Authorities in Trinidad and Tobago say gangs are behind the rampant extortion of contractors carrying out public works projects, highlighting the many ways criminal groups can exploit this source of state funding for their own purposes.
Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan said criminal groups are demanding that construction and road maintenance contractors pay a "coward tax," reported the Trinidad Guardian.
"There are some rogue elements who are threatening the contractors," said Sinanan. "And it is happening all over Trinidad. It has been happening for a while now."
A source close to Trinidad and Tobago Contractors' Association told the Trinidad Guardian that the gangs supply the contractors with lists of people who they want to work on the projects. The gang leaders reportedly charge $3,000 for each name on the list.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion
"Most times the names on the list are people who are associated with a gang," the source said. "These gang members would just come on the job and do nothing. Others would not come at all and collect a salary at the end of the week. They operate as a ghost gang."
The source said the contractors must also pay the gangs to ensure their equipment isn't damaged once the project is finished, "so it's extortion all around."
One contractor who was either unable or unwilling to pay the extortion fee was reportedly forced to abandon a project last month after receiving death threats.
InSight Crime Analysis
This case illustrates a few of the numerous ways criminal groups and corrupt officials can insert themselves into the process of awarding and carrying out public works projects. Even in Trinidad in Tobago, which is not known to have a strong organized crime presence, disputes between gangs vying for community development projects have led to flare-ups of violence in the past.
In other parts of Latin America, especially Central America's Northern Triangle region (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), public works contracts underpin much of the corruption involving political elites.
In El Salvador, state contracts appear to have been a central element of secret negotations between gang leaders and government officials. A video released last year shows El Salvador's current Interior Minister Aristides Valencia offering the leaders of the Barrio 18 and MS13 up to $10 million in microcredit for businesses run by the gangs and their families. While it's not clear what the authorities asked for in return, Valencia had previously been recorded discussing an electoral pact with the gang leaders in the run-up to the 2014 presidential election.
Meanwhile in Honduras, a leader of the Cachiros drug clan recently testified in a US court that former President Porfirio Lobo awarded his group government contracts in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.
But nowhere have public works contracts been so closely intertwined with corruption than in Guatemala. Officials routinely used no-bid contracts to buy and sell political favors, in the process helping to create a mafia state that was only recently dismantled.