Last update: 11-Dec-2013 6:16 am
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Members of the business community yesterday 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 yesterday 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.”
Independent Liberal Party (ILP) interim chairman Robin Montano, meanwhile, said the party was absolutely dismayed over claims that the Government was awarding state contracts to gang leaders. Montano said he planned to address the matter at an ILP meeting scheduled for last night, since Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal had accused the ILP of harbouring criminals.
“Spanish” part of 2006 peace accord
Beetham community leader Kenneth “Spanish” Rodriguez was awarded a $2 million contract to convert a Housing Development Corporation (HDC) apartment building on Duncan Street into a police post. Rodriguez was arrested as a gang member during the 2011 state of emergency and released without charge.
He was part of a major peace initiative in Laventille in 2006 among community leaders in the area, including Sean “Bill” Francis, Kerwin “Fresh” Phillip and the Sandy brothers. Francis, Phillip and most of the Sandy gang have been gunned down. Francis and the others controlled URP and other government projects in the Port-of-Spain area. The Laventille peace treaty, coming after a period of violence, led to the Crown Plaza Accord shortly after, between then prime minister Patrick Manning and the community leaders.
Lennox Smith, head of Laventille for Laventillians, yesterday said Rodriguez was a part of the area’s Council of Elders. Smith said “if Rodriguez has changed,” however, he had a right to receive a state contract like anyone else. Disputing the idea that contracts fuel violence, he said: “They are given out to generate peace and put food on the table.” Smith said gang violence in the area centres around deep-seated animosity going back decades.
Rodriguez, who was part of a tour of the police post project on Duncan Street last Friday with Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal, National Security Minister Gary Griffith, HDC managing director Jearlean John and Williams, dismissed questions from the media as to whether he is a gang leader. He said he was a community activist and has never been charged with any offence.
Griffith could not be reached for comment yesterday and John did not reply to a text message on the matter. Rodriguez declined an interview with the T&T Guardian. The police post project came about after a period of intense violent crimes in August by rival gangs in the Duncan Street community, culminating in the killing of six people, including two teenagers.
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and an entourage of government ministers, including Moonilal, and law enforcement officials, visited the area shortly after the slayings. She announced that Building 64 was to be converted into a police post.
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