Headline — 27 September 2013 — by Kareem Clarke

A horrible lapse of judgment by the Belize Coast Guard officer

Petty Officer Richard Ogaldez, of the Coast Guard, has been stripped of his rank and demoted to the rank of “seaman” after exhibiting a horrible lapse of judgment that embarrassed the Government and people of Belize when he detained the boat carrying the Prime Minister of Dominica, Hon. Roosevelt Skerrit, who was in the country as a guest of Prime Minister Dean Barrow for Belize’s September 21 Independence celebrations.

Unfortunately, PM Barrow’s Guest of Honor left the country with a bitter taste in his mouth after he and his entourage were “roughed up” by Belize Coast Guard officials while on a trip to one of Belize’s premier tourist destinations.

Amandala understands that a formal apology is to be written by the Ministry of National Security to PM Skerrit. Today, when we contacted the Public Relations Officer in the Ministry, Delroy Cutkelvin, he told us that the formal apology is in the works, and that they are just going through the necessary diplomatic channels to get it completed.

Cutkelvin said that it should be ready by the end of today, and it will be offered on behalf of the Ministry of National Security, and by extension, the Government of Belize.

Last Saturday, after a cordial speech at the official Independence Day ceremony in Belmopan, Skerrit was taken to San Pedro for what was expected to be a typical outing to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. The boat which took the Dominican PM was to be accompanied by a Coast Guard vessel to provide additional security for the VIP; however, the Coast Guard support vessel did not arrive on time, and therefore, the trip departed in their absence.

Upon returning to San Pedro, the boat of PM Skerrit and his entourage, including a representative of the Belize Tourism Board, another from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a police escort from the Belize Police Department’s Special Branch, and Hon. Skerrit’s own personal security, was stopped by four Coast Guard officers, who proceeded to detain and question the occupants on board.

The Dominican PM’s boat, which was being operated by a captain from Ramon’s Village Dive Shop in San Pedro, was tied to the Coast Guard boat, effectively grounding the vessel.

At this time, the Coast Guard personnel were reportedly duly informed by Skerrit’s other escorts that the contingent included the Prime Minister of Dominica.

Regardless of this, the ordeal continued, with the Coast Guard officer commanding the vessel, identified as Petty Officer Richard Ogaldez, reportedly asking “Who is the Prime Minister?”

PM Skerrit reportedly responded by saying “I am”, but was blatantly ignored by Ogaldez. The situation reportedly went on for a while and finally ended when the secretary of the Minister of Tourism, Hon. Manuel Heredia, was called. This was when the officers were reportedly instructed to leave the PM’s vessel alone, after which they were allowed to go on their way.

Upon his return to the island, a disenchanted and bewildered PM Skerrit reportedly went directly to his hotel room, and boycotted all other activities that were scheduled for him later that evening. He departed the country the following morning.

How could a gaffe of this magnitude have happened? Furthermore, why did the Coast Guard vessel arrive late to escort the high-level delegation?

Yesterday, the media caught up with Rear Admiral John Borland, Commander of the Belize Coast Guard, at the Coast Guard graduation ceremony (chronicled elsewhere in this newspaper), and he first offered his apologies on behalf of the Belize Coast Guard.

Admiral Borland said, “I am deeply sorry and humbly apologize to the Prime Minister of Dominica, the Hon. Roosevelt Skerrit, and to those on board that VIP vessel on the evening of the September 21, in the area of San Pedro.”

He explained what took place on that day. Borland said, “What actually happened is that the Coast Guard was called to respond or to support a VIP escort, and of course, that VIP was the Prime Minister of Dominica and a delegation from [the Ministry of] Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Security and some people from [the Ministry of] Tourism.

“The Coast Guard received that call very late; the boat was on patrol so we had to make way to the area of operations to try and link up with the VIP vessel. It did not link up at the proposed point because the time had gone by and it was late.

“So they proceeded to the area of Hol Chan Marine [Reserve], and they met a vessel returning from Hol Chan to San Pedro, and that indeed was the vessel.

“They approached the vessel, got the vessel to heave to, which means to stop, and tried to conduct, not an investigation, but just an inquiry to find out if it is indeed the VIP vessel and to report themselves as the escort, as they were late and tried to apologize for being late.”

“I think what went wrong,” the commander said, “was perhaps the approach of the vessel commander, who was the coxswain, in this case, as was reported, Petty Officer Ogaldez. And I think he erred in his judgment because when it got to the point of stopping the vessel and finding out whether or not this was the vessel with the Prime Minister onboard, that was okay, but once that was verified, then he should have had the courtesy and the respect to compliment the PM on being here, visiting us, being our guest in [the] country, to pay respect and courtesy to him, and just bid him the time of the day and let him go on his way.

“Instead, what he tried to do was get the particulars of the vessel, the particulars of those people onboard; he stated that he did this because he wanted it to be in his patrol report, to report back to his commander.”

“So, I think that was poor judgment on his behalf,” Borland went on to state, “knowing a person of such rank and status and position of authority was on board, you know. The best he could have done was to apologize at the moment for stopping the vessel, and then carry on with his duties of escorting the vessel, even though he was already late. So, certainly some people were aggrieved by his behavior.”

Commander Borland also expounded on the disciplinary measures that will be taken against the officer following the unfortunate mishap. He stated that when the reports came into the Coast Guard office, they conducted an investigation and held a hearing, also referred to as a tribunal.

Thereafter, the petty officer responsible, Petty Officer Ogaldez, was placed on orders and came before the commandant on a disciplinary trial; and that trial resulted in him being demoted from his rank and reduced to the rank of seaman.

As a result, Ogaldez no longer holds the authority to coxswain a vessel or to be in command of a patrol, and no longer has the authority to even come in contact with such high-ranking government officials again until he has “learned a lesson that that is not the way that the Coast Guard operates.”

Word to Amandala tonight, however, is that Dominicans are not happy with Belize. While PM Skerrit has reportedly not issued an official statement on the matter, there is a lot of “cussing” going on among the country’s citizens.

While we know that the international scandal is not PM Barrow’s fault, the fact that a formal apology has not been issued to PM Skerrit at press time tonight, five days after the regrettable incident, is cause for concern.

The Coast Guard has said that they received the request to accompany PM Skerrit’s vessel at a late hour, and so was unable to appear on time for the vessel’s departure. That statement begs another question: PM Skerrit’s entertainment was not thought of “on the spur of the moment,” so, how is it that the Coast Guard were told at a late hour that they were scheduled to escort a person of PM Skerrit’s importance and stature? Did some official in some other ministry or department slip up, because that is where the problem began.

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