BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 20, 2020– Belizeans were aghast when they learned that five Belizeans left the country on a tugboat en route to Honduras, and that, upon their return, it was discovered that all five members were COVID-19 positive, and that they had not adhered to the proper quarantine protocols.
Despite a press release from Big Creek Group (which is the company that employs the men and that sent them on the cross-border journey) in which the company states that they received authorization from all the relevant authorities to send the tugboat to Honduras and that the events which transpired after the men’s return were the result of miscommunication, an Immigration officer and a Customs officer were arraigned this week in Magistrate’s Court for having facilitated the trip.
Customs officer Deon Castillo and Immigration officer Robert Flowers have been accused of knowingly clearing the tugboat for departure despite the prohibitions on border crossings due to COVID-19.
These public officers contracted attorney Hurl Hamilton just moments before their arraignment and were granted bail of $1,000 and a surety of the same amount.
Officials in the Customs and Excise Department are upset about the prosecution of their colleagues. During a press conference this week, Comptroller of Customs, Colin Griffith, made clear his objection to the aforementioned charges:
“I have to register my strong objection to Officer Deon Castillo being charged, and it was annoying to recognize or to learn that the Belize Police Department decided to object to bail.
“The intention is to have this young public officer incarcerated. I cannot countenance the reason behind that. I have been informed that the intention to object to bail is that by issuing the clearance to this vessel, to which the officer had no idea that it would not have gone for commercial purposes, was tantamount to the officer being a border jumper.
“I disagree with that, and we were able to get bail for Officer Castillo. We had officers with him and we were also able to assist the Immigration officer that was charged also. The Customs Department is satisfied that officer Deon Castillo operated how a normal Customs officer would have operated, and didn’t do anything that is outside of his job description; nothing whatsoever,” he said.
In explaining the situation, Griffith noted that the tugboat in question, the AJ Ellis, had made sixteen trips from the Big Creek Port to transport cargo for the Banana Enterprise since the start of the State of Emergency back in March.
Griffith asserts that no one at the Customs Department was aware that the AJ Ellis was deviating from this routine and making a private voyage to Roatan, and because the company on whose behalf the tugboat was making the trip is considered a “compliant trader,” they were given the go-ahead to proceed.
Griffith states that the Customs officer was completely unaware of the infringement being committed and that Banana Enterprise has acknowledged their failure to inform the authorities of their intent and has issued an apology.
In response, Commissioner of Police Chester Williams called the 7News station to refute the statements made by the Comptroller.
According to Commissioner Williams, he and Comptroller Griffith are amicable and did engage in a phone conversation in which the Comptroller tried to clear his subordinate’s name, but the Police Commissioner found that he was still in violation of the law:
Referring to that conversation, Williams said, “Yes, he tried as best as he can to explain that the officer could not have been held accountable because the company did not disclose the purpose of the voyage to Honduras, and I said to him, as a prudent public officer, we are under quarantine process at that time, whereby you had the SI which clearly states that the borders are closed, except for allowing cargo to come in, and so it would have been expected that a prudent public officer who would be engaging in granting permissions for a boat to leave the country or to come into the country, to ask one very important question: what is the purpose of your voyage? To see whether or not the purpose of the voyage falls within the SI, and if it is that the purpose does not fall within the SI, then permission should not be granted.
“If it falls within the SI, then it shall be granted. The Comptroller himself admitted to me that the purpose of the voyage was not for cargo. The tugboat went to undergo repairs.
“Now, that does not fall within the scope of the SI, and so it is only right that these public officers who granted the permission for this tugboat to have left the country and return with 5 Covid-positive persons who later on ended up into the Independence community, to be held accountable.”
Commissioner Williams went on to say, “This is an egregious infraction, and we cannot allow it to go just like that, and I explained that to the Comptroller. Yes, I understand that he wanted to stand up for his personnel, and he has all right to do so, but to say that the arrest is unwarranted is neither here nor there. This is not an offence that requires intention; it’s a strict liability offence.
“You allow the boat to have gone and the purpose of the voyage did not fall within the SI; you are liable, and I also heard the Comptroller say that we objected to bail. For Christ’s sake, man, that is not true. When the gentlemen went to court this afternoon, the prosecutor called me and asked me if the offenses are bailable. I said to him ‘yes, they are bailable, because they are not charged under SI 119; they are charged under the SI which was signed by the Minister of Health, which did not restrict bail’… based on that, the prosecutor did not object to bail and the gentlemen were granted bail.”
“So again, to say that we objected to bail with a view to have these public officers sent to prison, I cannot accept that, because it is the furthest thing from the truth,” the Commissioner said.