BUSINESS operators in two of the largest commercial centres in St Catherine say they are under siege as extortionists aligned to the One Order or Klansman gangs have again begun to prey on them.
While extortion has been a major problem in the capital, Spanish Town, for several years, business owners in Linstead and neighbouring communities say they are stunned by the alarming increase in reports of demands for protection money, and threats to burn establishments if payments are not made. The hoodlums, they claimed, are fronting as agents of the two gangs — which are among the country's most ruthless and which the police say have been behind most of the major crimes in St Catherine and parts of Clarendon.
The business operators in the Linstead area have become even more jittery in the wake of the burning of two shops, a supermarket and a hardware store, all within a two week period.
The developments in the area have led a group, calling itself Law Abiding Citizens of Linstead, to issue an appeal for the intervention of Member of Parliament Robert Pickersgill and for additional resources to be made available to the police to tackle the scourge.
"The police, fire brigade haven't issued any public statement as to the cause of these mysterious fires, leading one to the conclusion that this development is a deliberate campaign by the criminal underworld to establish a stranglehold, (to) silence, and hold to ransom this once quiet and vibrant town of law-abiding, hardworking, productive and God-fearing residents," read a section of the email sent to the media on Saturday.
"Also, we are not aware that the Member of Parliament, Cabinet member, minister of land and environment, and chairman of the ruling People's National Party Government has made any public statement or expression of concern on these sinister developments, or public offer of support to the affected persons," it also read.
The group, claiming to have no political affiliation, but whose spokesman refused to divulge his name for fear of his safety, said the group comprised business and other interests in the Linstead area.
The group reiterated worries that a Sunday Observer probe had last week uncovered among petrified business operators as well as residents of Linstead and surrounding communities.
"Hardworking local business persons who have toiled faithfully in service to their community over many years are being targeted and are apparently in fear of an unseen destroyer and unidentified deliverer of threatening messages", the letter stated in ominous undertones.
The Sunday Observer visited three of the burnt out businesses on Friday, in time to see workmen removing charred debris and effecting repairs to what were said to have been vibrant establishments until arsonists torched them a day before.
The proprietor of the fire-gutted hardware store, located along the Linstead bypass, said he could not endorse the claims that his business was destroyed because he refused to pay protection money.
"Nobody approached me for money, if they did I would certainly tell you", said the sombre looking businessman who appeared to be in his late 60s, and who said his losses were in the region of $5m.
He too did not want his name stated in this article.
He added that his hardware had been robbed on five previous occasions, but was never torched. Another person, again, chosing anonymity for this story, who said he operated a business in the community said he had not been approached by anyone, but made reference to a hardware owner in the community who was recently sent a letter demanding $300,000 per month, in order to prevent his establishment from being torched. The Sunday Observer was unable to make contact with that individual.
At the Linstead Food Fair supermarket, workmen were seen mixing concrete as they carried out repairs to that establishment — said to be the largest supermarket in the commercial centre — and which was burgled and set ablaze on February 23. The operators of the establishment were not on hand to respond to queries from this newspaper.
Head of the St Catherine North police division, Senior Superintendent Anthony Castelle said the police have not established why the businesses were burnt. He acknowledged that the police have been informed about the activities of the extortionists in the Linstead area, and have had discussions with business operators in the area, but have received no formal report from anyone affected.
Despite this, Castelle says the reports of extortion are being treated seriously, as it is common for business owners — even when they are being extorted — to be reluctant to divulge information to the police for fear of their lives.
"Rest assured that we will be finding and dealing with the criminals in the Linstead, Bog Walk area" said Castelle, as he expressed confidence that the police were on top of the developments. He added that since the incidents, police and military personnel have been maintaining a strong presence in the area and have been making an impact. He made reference to last week's seizure of a high-powered rifle and 10 rounds of ammunition during an operation in Banbury, a community close to Linstead. The senior cop also pointed to other policing activities which are underway as part of the plan to clamp down on the activities of the criminals, who seem to be well organised.
In addition, the senior policeman indicated that much of the criminal activity taking place in Linstead and even as far away as Clarendon, stem from the fact that some of the gang members have been migrating from Spanish Town fleeing the police who have increased their activities in the old capital which was rocked by several gang-related killings at the beginning of the year.
However, one member of the St Catherine Chamber of Commerce and Industry has indicated that the increase in demands for protection money is not only affecting business operators in Linstead, but is once again on the rise in Spanish Town since December. He, too, for personal safety reasons, chose to remain anonymous for this piece.
The Chamber of Commerce member confirmed that some business operators in Spanish Town have acquiesced to their demans and have been forking over thousands of dollars to the gangs, and that the operators have not made formal reports to the police, as they do not trust the lawmen are on the right side of the law.
The businessman also questioned a decision by the leadership of the St Catherine North police division to remove someone he described as a seasoned and effective crime fighter from the streets of Spanish Town.
According to the Chamber member, there is a view that the lawman — a police sergeant — was taken off front-line duties as a result of complaints that he was harassing residents of the Peoples National Party's stronghold of Dela Vega City, which is also one of the nesting grounds for members of the Klansman Gang.
But Superintendent Castelle acknowledged that the police sergeant was a hardworking and effective member of the police street crimes unit, which has undergone some personnel adjustments, and dismissed suggestions that the cop's removal from the streets was influenced by any political/party consideration.