Features — 04 April 2014

There is so much going on in the country it seems we are running from one crisis to another and one scandal to another which consume the mass citizenry into a frenzy. Sadly few take time to analyze in a very critical manner what is actually taking place. Because the conversation gets into partisan politics too often the discourse does not go beyond the personal attacks and the “shoot the messenger” mentality takes over, thus the issue is left as is.

Illegal activity overshadowed

Over the weekend there was a major shooting that impacted the entire national security of Belize and I personally was irate to know that the Guatemalan press has been “spinning” the shooting of a Guatemalan drug man into the illegal killing of an innocent farmer.

Sadly the Belizean press has not even put a spin, much less told the truth of what happened… some are now getting there. Sadly our government, BDF and FCD Rangers are not talking…. They know what happened and it is a far cry from what Prensa Libre and the Guatemalan press are saying.

I guess our media took the lead on how to treat this story from our Commander-in-chief, no other than the Prime Minister himself, who I personally believe acted from a position of weakness when he not only agreed to a joint press statement with the Guatemalan President, but basically left our men [BDF and Rangers] to hang out and dry… when if he had been briefed instantly would have known the extent of the illegality of the presence and their reason for being present.

Some may say it is diplomacy that prompted the PM’s remark on the press release that reads “government will investigate the facts relating to the incident, and should it be found that there is culpability by persons involved they will be brought to justice in accordance with the law.” This reassurance by our Commander-in-chief was not met with similar reassurance by the Guatemalan President that his government will investigate who the other Guatemalan citizens were who escaped and would send them back to Belize to face charges. No, the Guatemalan President makes no mention of the illegal activities of their citizens and measures that can be put in place to stop them crossing over to Belize for illegal purposes.
Shame on us for making it look like our guys are guilty… like our country is wrong and shame on our media for their passive reporting of this matter. Had it been another black youth killed or killing, our local media would have “juiced” it for all they could. Come on, Belizeans, where is our loyalty? The BDF and civilian Rangers from the NGO Friends for Conservation and Development, put their lives on the line for us!

In the course of an illegal act!

So the joint press release took centre-stage and the true story of what happened that fateful Saturday afternoon, March 29, 2014 about four in the noon was downplayed. But by then word was already out about the illegal drug-related offences. It is not until four days later finally Channel 7 News had this account:

“They were 4 miles from Rio Blanco and 2 miles within Belizean territory, patrolling the area, when they discovered this clearing in the Chiquibul National Park. It’s a forest reserve, so naturally the patrol investigated why the trees were cut down. That’s when they found two huts, which suggested that human activity was taking place in the area. They also found discarded food, and further investigation of the area led them to find 40-50 marijuana plants, and a garbage bag containing unplanted marijuana seeds. These discoveries led the Belizean lawmen to believe that the area was cleared for marijuana cultivation, and that the huts and the food belonged to the farmers who were trying to harvest these drugs.”

So I stop here to make it very clear that under Belizean law it is illegal to cultivate, possess or traffick marijuana, also known as cannabis. Misuse of Drugs Act Chapter 103 – Section 8 states:-”(1) Subject to any regulations under section 9 for the time being in force, it shall not be lawful for a person to cultivate any plant of the genus cannabis, papaversomniferum L or erythroxylon.

(2) Subject to section 51, it is an offence punishable under section 18, to cultivate any such plant in contravention of subsection (1).”

Who will pay?

So it is important to know the penalties set out in Section 18, because clearly these men were shot at while they were acting in the course of a criminal act by Belizean laws. Section 18 of the Act lays out the penalties making a distinction between Summary Conviction, which is when you are tried at the Magistrate’s Court, and Indictment, when you are tried at the Supreme Court.

18.-(1) A person who is convicted of the offence of drug trafficking, or of being in possession of a controlled drug for the purpose of drug trafficking-

(a) on summary conviction, shall be imprisoned for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to ten years, and in addition, shall be ordered to pay a fine which shall not be less than ten thousand dollars but which may extend to one hundred thousand dollars or three times the street value of the controlled drug (where there is evidence of such value), whichever is the greater…

(b) on conviction on indictment, shall be imprisoned for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to fourteen years and, in addition, shall be ordered to pay a fine which shall not be less than fifty thousand dollars but which may extend to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars or three times the street value of the controlled drug (where there is evidence of such value), whichever is the greater:..”

But if the amount is below five kilograms then the mandatory sentence would not apply and the court has a discretion. So I would really want the Belizean government to insist with the Guatemalan President that they hand over the other men… surely the people of the village of San Marcos, Municipality of Dolores, Department of Peten and the Guatemalan press as well as the President know who the other culprit is…After all how did they get their version…this should be an extraditable offence and there is an extradition treaty between the two countries.

Need for self-defense

It must be noted, that while much attention is focused on the BDF, this was not a BDF patrol per se… Friends for Conservation and Development has employed Rangers, who are civilians paid to enforce our forestry laws. FCD is the NGO responsible for the protection of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, but that area has become so dangerous that they must be accompanied by Police, who have the power of arrest, and the BDF who are mandated to patrol our borders. Had it not been for this high-level team our media might be reporting the slaying of FCD Rangers.

According to Channel Seven’s report:

“The joint team then assembled themselves into 3 groups, a rear, a right and a left protection group, and they continued to investigate. They then saw 2 armed civilians [emphasis mine], which was approaching the right protection group. The lawmen identified themselves to the 2 civilians, ordered them to stop and place their weapons on the ground. That’s when the men took aim and fired at the joint team, who say that their lives were sufficiently threatened by the very hostile behavior. At their commander’s orders, 3 BDF soldiers opened fire in response.

They shot one of the men, later identified as Guatemalan Tomas Desdicho Ramirez, and when Ramirez went down, the other man fled and continued to fire at the officers until he escaped. The team immediately went over to check on [26-year-old Tomas] Ramirez, who they found already dead, with his 12-gauge shotgun still in his hand where he fell. A search of the area led to the discovery of one live 12 gauge and 5 expended cartridges.”

I say shoot them… because when the Rangers or Police told them they are law officers, these two Guatemalan civilians who had also entered our territory illegally had an obligation to surrender and let our judicial process deal with them. Imagine the one who escaped kept firing back at the law officers to make good his escape.

Again, we should not let it escape us that in the course of this incident two other of our Belizean laws were also violated. If those men are indeed Guatemalans, then there is no record at any of our official border crossing that they were legally in Belize. Helllllooo my people, that is an offence under our Immigration Act… so why didn’t the Guatemalan President give commitment to our PM to assist with investigating this illegal entry by his two citizens?

Illegal weapons from Guatemala

Then even more damning is the facts that these two Guatemalan men were armed and at least one weapon was recovered with the deceased and the other escaped while still firing at our law officers. Now that this weapon was recovered it has to be determined if there is a license for it, otherwise, it is an illegal weapon brought over the border. I want the Guatemalan President to equally commit to have his police investigate if that weapon was even licensed over in Guatemala.

Our Firearms Act, Chapter 143 at Section 13 states: “13.-(1) Every person entering Belize with firearms or ammunition in his possession shall forthwith deposit them with the officer or constable in charge of a police station.

(2) The firearms or ammunition so deposited shall remain in the custody of the police officer in charge of the police station until the person depositing them either produces to such police officer a licence under this Act or satisfies such police officer that he is about to depart forthwith from Belize, whereupon the firearms or ammunition shall be returned to him.”

Failure to comply is an offence. Likewise by Section 39 it is an offence to carry a firearm with the intent to commit a crime. Section 39 reads:-”(1) It is an offence for a person to have with him a firearm or imitation firearm with intent to commit an offence, or to resist arrest or prevent the arrest of another, in either case while he has the firearm or imitation firearm with him.”

Clearly the planting, cultivation and harvesting of cannabis is a crime and the men were armed in the course of this illegal act. But by Section 39 it explains “proof that the accused had a firearm… with him and intended to commit an offence, or to resist or prevent arrest, is evidence that he intended to have it with him while doing so” as was clearly the case here as these two illegal Guatemalans in our Chiquibul Forest proved and the use of these weapons against our law officers is sufficient proof I say.

Sadly, the penalty for these firearm offences seems a bit weak, though they are not offences for which bail is offered… but in this case the surviving culprit bailed out and the other died.

However, if they were tried summarily they would have received a fine not “exceeding five thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both” but first time offenders must not get less than six months imprisonment, however the court may refrain from imposing the mandatory imprisonment. The DPP has the last say whether to prosecute the case on indictment at the Supreme Court, rather than the Magistrate’s Court.

Conclusion

I conclude from my vantage point, that our government, through the actions of the Prime Minister, has acted from a position as if we have a weak case or done something wrong. I do not understand how such aggression by the Guatemalan drug planters could be turned to the advantage of the people of Guatemala… yes, a life was lost… but that life could have been of our BDF; FDC Rangers or Police. In these circumstances, the Guatemalan President should be issuing us a diplomatic note or press release apologizing for the rogue and unwelcomed behavior of his two citizens. Further he should be condemning how this aggression by Guatemalans on Belizean soil is damaging to the diplomatic talks between the two countries.

I say, now that the investigation has shown the extent of the illegal conduct of the two Guatemalan men and their culpability in the entire matter, will our PM now ensure that “they will be brought to justice in accordance with the law,” or was this statement only in relation to our Belizean law officers?

I say we as Belizeans should show where our loyalty lie and denounce the act of the two drug farmers and declare our men heroes! Kudos to the BDF, FCD Rangers and Police who were on that patrol…. You risked your life to keep us safe! God bless Belize!

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