Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Sugar, spice & nothing nice - Extortionists demanding big bucks from business operators on Red Hills Road

Published:Sunday | December 11, 2016 | 12:00 AMRyon Jones
Jermaine Barnaby/Freelance Photographer The shuttered Sugar and Spice outlet on Red Hills Road in St Andrew.
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Criminals have taken over sections of Red Hills Road in St Andrew, extorting thousands of dollars from business owners and operators of public-passenger vehicles daily.

This has caused some business operators to close their doors, while taxi and bus drivers either pay up or run the risk of being beaten by the thugs.

Among the businesses which have shuttered their doors in recent times is the landmark Sugar and Spice outlet, which operated at 118 Red Hills Road for close to 40 years.

While there has been no official word from the management of Sugar and Spice, Sunday Gleaner sources claim the decision to close the outlet last month was because of demands made by extortionists. The Constant Spring police told our news team that they had received similar reports.

"There is one place that was closed down, and I understand that the owner said it was because of extortion - the Sugar and Spice place," acting head of the Constant Spring Police Station, Deputy Superintendent Alfred Bennett, told The Sunday Gleaner.

According to Bennett, while he is not familiar with the issues being faced by the business operators, he is well aware that taxi and bus operators who ply the Red Hills Road route have to contend with extortionists.

"Two months ago, we arrested two guys who had beaten up two taxi men at the terminus at the top of Red Hills Road because the taxi men refused to pay them extortion money," said Bennett.

"But when we held the guys, who were from Common (a lower-income community off Red Hills Road), the taxi men refused to come forward and give statements," added Bennett.

He said the police will examine the issues being faced by the business people in the area, and there will be heightened police presence over the festive season, but the senior cop said more needs to be done to collar the extortionists.

"We need some changes to the legislation where the complainant doesn't have to come forward, so people could set up cameras so we can capture these persons. People are very fearful to come forward to give statements, and you have to agree with them because police can't be at their gates 24/7," argued Bennett.

The claim by the cop that business operators are not reporting cases of extortion was underlined last week as sources on Red Hills Road insisted that it was at the heart of the closure of Sugar and Spice, but someone close to the company denied that this was the case.

"We do not have any immediate plans for 118 Red Hills Road. I can't say whether it will reopen or what will occur at that location," said the person connected to the company, who asked not to be named, having not been authorised to speak.

Despite this denial, residents in the area were adamant that extortion is a big problem.

"Some of the times, it pressuring on the people them and they still have to comply because they are fearful for their lives. Most of the Chinese who own the wholesales live on the compound, so they have to be there, so they just comply and pay," one resident told our news team last week.

"Some of the operators have to pay every week or have to give something every day. It all depends on the understanding," said the resident.

The Red Hills Road extortion racket, which our news team understands is perpetrated by men from some of the inner-city communities in the area, is said to have been going on for years, with the criminals demanding goods instead of cash in some cases.

"It used to be money, but you can trace money, so they started taking goods and collect a receipt like a regular customer to make it look legit," one wholesale worker revealed.

"It is like rent; you pay it every month. They have their figure that they attach to it. At my place, the owners have to give up $20,000 worth of goods every month. They mostly take alcoholic beverages, but yet still, if they have treats, they have their people who come to you still requesting something. They use these treats to con the people (residents) and keep them within their bounds and reach," added the worker.

"It is not the Chinese alone. Most of the business people a pay; every taxi that run from Price Rite (Chancery Street) to Half-Way Tree a pay; everyone that run go Red Hills a pay; everyone that run go Duhaney Park have to pay; all a Red Hills Road a pay," said one resident, who claimed he once operated a taxi on the road.

Councillor-elect for the area, Lee Clarke, said he thought the extortion issue was a thing of the past, so it is something he will have to look into.

"I know years ago we had that problem (extortion), but of late, I am even boasting that we have peace and quiet in the area. So it is something that I will put my ears on the ground and see what I hear," said Clarke.

"It wouldn't be good for the area because when a business closes, local people lose jobs, so it would be more pressure on the area that would ignite thievery and other disorderly conduct."

ryon.jones@gleanerjm.com