Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Illegal cash pot operators funding gangs

Published:Tuesday | April 25, 2017 | 4:00 AMChristopher Serju
Chambers
Prudence Gentles
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Illegal cash pot operators are creaming off what the authorities believe amount to at least J$2 billion per year from the gaming industry. Although this continues to put a dent in the operations of Supreme Ventures, the licensed franchise operator, it is how the money is being spent that has stakeholders and the police concerned.

It is a sure source of funding for many of the gangs around the country, who are using it to purchase weapons to fortify their empires, they say.

"Illegal gambling is prevalent across Jamaica," the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Commission (BGLC), the statutory body with responsibility for licensing, regulating and monitoring the local gambling/gaming industry, told The Gleaner in an email response to our questions. In fact, the BGLC said that the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Crime Stop in September 2016 was intended to crack down on the plethora of illegal cash pot operators who had been draining Supreme Ventures' profits.

Although it is known that the impact is significant, it is believed that the illegal activity is at least $2 billion annually.

"Unfortunately, there is not much data to support any discussion around the illegal market, the size or anything that relates to that. The last report I heard is that this is a J$2-billion-per-annum illegal market, and that was in 2014 and there have been two major arrests made by the BLGC," Tashai Hutton, vice-president of customer support and regulatory compliance at Supreme Ventures, disclosed.

While the significant loss of earnings by Supreme Ventures and tax revenue to the Government's coffers means big business for the criminals operating them, for Prudence Gentles, manager of Crime Stop Jamaica, and the police, it is their spend from these ill-gotten gains that is the real cause for concern.

"The money from illegal cash pot is what is helping to fund gangs. Illegal cash pot, illicit drugs, illicit cigarettes, illicit goods all go to funding gangs, because drugs have become a little bit more difficult to deal with because people don't think that illicit cigarettes or goods and such stuff is as bad as drugs, but they are. It is still organised crime, and the revenue from it goes to fund these gangs," she told The Gleaner.

In endorsing this information, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Clifford Chambers painted a damning picture of the multiplier effect of revenue earned from what some people see as harmless activity - simply buying a bet.

He explained: "The operators in these areas use the revenue that they gain from these activities to fund whatsoever they do with regards to the continuity of their illegal activities - purchasing of arms, purchasing of ammunition and somehow fortify their personnel and their arsenal. The other thing, too, is that a lot of these locations, they have a lot of youth - persons between 15 and 25, which is the cohort where you get the largest foot soldiers recruited from. They are both victims and they are also the perpetrators."

... No help from the public

Getting support from the general public to break the stranglehold of the criminals in the communities benefitting from illegal cash pot is very difficult, senior cop Clifford Chambers admitted.

"They see it as that which provides for them; as that which they can always rely on, from the operators of these illegal cash pot, and so it thrives. The community sees it as providing some kind of support, and as a result seems not to really have an issue against it. So it thrives for some of those reasons; the bets are paid at a premium; the bets are paid instantaneously, so you don't have to have this long wait. And the truth be told, once your fund is won, it's gonna be secure, [because] no one is gonna try to rip them off or anything like that, so they feel much comfort in carrying out these activities."

Tashai Hutton, vice-president at Supreme Ventures, said that customers who usually do business with Supreme Ventures have been intercepted and enticed by the gains offered by the illegal cash pot operators.

"They can afford the higher payout because the informal sector, as you can appreciate, no tax is paid. So they can afford the higher payouts, and does it impact? Yes, it does impact us significantly," she admitted. "The problem still exists and it is real! The only thing we can do from a Supreme Ventures end is to advise people to stick to the formal sector because sometimes people will have genuine complaints in relation to their experiences and it can be easily confused with the formal sector."

While the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Commission is working with the police, through Crime Stop, and has made a few major arrests, Assistant Commissioner of Police Chambers said the lack of cooperation from the citizenry continues to hinder their efforts.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com