Moonilal: Do more against extortion of businesses

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal. – File photo by Jeff K Mayers

OROPOUCHE East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal on May 26 called for a new unit in the police service to curb extortion of businesses by criminal gangs and for tough new laws.

Former commissioner of police (CoP) Gary Griffith told Newsday of his tough action against criminal extortion, but lamented his initiatives had since been scrapped.

Newsday was unable to contact Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds, Attorney General Reginald Armour or CoP Erla Harewood-Christopher.

Criminologist Dr Derek Chadee told Newsday that extortion hurt businesses by deterring investment and customers, and devastated communities and the wider society.

Moonilal said, “I call again for the development of a specialised multi-divisional unit in the police service to deal with extortion by gang members.

“That is a separate new offence now, where gang members are asking businessmen in central Trinidad, in St Augustine, Tunapuna, along the (East-West) Corridor, for as much as $30,000 per month for ‘protection.'”

He said if businessmen opt not to pay, their families are exposed to kidnapping or being shot.

“This is a crisis we face now. We call upon the police service to establish a specialised unit to deal with extortion by gang members.

“We must go to the Parliament. We will look at this to ensure that we create new offences with heavy jail sentences and so on to deal with extortion, to deal with home invasion.”

He also urged heavy penalties for home invasion, recalling the beating of a prominent attorney/former senator.

“We believe that we should ensure that members of the business community and citizens of Trinidad and Tobago generally who are qualified must obtain firearms and have legal weapons to protect themselves.”

Moonilal complained of seeming inaction over women accessing pepper spray under the Firearms (Amendment) Act 2021.

In a WhatsApp message to Newsday, he lamented businessman Kelvin Mohammed’s murder for refusing to pay extortionists, saying his death exposed how dangerous and widespread extortion was.

“Mohammed was a hard-working businessman of Crown Trace, Enterprise, who, according to his relatives, had refused to pay a ‘tax’ to gangsters, he said. He was shot dead on Monday.”

He lamented “increasing reports from various areas” of Trinidad and Tobago of gangsters extorting monthly sums from businessmen in return for not murdering or kidnapping them.

“A highly specialised and multi-divisional unit is required to deal with this nefarious offence.

“What is needed is police officers with specialised training dealing with gangs, setting up sting operations, accessing special equipment, for example to tape conversations, videotape transactions, access to witness protection programme and access to foreign assistance to obtain hard evidence to prosecute.”

He urged the Government to amend the law to create a specific offence, punishable by significant prison time.

“We have to upgrade the colonial offence of ‘demanding money by menace’ to now include under the Larceny Act the offence of ‘extortion by gang members.’

“This must be defined in accordance with the use of technology to threaten and the more serious threat of kidnapping and murder.”

Moonilal appealed to the authorities to treat this matter “with the urgency and seriousness that it deserves.”

Extortion is outlawed under the Larceny Act 1919 (last updated in 2005), with sentences of up to 15 and five years respectively for written and non-written threats that “demand with menaces.”

Former CoP Gary Griffith said his Special Operational Response Team (SORT) curbed gang-related activities, including reducing murders to 350 in one year.

“What we did find out is that almost in every division there would be certain elements within the police service that were aiding and abetting and supporting the gangs – controlling the drug blocks, protecting them, escorting them.”

He said he was not discrediting the police service, which had a very small percentage of rogue elements, and was like every police service worldwide.

“You must have a separate unit, highly polygraphed, with their own intelligence systems, so when they form clinical, strategic operations the other elements within the police service will not tip off the criminals.

“That is how we put an end to kidnapping for ransom, that is how we put an end to home invasion, that is how we put an end to extortion, by having such a unit.”

“The Special Operational Response Team is exactly what he (Moonilal) recommended.”

He said petty politics led to SORT’s dismantling and replacement by the National Operations Task Force (NOTF), whose “biggest success was arresting an old man selling schoolbooks on a pavement.”

Griffith concluded, “The exact unit Dr Moonilal spoke about was done, it worked, but it was dismantled because of petty politics.”

Chadee told Newsday extortion was a growing problem.

“If I am fearful I will not invest in my business. It leads to an implosion of business, erodes community trust and affects the quality of life in a community.”

He supported the creation of a new specialist police unit to handle investigation, negotiation, intelligence and victim support. Chadee said new legislation must account for fear of retribution and promote victim support, while allowing them confidentiality through anonymous reporting systems. He urged collaborations and interventions against extortion, sooner not later.

“It is like a cancer, a cancerous threat to society.”