inability of the police to ensure that the rule of law prevails so that people can conduct their business without fear.