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Pay the devil

October 05, 2003
By Raffique Shah

THERE can be no doubt that crime is of immediate and very grave concern to many citizens of this country. In spite of numerous initiatives by Minister of National Security Howard Chin Lee and his security chiefs in the police and army, the forces of law and order seem to be several steps behind the criminals. One gets the impression, certainly in the case of "gang wars" in the Morvant/Laventille districts, that the police have resigned themselves to allowing the gangsters to self-destruct, given the rate at which they are murdering each other. With respect to kidnappings, they seem to be clueless as to who the perpetrators are or how to get at them before they kidnap everyone who can fetch them hefty ransoms.

Against such a grim background, it is not difficult to understand why so many people are paranoid. I imagine decent folks in the "killing fields" up North, who outnumber the gangsters by at least 99-1, must be fearful for their safety every time they enter what was once their sanctum. I think of people like Keith Smith, harmless and amiable, now having to watch over their shoulders every time they come out of their homes, looking suspiciously at every suspicious-looking character on the block or in taxis. It must be tough on their nerves. How can these people sleep comfortably in their beds when, at any time, they expect to be awakened by "Pow Pow!" coming from who knows where?

Kidnappings are now being dubbed "Indian-napping" since most victims are Indo-Trinis. And the dividers in our midst are using this to further fan the flames of racism, suggesting that "this whole thing is a plot against Indians! I do not believe the kidnappers are racists: they are just mindless criminals who are looking for "soft targets" and Indian businessmen happen in most cases to fall in this category. Still, one must heed the arguments advanced by those who promote the "Indian-napping" theory. Why, they ask, do the kidnappers not target the French Creole or Syrian or Chinese businessmen, many of whom are wealthier than their Indian counterparts? It's a valid question.

The business community has understandably become very vocal on crime. They are the ones who suffer most at the hands of robbers, burglars, murderers and kidnappers, so they feel they are under siege. This is particularly so with those from Indo-dominated districts. Following the latest spate of kidnappings, there has been a virtual crescendo of protest from these businessmen and women. They have called for protest action in the form of closing their shops for a day, for people to wear clothes of a particular colour to display their disgust with the level of crime, and for motorists to keep their headlights on during the designated protest days.

But even among their own they have had little response. In Claxton Bay where I live, I heard a public address system passing through the district last one day week appealing to businessmen to "close your shops from 3 p.m. to protest against crime." That was days after one businessman in the village had been kidnapped and later murdered. When I checked later that afternoon to see what the response was, I found almost every business place open and doing thriving business. Is it that they do not care about their own plight, of "wetting their houses when their neighbour's is on fire"? I think not.

People are in business to make money, so closing for a few hours or for days will hurt their pockets. But the organised business groups need to examine why they have had such poor responses to their several initiatives. It's not just a question of economics, of people having to maximise their daily revenues to meet operating costs and make profits. It's because many of them have examined patterns in kidnappings and decided that while they are at risk, they are not as exposed or attractive as others are.

I don't know how many people, more so those in the business sector, read Camini Maharaj's story in last week's Sunday Express. In it, she quoted "sources" linking some kidnappings to the drug trade, and more specifically to businessmen who had links with notorious drug lords like the late Dole Chadee. Many took "dirty" dollars from the barons and thought that the debts were forgiven with the deaths (or imprisonment) of these notorious characters. Not so. Unknown hands are reaching out from the graves at Golden Grove and elsewhere and demanding what was owed to them.

The business organisations may not be aware of these links, and when someone presents himself as a self-made millionaire, who is there to question by what means he acquired his wealth? Look at it another way: a victim is plucked from a community in which there are many more prosperous businessmen, and you ask yourself, "Why?" Why did they not touch so-or-so, since the latter appear to be easier targets who are "loaded" We may never know the answers. But there are whispers about how the victims' families acquired their wealth.

In one case that I know of, for example, it is common knowledge that the person dealt "dirty" in the business he and his close relatives are involved in. Many are their victims who made purchases from them, only to find themselves relieved of what they bought within 24 hours. And the men used to commit these nefarious acts on behalf of the businessman are believed to be the said men who did the kidnapping. They would, because they know all there is to know about the victim. What did Bob Marley sing? "Only your friends know your secret, and only he can reveal it."

That is one side of this puzzling coin. On the other, businessmen may find answers to their question, "Why me?" in the following. Do you pay your employees fair wages? Do you rob Inland Revenue by telling customers: "If yuh want a bill yuh have to pay VAT!" VAT is not a discretionary payment. What about mark-ups amounting to huge percentages of wholesale prices? And do you not hire unsavoury characters to collect debts? By committing these crimes -yes, that's what they are-you are exposing yourselves more than the average businessman or citizen.

These illicit activities by a few businessmen do not justify the state of siege the entire community has been placed in. Nor do they absolve the government and the law enforcement agencies from their responsibilities. But they do say to those with shady backgrounds that they must ultimately "Pay the Devil."