(Trinidad Guardian) Members of the business community on Wednesday expressed shock and betrayal at the claims that state contracts were being awarded to criminal gang leaders. Their comments came a day after acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams confirmed contractor Kenneth “Spanish” Rodriguez had been awarded a state contract although the Government had intelligence from police linking him to criminal gangs. Rodriguez has denied he is a gang leader. Rather, he says he is a community leader.
“We know from hard experience and from the lessons of the previous administration that this particular strategy always fails, and in fact, will only worsen the criminality that is destroying our country,” president of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association Gregory Aboud told the T&T Guardian on Wednesday in response to the statements. “It would be a great shock and a betrayal if the allegations are true,” he said.
Aboud said one could deduce a degree of frustration in Williams’ remarks to the media on the matter of how Rodriguez could be awarded a contract to refurbish a police post at Duncan Street, Port-of-Spain. He said, however, that he was not the person to comment on Williams’ claim that the police knew all the gang leaders but had a challenge in getting the evidence to prosecute them.
Addressing the issue of awarding contract to gang members, however, Aboud said this always leads to situations where a different kind of rivalry is spawned. “At the end of the day, criminals are fighting among themselves for government contracts, and in that battle for contracts the violence grows and lives are lost.” Aboud recalled the situation in Jamaica, where competing political parties patronised the various dons. This, he said, proved to be a total disaster for law enforcement when the dons became entrenched in communities.
“We as a people should be very careful not to make the same mistake,” he warned. Catherine Kumar, CEO of the T&T Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supported the views of Williams and National Security Minister Gary Griffith that state contracts should not be given to gang leaders. “We have to ensure we are getting value for taxpayers’ money that is spent,” she said.
Kumar said there was also the uncertainty as to what the funds will be used for. “We can’t say for sure they will be used for criminal activities, but we will never know for sure.” Griffith has vowed to pull the plug on government ministers or anyone else who gives contracts to criminals.
Also contacted yesterday, People’s National Movement (PNM) Laventille West MP Nileung Hypolite said he did not support the awarding of state contracts to gang leaders, but questioned exactly how a gang leader could be identified.
Attempting an answer, he said: “The police have to bring evidence he’s involved in criminal activity.” Hypolite said the Government arrested 8,000 people during the state of emergency in 2011 under the anti-gang law, which said a person could be arrested if the police had a clue they were involved in gang activity. He said the law is still there.
Asked about the last PNM administration entertaining gang leaders and giving them state contracts, Hypolite said: “My view is that they were presented to the prime minister as community leaders.” But he added, “State contracts should not be given to criminals to further their wrongdoing, whether it was by the last PNM administration, the present Persad-Bissessar government or a coming Rowley government.”