Crime — 25 February 2014 — by Rowland A. Parks

Three Guatemalans, a woman and two men, who were busted with thousands of pounds of sea cucumber at a Fisheries Department checkpoint, pleaded guilty when they appeared before Magistrate Leslie Hamilton, who imposed a $500 fine on all three of them.

Georgina Maribel Mendez Aldana, 49, and her two Guatemalan employees, Cesar Gerardo Hichos Ramirez, 22, and Hugo Rolando Orellana Salas, 52, were charged with engaging in commercial fishing, while not being the holder of a valid fishing license.

In addition, Aldana was charged with being in possession of a forged document. She pleaded guilty to that charge and Hamilton imposed the maximum fine of $6,000, to be paid immediately.

The trio was represented by attorney Bryan Neal, who engaged the court in mitigation pleas on their behalf, imploring Magistrate Hamilton to not impose a custodial sentence on them.

As the hearing progressed, Neal also begged the court to grant his clients bail, telling the court that they entered the country legally and that the Immigration Department had confiscated their passports, although they are not a flight risk.

But Hamilton disagreed, saying that they have no ties to Belize and that the borders are porous, and that they don’t really need their passports to make it back to their homes in Guatemala.

Neal also vehemently objected to an application made by the Fisheries prosecutor to destroy the 7,033 sea cucumbers, because they (the Fisheries Department) are unable to store them.

“They are asking the court to forfeit fish which has a value, because they cannot store it. They have charged these people from February 17, and now they are coming asking for another week and there is no indication that they will be ready to proceed in another week,” Neal told the court.

When it became apparent that Hamilton would not grant bail, there was a short adjournment, while Neal and the Fisheries Department prosecutor conferred.

Upon their return to the court, the three defendants all pleaded guilty and the Fisheries Department withdrew an additional charge of attempting to export fish without a valid license and without a special license to fish for sea cucumbers.

The incident occurred on Monday, February 17, around 4:00 a.m., when Fisheries Department officers and the police set up a checkpoint at Mile 31 on the George Price Highway.

Officers spotted a black GMC pickup truck approaching the checkpoint. The vehicle was stopped and searched, and it was discovered that it was carrying a large quantity of sea cucumbers in its pan.

When the officers inquired about the sea cucumbers, Aldana told them that they were hers.

Magistrate Hamilton, after imposing the fines, also issued an order for the GMC pickup truck to be released so that it can be given back to its rightful owner.

He also ordered that the sea cucumbers be confiscated by the Government of Belize.

A fourth man, Belizean Carlos Logan, who was on the scene when the bust occurred, was never charged.

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