ORANGE WALK TOWN, Wed. May 20, 2015–After just over 47 hours in detention, Efrain Alpuche, the personal driver and bodyguard of PUP politician and cane farmer, Ramon “Monchie” Cervantes, Jr., and Saulito Vasquez, both of Orange Walk, were arraigned on a single count of arson before Senior Magistrate Sharon Frazer after 3:00 p.m. today.
Because the Supreme Court was in session at the time, the arraignment was carried out in the Orange Walk Police Station.
No plea was taken and the men were offered, and later met bail of $40,000 each.
When the session concluded, their attorney, Marcel Cardona, explained to the media that the bail was set at that amount “given the quantum of the alleged damage to the [sugar cane] fields of Belize Sugar Industries Limited [BSI/American Sugar Refineries (ASR)].”
Alpuche and Vasquez were arrested this past Monday, May 18, when 20 acres of sugar cane – or about 700 tons, worth approximately $50,000 – which belonged to the sugar milling company were set ablaze in a case of suspected arson that occurred on Monday at around 5:00 p.m. on the San Lorenzo Road in Orange Walk.
Initial reports were that upon making their usual rounds to the area, BSI/ASR watchmen caught two individuals burning the cane fields.
When the men noticed they had been seen, one of them allegedly fired a number of times at the watchmen, who immediately retreated from the area and called police.
By the time police arrived in the area, along with fire personnel, the men had already fled, allegedly in a blue, 4-door Mazda pickup truck.
Police set chase after the truck, and later intercepted a vehicle fitting that description on the Yo Creek Road in Orange Walk. That vehicle happened to be owned by Monchie Cervantes, Jr., and Alpuche was reportedly behind the wheel at the time, while Vasquez, a resident of San Roman, Corozal District, was in the passenger seat.
On Tuesday, Cervantes, Jr., who is the PUP Orange Walk North standard bearer, spoke to the media and maintained that the allegations against Alpuche are very unlikely, since Alpuche was reportedly out doing a work errand at the time of the incident.
He said, “I haven’t spoken to him [Alpuche], but I’m getting mixed reports. Yesterday, when I was apprised of the situation, I was made to understand as if he and another guy were caught at the fields, burning them, and then the security appeared and shots were fired and that they sped off and the police followed behind them.”
Cervantes, Jr., went on to explain, “That’s the impression that was given to me, [but] this morning, one of our drivers called me and said, ‘the Mennonite wants to speak to you’. So I spoke to him [the Mennonite] and he told me that he had brought down a water pump from the compressor yesterday, and that he came with Alpuche in the pickup, because apparently, the supervisor had called Alpuche to go get the part.
“He said that Alpuche arrived with the pickup and he [the Mennonite] not only gave him the part, but got into the vehicle. He took a ride to Orange Walk Town, but then he said that coming to Orange Walk, right after crossing the San Antonio bridge, maybe about a quarter mile down, that’s where police detained the pickup and from there took them to the police station.”
“I have no involvement in whatever happened there. I have, in fact, denounced such actions as burning cane. My conscience is clear and I don’t fear lies. I stand up to lies that are being told, and that is why I called in to the talk shows this morning to explain what went on,” Cervantes, Jr., further stated.
He noted, “I don’t know with what those guys would have shot [at the BSI/ASR watch guards] because anyone could tell you that in that pickup, there has never been a gun, not on the person of the driver nor inside the pickup. I know that for a fact, and since the time that they murdered my father, Alpuche was hired as the driver and security. He had been assigned the pickup truck. So I don’t go around much in that pickup, a few times, yes. That pickup is used to transport our supporters from meeting to meeting, to do different errands for people and so on. I can say that, and no one can say that they have seen a gun in the pickup or on his person.”
As Cervantes pointed out, Alpuche was employed as his bodyguard, but reportedly did not carry a weapon.
As the media waited outside the police station today, about six scenes of crime personnel flocked around the passenger side of the pickup, which has since been impounded by police, for over an hour, presumably gathering forensic evidence against the accused men.
Reliable information to us suggests that one of the key pieces of evidence police have from the scene is a rearview mirror casing which fits Cervantes’ vehicle and also offers a serial number match.
Yesterday, police were not prepared to divulge what the evidence against the men is, but Officer in Charge of Orange Walk Police, Supt. Dennis Arnold, informed the media that the blue pickup truck that was being driven by Alpuche is considered crucial to the prosecution of the case.
He said, “It was alleged that that pickup was on the site when the cane field was burned. Part of that vehicle [the rearview mirror housing] was left on the scene, hence for the forensic analysis.”
Arnold mentioned that he believes that the men who were charged are the ones who are responsible for burning the fields.
He also pointed out why the Mennonite that was along with Alpuche and Vasquez was not arrested when the vehicle was stopped and the other occupants were taken into custody.
Arnold said, “That day we were expecting anything, so we had a lot of patrols out there. We had about six or seven patrols because we had assistance from Belmopan and Belize City police. We also had cane field patrols, so officers were not far from that area.
“When we got that call, officers went to the scene and upon arriving at the scene, I believe it was about quarter mile away, they stopped that said vehicle but at the time, they didn’t know it was that vehicle [that was being sought], so when the occupants were questioned, they said they were going to San Antonio.
“So they were left to go on their way, but only two of them were in the vehicle. On their way back, the officers stopped them and went to the scene of the cane field, and it was learnt that it was that vehicle. I heard the news that someone was saying a Mennonite was with them and not arrested; yes, he wasn’t arrested because whilst going to San Antonio, the Mennonite wasn’t in the vehicle with the two occupants.”
Their attorney, on the other hand, expressed confidence that when the case goes to trial, he will be able to prove the innocence of both Efrain Alpuche and Saulito Vasquez.
Cardona said that his clients will be provided with standard disclosure in the near future.
As we had mentioned earlier, the original reports were that a BSI security guard had been fired at.
That allegedly happened when he tried to get the license plates of the vehicle that was seen around the field that was burned in San Lorenzo.
However, when the two accused went to court today, no firearm or ammunition charges were levied against either men, and when Supt. Arnold was questioned about that part of the investigation, he replied that police have investigated that, but so far, investigators have “not come up with any analogy of any shots being fired.
“No firearm, no shots, no shells were found,” he clarified.
Upon his release from custody late this evening, Alpuche –who maintained that the charges are politically motivated – told reporters that he was charged for arson that he didn’t commit, and that he is “innocent until proven guilty.”
As a condition of their bail, Alpuche and Vasquez were ordered by the court to report to the Orange Walk Police station weekly until their next court date on June 2, 2015, and they must not interfere with personnel of BSI/ASR.