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Mark Wignall | Find smoking gun in wholesales

Published:Friday | May 11, 2018 | 12:00 AMMark Wignall

The brand names Sunny, Vibes, Pacific and Denin may not be known to non-smokers, but, like Craven A and Matterhorn, they are cigarettes of the illegal type which, under the law, ought not to be available in Jamaica.

I hold no brief for smokers or smoking, as I kicked the habit in 1976 when I was a young man. That said, under the unwritten business mantra in Jamaica, 'he who plays by the rules gets shafted', illicit brands of cigarette are available in just about every bar, corner shop, and with any streetside vendor across Jamaica.

Legality aside, in plain business sense, it suits the bar operator or shopkeeper to sell brands like Sunny and Vibes because, operating outside of the custom duty and normal tax net, they sell for $20 or $30, far cheaper than the well-known Craven A or Matterhorn brands.

For brands that are illicit, the obvious question is, how are they so widely available across Jamaica in full view of the tax authorities and the police? That can best be explained by Ionie Ramsay Nelson, a senior police officer who broke barriers and served the force with distinction for 40 years.

In February of this year, she wrote a piece in The Gleaner that stated, among other things, a candid eye-opener:

"For example, while serving as the commanding officer for the St Andrew Central Division, I dealt with a number of documents for a businessman. Seven of the 132 documents needed additional official accompaniment.

"He called my office and asked, 'Is that why you holding up the things them?'

"'Yes, sir,' I responded.

"'He said, 'But I need them.'

"'I responded, 'And I won't sign them until the rest of the information outstanding is produced.'

"'At the same time, another of his colleagues requested that I affix my signature to recommend a facility that was not safe for the type of operation being carried out, and I refused.

"The following day, I received a call from the distinguished man who told me in no uncertain terms, 'The two of us can't remain in this division.' About two weeks later, I was out of there."

Last Wednesday, I spoke to a bar operator about these 'bandooloo' brands. "I have a regular man come here and sell me them. I don't ask any questions and him don't tell me anything. Him give me di stuff and I pay him, and those brands move quick and I make about 50 per cent.'

"'So, if he doesn't show up when you run out, what do you do?' I asked her.

"'Any one of the wholesale store dem sell dem. That is not a problem.'"

Customer pays the extortion

The proliferation of wholesale stores operated by non-Jamaicans in the last two or three decades is seen by many as resourcefulness by these people who sell food and grocery items and haberdashery nix-nax of all sorts. Plus, they sell liquor and other items 'under the counter'.

"Dem people nuh have no problem paying di taxes (extortion)," said a young man from a well-known inner-city lane in the Kingston 19 area. "Dem jus put it pon di goods dem sell just like di big business man know sey is di customer pay GCT, and not him. Plus, when treat time come at Christmas, dem nuh have no problem fi give wi goods or cash. Dem know how fi live, man."

There may not be hard evidence that some of these wholesale stores, especially those operating in town centres and big urban settings, are working hand-in-glove with rogue cops and, they probably have their friends in high places who facilitate the passing of goods through the customs net. One thing is certain, though, and that is, there is a free flow of illicit goods into, and out of, their stores.


Open secret


It is also not a secret that some of these business establishments facilitate money laundering, which is big business right across the Jamaican business landscape. "Here how di ting work," said a man from a 'big lane' attached to a garrison pocket. "We tek a tax from dem every week, but we can't just tek $200,000 or $300,000 and lodge inna bank. So wi go back to di same man wi tax and give him back di tax and dem wi mek a business deal wid him fi 'security services' or 'roof repairs' an him gi wi a cheque and wi nice."

He also explained that some in the drug trade utilise the same approach with minor adjustments. 'Dem people not coming to Jamaica to fail. Dem come here to make it big and send back some money home. Just like how we do it in England and America wid wi work. So, if dem have arrangement wid di bank, dat is fi dem business, but dem know how fi fit in drugs and 'tax' money."

With the recent weather system which overran the poor drainage in certain sections of the country, there is going to be bad news for the urban planners who had begun significant road repairs in many sections of the island.

On one stretch of badly damaged roadway close to where I live, sections were dug up, the second time since the 1970s that it was being repaired, and marl was laid out and tamped down. Then came the rains that carried away the marl down the approximate 15-degree incline of the road.

That, of course, is going to be bad news for the NWA, but, knowing how Jamaica operates, it could be great news for the specific contractor. The road will have to be dug out again, new marl laid out and the substrate pressed down again.

This gives the contractor much leeway in pricing his overruns, if one is to adopt the usual cynicism but reality. "Why would they want to embark on road repairs in May," said an uptown householder to me last Thursday. "May has always been a rain month," said the 63-year-old woman to me. "That is how I have known it from I was a child."

I countered: "I sympathise with the Government and the National Works Agency (NWA). The Government had recently announced a multibillion-dollar road-repair programme that was always badly needed. What should they have done? The crime situation does not reflect good on the JLP administration, and the Opposition PNP is starting to wake up from the slumber it had fallen in the aftermath of the 2016 election loss.

"To wait until May expires is to chance the beginning of an early hurricane as that season begins in June. It's touch-and-go, but as even crime becomes highly politicised the Government had no other option, but to press ahead with the badly needed road repairs," I said.


Seeking miraculous crime plan


Consultants in all areas of a government ministry are there to present the Cabinet member with impressive-sounding documents that they can wave it around and utilise as the latest 'plan' to bring viability into the ministry.

While it was in Government, the PNP had its plans on fighting crime. The present JLP administration is now forced to wave something, anything, around as the latest iteration of a crime plan.

According to Ionie Ramsay Nelson there is, as many have said, no magic bullet.

"Jamaica will not be better even if we change a minister of national security every day and a commissioner of police every day without:

- Fixing the other social problems plaguing the society.

- Curing our greedy and dishonest approach to most things and services offered.

- Taking care of our children.

- Treating the elderly right.

- Stop taking and refusing to give back."

Everything else is just talk, talk, talk.

- Mark Wignall is a political- and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to and