A senior Jamaican cabinet minister has been forced to quit his position in the wake of a probe over the sale of handgun permits to locals including some questionable characters with proven links to the drugs trade and organized crime.

Robert Montague’s weekend resignation as minister without portfolio in Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ office would not have stirred up the level of political drama that it has on the island and in the Caribbean but for the fact that his departure has come in the midst of similar probes in Trinidad and concerns about permits for dollars sale rackets in Guyana and neighboring Suriname as well.

In most countries in the 15-nation Caricom bloc of countries, obtaining a handgun carry license is not necessarily easy, as applicants have to not only be prominent citizens, owners of businesses, farms and other entities, and have the ability to pass background checks, but must also not be regarded as hot tempered and alcohol or substance abusers among other stringent criteria.

The result is that those who are reluctant to go through such stringent, and sometimes lengthy processes, simply opt to buy the licenses by paying police commanders, establishing links with directors on licensing boards or using connections to politicians to obtain permits, often for a hefty fee. Fees of up to $10,000 have been paid for permits in the region with the money being divided to players at various levels who helped to facilitate permissions.

In Trinidad, Prime Minister Keith Rowley is overlooking a current probe into a similar racket. Preliminary findings from a months-long probe have already resulted in the dismissal of former police chief Gary Griffith late last year as he was cited for administrative negligence linked to the fact that the swirling racket was being conducted “right under his nose” while he publicly clashed with politicians and others on unrelated issues. His contract was not renewed because of the racket, instances of rank disrespect to PM Rowley and other acts of abrasiveness, officials said.

For example, the findings of one investigation noted that there was a “well-oiled, white collar criminal enterprise” operating without Griffith’s knowledge.

Rowley said at the weekend that “we are now doing an audit of the firearms department because what we do know is that there was an enterprise going on inside there, but we did not know the extent, breadth and the effect of it,” the Express newspaper quoted him as saying.

Back in Jamaica, meanwhile, Montague remains in political and criminal hot water because the integrity commission has cited him for granting permits to six applicants with questionable criminal backgrounds while he was security minister several years ago.

As an indication of the extent of the issue, opposition senator and former security minister Peter Bunting is also being asked to quit his post because he had as well granted licenses to ineligible applicants when the People’s National Party (PNP) was in office nearly a decade ago.

Shane Dalling, the chief executive of the Jamaica firearm licensing board, told journalists last month that racketeering was widespread in Jamaica and that more than 200 people with criminal convictions or adverse backgrounds now carry guns because they incorrectly granted permits over a three year period. Some included people who were deported back to Jamaica from the U.S. for felony crimes, murders and district drug dons. Dalling said the racket is a multi-million dollar business in Jamaica.

“During the period where persons were getting gun licenses under questionable circumstances, everybody made money from it. The ministry of national security was aware of what was taking place. I am a straight shooter and speak my mind openly and forthrightly. I do so without fear or favor,” Dalling said.

In regional headquarters Guyana, a thriving racket continues with applicants paying up to $10,000 to facilitators, many of them high ranking police officers and politicians, for permits. Racketeering is so entrenched that it no longer makes the news media anymore. Few complain about having to pay to play.

Over the weekend, Surinamese President Chan Santokhi proposed that members be added to permits to ease backlogs and to make it easier for spouses to use in the event of an emergency. He also said the entire issuing system needs to be reviewed.

“There will be an integrated policy for firearms ownership and a committee to review everything,” Santokhi said. In the past six months, the public prosecution service had signed 621 hunting rifles and 235 handgun orders, local media reported.

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