Features — 06 December 2013 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

Last week at a press conference the Prime Minister, Hon. Dean O. Barrow, moved the goal post when he said for him to be convinced that Minister of State, Hon. Edmund Castro, in any way acted improperly he would have to see that it is not just 20 visa recommendations he signed, but 100 or more.

“The fact that he wrote letters of recommendation, on the face of it, is absolutely in order. You quoted what I said, well, 20+ visas don’t put him in that Ali Baba category at all.” Nov. 27, 2013 Dean Barrow

This changing of the goal post is just an indication in this country that this is how our people think when it comes to how we are to operate within the law. So the crime is not did Castro make recommendations … it is, was he paid or bribed to make such recommendations, contrary to the law. Were the things he stated in making the recommendations true and did he really know the people he was recommending? Once the recommendations showed a pattern and frequency, then I would believe there is reason for concern and even query. But the PM, who remains in office by a meager majority, must defend Castro’s every act, so as not to destabilize his government and suffer the wrath of those eating at the trough of pork-‘n-barrelism.

“That Minister of State that you are trying to accuse wrote no 200 letters, wrote no recommendations…with respect to that lady [Alvarine Burgess] he wrote a letter of recommendation when she approached him in his capacity as a servant of the public, recommending consideration for 5 visa applications.” Dean Barrow – Nov. 1, 2013

Clearly this is a duplication of a press release dated October 28, 2013 sent out by Castro, who in his defence states: “Because Hon. Castro knew Mrs. Burgess and her husband, he wrote a generic letter to the Department asking for consideration for the five visa applications.”

So PM put his head out to be chopped when he stood by Castro that it’s only “five visa applications” and only one letter Castro signed off on … PM had to move that goal post as was obvious from his November 27 press conference from this claim to a 300% increase, which he still insists is not a “smoking gun.”

By October 24, 2013 he had said on the number of recommendations that five “is no way in the neighbourhood of 20, 30, 40, nor 200 [visas] – no way.”

Yet Burgess thus far has produced evidence of some 21 applications being signed by Castro. PM Barrow may have set a standard of zero tolerance for abuse of Ministerial power, but he crossed his own line with his acceptance of there being only 5 visas recommended by Castro to accepting 20 or more. But now that it is 20 or more, he crossed his new line and changed his “sankey.” Barrow stated Nov. 27, 2013: “Now, I hear you produced letters of recommendation for how many, 20, 21, or 22? Man, in the normal course, as I said, Ministers are asked to do recommendations for all sorts of things, including American visas, jobs, and so on. 22 or 25, or whatever is a far cry from 200.”

Setting a standard

But in Belize the reality is that politicians set the standard and move the goal post as they go along and so the public officers who should be the vanguard are seldom prepared to put their foot down on any Minister acting out of line or throwing their weight around to get things done. If they do, surely they may lose their job or be transferred. In some instances the public officer may feel indebted to the Minister for their job or develop a culture of complacency when they see how the Ministers from the top down keep changing the goal post … thus they no longer know at any given time under what standard they are working.

By the same token the public officers also learn to move the goal post and the attitude from the leaders at the top trickles down to the workers down the line, so in their various fields, sometimes without much thought and consideration that they are really crossing the line of what their post and powers allows. Sadly, it becomes a case of, “Well, everyone is doing it …”

The problem is more obvious amongst law enforcement officers, be it Customs, Immigration, or Police, but it really has permeated the entire civil service and gets worse as political appointments remain the norm in filling the top civil service posts and persons get employed in the service on a whole because of their political affiliation, leaving the long-standing career public officers demoralized and exposed to political victimization.

The problem with this scenario is that while the politicians sanction these appointments, the same members of the public participate by feeling entitled because their party is in power. Thus, as much as the politician is responsible, there is the collective and individual responsibility we must take for such a situation. Sadly, Belizeans complain about corruption overall, yet do not take stock how they either participate in it, encourage it, sanction it or even justify it. Each time around elections they go begging for a load of sand, a bill to be paid, or even cash, or accept these in return for their vote, they become part of the problem and participate in corruption.

The ACB election campaign of “take their money and vote them out” was a glorified campaign to perpetuate the corruption while compounding the problem by telling voters it is okay to be deceptive. This topic is most suitable as we approach December 9th, observed as Anti-Corruption Day. But corruption is a term many don’t seem to fully understand and appreciate, or recognize it, because of the culture of corruption that has developed in our beloved Belize over the years.

Police corruption

I recall glancing over a Facebook blog entitled “Karma or Corruption?” and it was about a prisoner who it was said escaped from the custody of Placencia Police and then was found drowned. I didn’t even stop to give it much thought since my first impression was that he ran out of the Police Station, tried to get away by jumping in the water, did not know how to swim and drowned … I did not even check if the incident occurred night or day and truly did not bother to think about or was I curious to learn more.

Little did I know that by the Tuesday of that week the family of Tyson Christopher Rodriguez would call me and ask to help them with getting to the bottom of what killed him because they became suspicious that the body was just left at the Dangriga morgue, unknown to Dangriga Police, and they only got wind of it because someone around knew the deceased’s relative.

Well, from the story of how he died from drowning to the post mortem examination that showed he died from asphyxia due to inhalation of sand and traumatism due to multiple traumas to his body, I have come to learn a lot about what the blogger meant by “police corruption.” See, corruption is not only the paying of bribes, as many assume; rather it can be moral corruption, where one strays from the ideal or the principles of the office. For the police they are sworn to protect life and property and to operate within the rule of law. They cannot be investigator, witness, judge, jury and executioner … this breaches he separation of power theory. Now at least one police officer has been arrested and charged with murder.

Who paid the price?

In this rather tragic case, no matter how you look at it, it is obvious that Sgt. Julio Shal and his colleagues acted so far out of the principles of policing and care of a prisoner and modus of investigating that not only were their actions wrong, but have attracted the charges of murder.

Now, citizens’ perception of police is that they are lawless, incompetent and abusive, which is an unfair generalization, but nonetheless a held perception. I dare say, it’s unfair because it demoralizes those officers who really operate above the fray and take pride in doing proper policing. However, in this case the entire precinct pays the price because all police working at the Placencia Police Station are painted with the same brush, even when they were nowhere near the beating and subsequent killing of the prisoner … but if they stand around and justify the conduct of their colleagues … they are as guilty!

But the price being paid is more than a figurative price. Reports amongst the local population are that a group of ex-pats put up a silent reward of $50,000.00 for the person(s) who sees to the end of the culprits/attackers of one within their community. My moving on the ground reveals so much more than meets the eye and either the perception or reality that the “haves” will see to their own form of justice against the “have-nots” is real or perceived. Whichever it is, the situation, no matter who was involved, points to a very serious concern regarding our law enforcement department, especially if motivated by the “phantom reward” or just wanting to exact justice on their terms for a crime in their zone.

Don’t lose sight that this trio of police officers were capable of killing a prisoner already handcuffed and subdued, but that the extent of the untruths now call into question so many investigations they have done. Keep in mind that even their own, the investigator in this matter along with the DPP, have concluded that for now at least one police officer needs to answer for the unlawful killing of Tyson Rodriguez.

Now word is that one suspect is cooperating with the state, to deliver the convictions of the other(s) … the extent of his immunity is unknown, but let’s hope additional supporting evidence is found to shore up whatever evidence he can possibly provide in case he changes his mind.

If I had not seen for myself the extent of the beating on the body of Tyson Rodriguez, I would have never thought that police would indeed be capable of such brutality. Sorry, but no matter how angry you are over the alleged criminal act, a police officer should never lower him/herself to the level of the very criminals they seek to get convicted … then they are no different. Police know all too well the great disregard criminals, especially known habitual criminals, have from law-abiding citizens … Why would any police officer want to be the subject of such association? I guess you become the very thing you hate.

These police officers crossed the line … and Belizeans need to understand they should denounce this behavior … no matter how much sympathy is felt for a victim, because even justice for the victim is compromised when the alleged culprit is never convicted and the case becomes tainted. But more so, this is never the conduct we want to promote amongst our law-enforcers if we are indeed a civilized society!

God bless Belize!

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