TOP 10 stories for 2013
1. The Penner Passport Scandal
2. KHMH cloacae calamity: 12 babies die under mysterious circumstances
3. Cañeros lock horns with BSI over bagasse payment: Cane season unable to start
4. Belize debt restructuring – new superbond sealed
5. Belize faces mounting LGBT challenges; 2013 Gender Policy sparks massive protests
6. Aborted Referendum on Belize-Guatemala issue
7. Murder rate drops
8. Felicia Chen faces charges for the murder of her three children
9. Four George Street gang leaders brutally executed
10. Noh Mul destruction
BELIZE CITY, Mon. Dec. 30, 2013
POLITICS AND NATIONAL SECURITY: Passports
Thousands of news stories crossed our desk in the year 2013, but by all indications, the most explosive story, with the greatest national and indeed internationally-significant implications, was “the Penner Passport Scandal.” News of the scandal broke in September 2013, when the Government announced that Prime Minister Dean Barrow had sacked Minister of State in the Immigration Ministry Elvin Penner, also the United Democratic Party’s area representative for Cayo Northeast, following allegations that he had been involved in facilitating a passport for an Asian who was behind bars in Taiwan. Barrow went further to call for Penner’s resignation from the ruling party, and the Opposition People’s United Party has been mobilizing a recall vote, which threatens to erode the UDP’s thin 17-14 majority rule in Parliament. (A more detailed summary is given in the sidebar to this review.)
HEALTH: Death of babies at KHMH
Within the first 22 days of May, 13 babies died at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH). The initially reported number of deaths was 12, but one more baby died on May 22, increasing the toll to 13. We were told that that baby was admitted into the hospital already ill and was tested negative for a bacteria known as Enterobacter cloacae – treatable but, according to KHMH officials, hard to detect early on.
Harrison Sutherland, 18, lost his daughter, Imari, due to the bacteria. She lived just 8 days. He blames the hospital for the multiple deaths.
“I blame the ICU because they should have known that the ICU had an infection so they could have moved the babies from there a long time; they waited until all the babies died,” Sutherland said.
Although the first strange case of baby infection was reported back in February, the ward had been closed and cleaned before any more babies were admitted. However, an outbreak-related death ensued on May 10.
As Amandala had reported in June, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) had conducted an on-site study at the hospital and produced a report on its findings.
It found deficiencies in several areas of the hospital system, including the infection control program being used, the physical layout of the hospital, supportive areas (sterilization, antiseptics and disinfectants, microbiology laboratory) and the current practices for infection prevention and control.
While that investigation pinpointed no source for the outbreak of the bacteria – Enterobacter cloacae – PAHO has chronicled several faults in the systems of the hospital and offered several recommendations on how those areas could be improved.
ECONOMY: Sugar Industry
As the year 2013 draws to a close, the sugar industry remains at a standstill, as cañeros continue to lock horns with the Belize Sugar Industries (a subsidiary of American Sugar Refining) over payments the farmers are demanding for bagasse, a sugarcane byproduct which is used to produce electricity that is sold as a partial energy supply for the national grid. Farmers are standing their ground, refusing to commence sugar cane delivery until and unless a satisfactory agreement is reached. Meanwhile, though, sugar roads – like many other roads in the country – continue to be in a deplorable state due to bouts of heavy rain which have been hammering away at the country’s road network for the past few months.
The impasse between cane farmers and BSI has continued despite attempts by the Government to broker a settlement between the parties.
The continued delay in the start of this year’s crop could result in major losses for the industry.
FINANCE: New super-bond sealed
In March 2013, the Barrow administration announced that it had completed the restructuring of the super-bond, with new terms which Prime Minister Dean Barrow said would translate into a BZ$494 million reduction in debt servicing expenditure over the next 10 years.
The offer resulted in 86.17 percent of bondholders tendering their bonds due in 2029, in exchange for new bonds due in 2038.
“If we had not succeeded, we would have had to add that $76.4 million to the $84 million and, of course, that would have meant that we would no doubt have gone over the fiscal cliff,” Barrow had said.
The trade unions joined the private sector in supporting the Barrow administration’s move to restructure the billion-dollar super-bond, in an effort to reduce payments from the public purse, but they had also made a list of 11 contingent demands on the Government of Belize, including a demand for the government to stop the wanton distribution of the nation’s patrimony in corrupt, under-the table deals; and a demand for government to quit hiring unqualified persons and padding the public service with contract workers.
Government had reported that the maximum transaction size of the super-bond is US$529,928,800.
The restructured super-bond has a 25-year maturity period which will end in 2038, nine years longer than the current bond, which was to expire in 2029. The Government also gets a 10 percent haircut off the principal, removing $108 million off the former super-bond principal.
The year 2013 saw UNIBAM have its day in court, as it moved a constitutional challenge against the Government of Belize, challenging Section 53 of Belize’s Criminal Code which outlaws unnatural sex acts such as sodomy. Meanwhile, Belize is this year facing a legal challenge by Jamaican LGBT activist Maurice Tomlinson, who alleges that the country’s Immigration Act restricts visits from homosexuals in violation, he says, of his right to free movement as a CARICOM national.
Meanwhile, both the UK and the US have called on Belize to amend its laws in line with a universal lobby to establish protective mechanisms for LGBT persons.
At the same time, Belize this year introduced a new gender policy, which some members of the public see as a document designed to pave the way for special protective mechanisms for LGBT persons – who some contend will eventually seek equality of right to be married and to adopt children in Belize.
It is against this backdrop that several thousands of Belizeans took to the streets protesting the 2013 Gender Policy – some calling for a complete retraction, others for an amendment which puts to bed any doubt as to whether the policy is advancing the LGBT cause. Of note is that the policy has been accepted by the Barrow administration as the new gender policy for Belize.
The religious community was again up in arms over revisions to Belize’s Criminal Code which introduces language which they say equate anal and oral sexual intercourse with vaginal intercourse; contrary to the original statures which categorize such acts as unnatural crimes.
In the end, 2013 has seen both policy and legislative reform in Belize which signals a clear change in the way sexual intercourse is defined in modern Belize; however, the Barrow administration continues to say that these changes notwithstanding, sodomy remains illegal in Belize.
As 2013 draws to a close, there is no official word to indicate that Belize and Guatemala will advance talks towards a definitive end to the age-old territorial dispute between the parties.
Five years ago, in December 2008, Belize and Guatemala officials had penned their signatures in agreement that they would submit to their respective electorates the question of whether the matter should be settled at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Plans were in motion to hold simultaneous referenda in Belize and Guatemala on Sunday, October 6, 2013; however, Guatemala unilaterally pulled out of the process, claiming that Belize had amended its referendum laws in a manner that had created an uneven playing field, as Belize’s new law, which has threshold requirements, would not guarantee a ‘yes’ vote.
Provocative maps of Guatemala, which seemed to suggest an inclusion of Belize as a part of their territory, emerged. One such map emerged at an OAS forum in February. Then in April, plans were announced for a new Guatemalan passport which seemed to have Belize annexed with a dotted line.
During 2013, there continued to be controversy arising from Guatemalan incursions inside Belize – including encroachments for logging, gold panning and hunting. There were several arrests reported during the course of 2013 of persons who had illegally crossed over into Belize for such purposes.
The Belize Territorial Volunteers emerged in 2013 to put the spotlight on Belize’s borders with several expeditions to the border to emphasize the fact that Belize’s constitutionally-defined borders do exist.
Murder rate down
Official statistics from the Police Department indicate that after several years of burgeoning crime, the country was finally able to experience a reprieve in the incidences of murder for 2013. Whereas the official tally for 2013 is pending, indications are that the murder rate – particularly for Belize City – has dropped substantially.
Murders for January to October 2013 had dropped a substantial 26% from last year’s high of 119. At the end of November, Prime Minister Barrow announced that the decline had reached 32% since January.
The year had gotten off to a very bad start, with the brutal execution of four George Street gang leaders in January 2013.
The first quarter’s crime statistics were startling – with the murder rate doubling that of the previous year. Particularly, there was a spike of 10 murders in January, including the quadruple George Street murder.
Four gang leaders executed
Pandemonium ruled Belize City on Tuesday, January 8, after the early morning discovery of the slaughtered bodies of four members of the George Street gang in the upper flat of an apartment at the corner of Dean and Plues Streets. The murders also sparked an advisory from the US authorities.
An autopsy revealed that one of the deceased – Leonard Ghost Myers, 30 – was stabbed 38 times and his throat slit. Also massacred were Albert “Long John” Fuentes, 19, of George Street; Anthony Henry Perez, 28, of Plues Street; and Keino Quallo, 40, of Dean and Plues Streets.
Immediately after the discovery, persons close to the gang began blaming the police’s feared Gang Suppression Unit (GSU), who have had a long, antagonistic relationship with the gang. They pointed to the unusual manner in which the men were executed – contrary to the gun warfare used by gangs. For their part, the police denied the allegations.
Mother faces charges for death of children
Another tragedy in 2013 was the death of three children, for which their mother, Felicia Chen, is due to stand trial on April 7, 2014.
It was described as perhaps the most horrific and heartbreaking tragedy to have ever occurred in Belize. On Saturday, April 27, three children, Trinaya Felicia Teul, 1, Thomas Teul, 3, and Triana Teul, 4, were found dead in the sea at the Belizean Beach, a popular bathing and picnicking spot four miles out of Belize City, on the George Price Highway, after supposedly being drowned by their mother. Officials said that they died from “Immersion Syndrome.” The mother reportedly then tried to kill herself.
Police said that Trina Teul, the eldest child, 6, reportedly ran out of the sea and alerted someone on the highway about the incident, after which help was sought from the police.
Chen was initially said to have been suffering from chronic clinical depression and was admitted for psychiatric care – but she was later deemed fit to stand trial.
Noh Mul destruction
The mauling of Noh Mul, a 2,300-year old Maya monument, by a company owned by a ruling party operative was among the occurrences in 2013 which sparked public outrage – but which also drew sharp criticism even from within the ranks of government. More than that, the news of the destruction of the ancient Maya monument went viral overseas, with multiple reports being carried by Business Week, USA Today, Fox News, and other major foreign news outlets.
It had been reported that De’ Mar’s Contracting Company—owned by Orange Walk Central UDP caretaker Denny Grijalva, who has been a favorite in receiving Government contracts for road repairs in both the Orange Walk and Corozal Districts—destroyed Noh Mul for road fill, while doing repairs in Douglas Village of the Orange Walk North constituency.
The incident happened in May and it was not until June that charges were levied. De’ Mar’s company (which was represented in court by Denny and his wife Maria Grijalva) was charged along with Emil Cruz (the operator of the machinery seen in footage actually removing the stone) for removing stone from an ancient monument without a permit and for willfully damaging an ancient monument.
Meanwhile, Javier Nunez, the foreman for the project, was charged with willfully causing the removal of stone from an ancient monument and willfully causing the damage of an ancient monument. The charges were levied under the National Institute of Culture and History (NICB) Act, amended 2003.
There has not been an update provided to us on this case since the last report filed in June, more than 6 months ago.
Looking back at the Penner Passport Scandal
by Kareem Clarke
BELIZE CITY, Mon. Dec. 30, 2013
The reeling passport and visa scandals, which have dominated the news for the last four months, began to unfold on September 19, when the Office of the Prime Minister dropped a bombshell and announced that “with immediate effect, the Hon. Elvin Penner is no longer a Minister of State in the current (UDP) administration,” because, according to the communiqué, Penner, as Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration, “did not discharge his responsibilities with either due judgment and balance, or the scrupulous regard for appearances which the Prime Minister demands of all his Ministers.” The release said that Barrow had “required” Penner to resign after a late evening meeting which had taken place the day before.
Penner – the UDP Cayo Northeast area representative who happened to be 19 months into his second term as Minister of State – wound up at the center of an embarrassing fiasco in which he was accused of fraudulently facilitating the issuance of a Belizean passport and nationality to a South Korean businessman, later identified as Won Hong Kim, 52, a South Korean who was at the time imprisoned in a Taiwanese jail.
“Citizen Kim,” as he became infamously known, was allegedly awaiting extradition on charges of embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars from SK Shipping Company, a South Korean firm.
Won Hong Kim was detained in Taiwan in August, and in an effort to avoid extradition to South Korea to face trial for the slew of charges related to that particular felony, he managed to obtain a Belizean passport dated September 9, 2013.
Penner is accused of facilitating the passport application for Kim, although Kim had never entered Belize and so could not legally attain Belizean nationality.
Since the scandal broke, the Government has introduced changes to Belize’s Immigration, Nationality and Passport laws, with the introduction of more rigid penalties and the establishment of a Nationality Scrutinizing Committee to vet future nationality applications. Some officers were also moved out of the Immigration Department.
As 2013 closes, though, there has been no progress report on the investigations launched into the Penner Passport Scandal – among them the investigations launched by the Auditor General and the Financial Intelligence Unit. No criminal charges have been filed against him.
Furthermore, the ruling UDP continues to adamantly resist calls from the Opposition for a special senate inquiry into the passport/visa scandal; but the Opposition has pledged that the request will be resurrected in early 2014.
Another big 2013 Scandal: SIF – Social Investment Fund
by Kareem Clarke
BELIZE CITY, Mon. Dec. 30, 2013
The Penner Passport Scandal came on the heels of allegations of gross corruption, extortion and mismanagement at the Social Investment Fund (SIF), the statutory body which was tasked with the reconstruction of the Dangriga Town Market – still in shambles an incredible five months after it was to have been completed.
Four employees were sacked, while their boss, the former Executive Director of SIF, Daniel Cano, was given the option to resign following a decision by the SIF Board of Directors.
The dismissals came on the heels of an investigation launched by Contractor General Godwin Arzu, after a prior contractor, Kenard Smart, alleged an extortion scheme involving the then administration as well as members of staff.
Smart sent a distressing e-mail to the Contractor General in February 2013, claiming that “between 2009 and 2012, at least four SIF staff have extorted me or shaken me down…”
Smart went on to list and display a range of cheques of varying amounts which he asserted were paid to SIF staffers. In one instance, he claimed that he had paid $10,000 in a black plastic bag to an executive.
Some workers told the media that the monies were gifts from Smart.