Many years ago a colleague of mine in the field of industrial relations was fond of saying that “if you feed snake when they small they will get big and bite you.” For him, the expression was a warning against overlooking minor infringements by workers because all that did was embolden them to commit further and bigger transgressions.
His statement came to mind however as I read, during the course of last week, the constantly unfolding saga of Kenneth “Spanish” Rodriguez, the reputed gang leader who was revealed to be the contractor/enthusiastic worker/sub-contractor/foreman on the Duncan Street police post project. In the context of that story my colleague’s expression could be taken to mean that if you feed small snakes they will get big and sooner or later will bite the hand that fed them because that is what it means to be a snake.
There are several dimensions to the story of “Spanish” as it has emerged which we need to explore. The first has to do with the treatment meted out to the acting Commissioner of Police (CoP) and what that says about the relationship between the Government and the police.
We must presume that the acting CoP did not know beforehand that, when invited to tour the work in progress on the police post with the acting Prime Minister, he would be greeted and hosted by a man known by him to be a gang leader. We must so presume because if the acting CoP did in fact know then, by attending that visit, he revealed himself to be a man of straw, without honour or backbone, unfit to be commissioner.
But if he did not know then he was clearly sandbagged by the Government. For someone in the Government must have known that the contractor/facilitator/enthusiastic worker/foreman, on the project, the man greeting the acting Prime Minister and the acting CoP, was a person who had in fact been previously identified by that same acting CoP as a gang leader.
To invite the acting CoP to tour the worksite with that man as his guide is to openly and directly insult the acting CoP in the worst possible way. Indeed, this entire episode gives us an insight into the relations between the Government and the police and goes a long way to explaining why neither has been effective in dealing with the problem of gangs and crime in general.
I have stated that “someone in the Government must have known” that “Spanish” was a reputed gang leader. This statement is supported by the assertion of the acting CoP that the Government had intelligence from police linking him to criminal gangs. The Government’s first reaction, however, was to seek to deny such knowledge.
The lead in this was taken by HDC managing director Jearlean John who sought to deny that “Spanish” had anything to do with the project. She stated that “What he is doing there is anybody’s guess. He was never given an HDC contract to construct a police post. He is not a sub-contractor either.” She went on to describe “Spanish” as “very enthusiastic. People like a little swagger. Sometimes people just want a chance.”
It does not take long to recognise that Ms John’s assertions were pure rubbish. She was part of the worksite tour and such a tour would not have taken place without the contractor or the contractor’s representative being present to answer questions. Ms John is not going to tour a worksite with the acting Prime Minister, the Minister of National Security and the acting CoP, with only an “over-enthusiastic” worker as guide.
Indeed Ms John’s attempts to run from the truth ended up revealing more than the Government probably intended. She revealed that contractor of record was FIQH General Contractors of Chaguanas and since FIQH was nowhere in sight or on site it is clear that the project was sub-contracted. It begs an investigation into the contracts awarded by this Government to FIQH and the bona fides of the persons to whom FIQH has awarded those contracts.
But far worse was still to come. No doubt on the premise that offence is the best form of defence the Government then unleashed no less a person than the Attorney General to warn the acting CoP about the blacklisting of alleged gang leaders. He stated that “I, as Attorney General, would have a very grave concern which I must frankly share with the Commissioner of Police. If you brand these individuals by publishing their names and pictures in the absence of cogent, clear and compelling evidence … then all of these persons will come to sue the Attorney General and the State for defamation of character and discrimination and breach of their constitutional right to equality of treatment and equality and protection of the law.”
But the AG’s concerns went beyond the possibility of lawsuits. He was concerned for the welfare of the gang leaders themselves. If such persons were blacklisted acquiring Government contracts then, asked the AG, “what will they do and how will they live?”
And suddenly, naked for all to see, was the full dimension of the Government’s crime strategy. And, as we have seen in so many other areas it is a case of something old, nothing new. As Gregory Aboud, president of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association, put it “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.”
Mr Aboud is absolutely right. But we must be careful, for in any comprehensive crime strategy it may become necessary to buy some gang leaders in exchange for the information and intelligence about others which they can provide. But if you do so it would first be necessary to de-fang them and deprive them of their venom.
What you cannot do is what this Government, like the last administration, is now revealed to be doing; indiscriminately feeding all the snakes in the hope that they will cease to be what they are.
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean