A long-standing dispute over a high concrete fence blocking the free flow of cruise tourists on a boardwalk in the Fort Street area of Belize City erupted into contentious gunplay on Saturday morning when Ministry of Works personnel attempted to tear down the barrier.
Reports to our newspaper are that around 9 o’clock on Saturday morning, November 18, Government workers started to cut a metal pipe in an attempt to begin the dismantling of a fence on the east side of the Fort Street Tourism Village (FSTV), which is the premier disembarkation point for cruise tourists in Belize. (See photo)
This seemingly unimportant fence represents, in real life, millions of dollars in business annually for traders of everything from souvenir key chains to diamond-decked gold chains. The big dispute—which has sparked years of sporadic scuffles—is over the access of tourists to vendors and businesses outside the village. As things currently stand, those tourists wishing to venture outside have to use the front gates and streets, which they are advised by some propagandists to do “at their own risk.” If the flow along the boardwalk were unimpeded, more business would stream to the adjacent businesses, some business people outside the walls still contend.
There is, evidently, a lot at stake for those doing business in the area, and we understand that a security guard from the FSTV fired shots on Saturday morning in an attempt to scare off Government workers, forcing them to quickly abort their mission to dismantle the notorious fence.
A security officer of Harbour View Restaurant, adjacent to the village’s seaward wall, said that he was on-site Saturday morning when he heard three shots ring out. He told us that he did not see anything, but was informed that the shots were coming from across the fence, inside the Fort Street Tourism Village.
Mike Williams, whose daughter, Michelle, owns the restaurant, told us that he was three feet away from the fence when the guard from the tourism village began to shoot. Tourists were disembarking a vessel, Silver Shadow, at the same time, and high-ranking Government officials, including chief engineer, Cadet Henderson, and Ismael Fabro, CEO in the Ministry of Natural Resources, were also there, he also told us.
Williams said that he could only testify to hearing two shots, though others have said they heard three. There are different stories, likewise, about where the bullets ended up, but what is certain is that no one was injured in the process.
To date no one has filed any police report about the incident, said Police Liaison Officer, G. Michael Reid, when we spoke with him this evening.
Some persons who were in the area at the time told us that police went to the scene. Assistant Commissioner of Police, Crispin Jeffries, Sr., spoke to both parties.
Those with whom we spoke from Harbour View said that the police informed them that they were not there to protect them.
Attorney for FSTV, Hon. Dean Barrow, told Amandala that the FSTV had already applied to the Supreme Court for an injunction around mid-October. This week, the applicants asked trial judge, Justice Troadio Gonzalez, to treat the case with urgency, and he has set a date for the next court session for Friday, November 24, but before another judge, since he won’t be available.
For about a year, Barrow said, there has been a back and forth debate between the village and the Government over the fence. The reason they applied for an injunction, said Barrow, is because the tone of the Government’s letters began to sound “threatening,” and GOB made it plain that they were prepared to take down the fence “in an extralegal fashion.”
The Williams family had also applied for an injunction over a year ago, but against the FSTV, which had erected a concrete building very close to the fence in question. Harbour View personnel suggest it was intended to permanently block the passage of tourists to the boardwalk that leads to Harbour View. Mike Williams said that they were granted the injunction, and FSTV stopped its work on the building.
Barrow told us that the Tourism Village is saying that it is their boardwalk, but the Government is saying that some of the supporting posts for the structure are on the riverbed, which is public property.
He furthermore said that the issue is not really the wall near Harbour View, which Government attempted to tear down on Saturday, but another wall on the opposite end of the village, which would block access to a new development dubbed Brown Sugar, owned by Edward “Billy” Musa, the Prime Minister’s brother, and the very influential Hotchandani family. Brown Sugar is located on North Front Street, next to City Hall, and was formerly a Hofius Limited hardware store.
The FSTV has a tourist shopping mall that was built on the site of a former vegetable market, almost opposite to the St. Mary’s Church and adjacent to Brown Sugar. A boardwalk connects this new tourism village site to the original site, built on the old Belize Defence Force Maritime Wing compound.
In 2003/2004, a 10-foot wall erected between the first tourism village and the Wet Lizard, and an extended boardwalk connecting two tourist village sites, sparked similar controversy. At the time Michael Feinstein owned the development, then the Belize Tourism Village.
Barrow said that when the ownership of the village changed from Feinstein to the Royal Caribbean/Diamonds International some years ago, there was a new agreement with the Government, which affirmed that all the structures at the village were in compliance with the law.
How can the Government think it can dismantle a fence by force? Barrow questioned. He said that GOB wrote the FTSV asking them to take down the fence and they said no. What GOB should have done, he added, was to go to court for an order.
We were unable to speak with the FTSV’s Director of Operations, James Nisbet. At press time, our repeated calls had not been returned.
We have also not been able to speak with the CEO of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Ismael Fabro, who, we were told, was one of the senior Government officials on site. When we called his office we were informed that he was unavailable.
We were, likewise, unable to reach Mr. Henderson.
Barrow cited a similar case in which he won nearly a million dollars in damages for Lauren Duty Free International in 2000. There was a dispute over the store’s lease at the Philip Goldson International Airport, and the Belize Airport Authority removed the store’s fixtures, fittings and goods, and caused damages to them that the court ruled had to be repaid by the Airport Authority, a statutory arm of the Government.