Letters — 10 November 2018
Former SIS boss writes about the 1981 State of Emergency

The Editor Amandala

I read with interest your article in the Amandala of 25th September, 2018, which commented on the circumstances of the recently declared State of Emergency, and the one which played out in 1981.

I, Ephriam Usher, enlisted in the Belize Police Force in late 1977, and in early 1978 I commenced 6 months of training at the Police Training School, which at the time was housed in Ladyville. I received training with the first squad of the Tactical Services Unit as of 2nd January 1978.

The Police Force provided me with extensive training locally and abroad. I had enlisted as the 1st (Officer Cadet). I believe the present Commissioner of Police is a product of that programme. The Commissioner at the time was Mr. Esmond Willoughby (his photograph was featured in your article). Commissioner Willoughby set the stage, at the time, for the introduction of a Deputy Commissioner’s post, as well as other major service benefits for the rank and file. This included lengthening the pay scale of serving members who provided good service, but could not qualify for promotion. This enabled them to continue to better earn over their years of service even though they may not have received a promotion, remained as a Constable, for example.

As the then Staff and Services Officer at Police Headquarters, I was proud to have been part of this team that accomplished these and other welfare benefits for the Police Force and its development. Mr. Willoughby did well for the Police Force and the country of Belize.

In March 1981, the Belize Negotiating Team in which Assad Shoman and Bobby Leslie played prominent roles, returned to the country with what was known as the “Heads of Agreement”. At the time, I was a full Inspector of Police. I had received my first promotion earlier in 1980, whilst I was on studies in the United Kingdom. At the time, in 1981, I was serving as Staff and Services Officer at Police Headquarters in Belmopan.

The Heads of Agreement met stiff opposition from the Unions, Civil Society and the Opposition Party. As a consequence of political activity, resistance from Union activity and Civil Society led to unrest which eventually led to the “State of Emergency”.

 Major political activity and unrest (the closing down of essential services, burning of tires, closing off of roads/streets) is what led to the “State of Emergency” at the time.

Several political meetings and activities were being held throughout the country. The hot spots as such were in San Ignacio, Corozal Town and Belize City.

In Belize City, political meetings were being held for inordinately long hours daily, in some cases in violation of the law which I think at the time prescribed that meetings and processions were not to go beyond midnight. I recall that at one such meeting, at the corner of Plues and Albert Streets, Rufus X was blasting Radio Belize as the propaganda machinery of the government. In illustration of this, whilst on the rostrum and addressing the crowd, he removed a round of ammunition from his pants and displayed it to the crowd. He stated that if he were to be arrested (and said he believed he would), Radio Belize would not quantify that he was arrested for a single round of ammunition but would state that he had been arrested for “arms and ammunition”, thus implying a larger quantity. I allowed him to complete his address but immediately placed him under surveillance. I allowed another speaker to complete his address. Rufus had expected and wanted a confrontation. I would not give him his wish.

Immediately after the meeting I approached him and asked him to deliver the round of ammunition which he had displayed. He couldn’t believe that this was happening. After he gave me the round of ammunition, I warned him for a summons. He was later prosecuted.

The then Governor gave me a commendation through Commissioner Willoughby the following morning. The Governor was happy with the way I had handled the situation; he said that if the situation had been handled differently it could have easily turned volatile. The political meetings and various other such activities, as well as general unrest which included the closing down of the electricity and water companies, the burning of tires on streets throughout the country, and shootings which occurred in Corozal Town, led to the “State of Emergency” being declared.

The unrest also led to the early retirement of several Senior Police Officers. I recall that at Police Headquarters in Belmopan, Commissioner Willoughby had instructed a Senior Police Officer to go to Belize City to perform duties, and he refused. The Commissioner strolled over to the Governor’s Office and on his return, he promptly relieved the Officer of his duties. Thus, the Officer was sent into early retirement. Mr. Willoughby was truly a no-nonsense man.

On the 2nd April 1981, the Unions were holding a huge public meeting at Battlefield Park in Belize City. Thousands were in attendance. There was barely walking space between Hofius, Brodies, the Supreme Court and Belize Bank. A little after 2 p.m. that day I was summoned to the Commissioner’s Office at Eastern (Police) Division Headquarters on Queen Street in Belize City. The Commissioner informed me that the Governor had issued a proclamation declaring a “State of Emergency”, and that I should advise those concerned at the public meeting being held at Battlefield Park that the meeting had become unlawful, and that it would be closed down.

I, in full uniform, dutifully proceeded to Battlefield Park. On arrival I observed Mr. William Tillett (Bill) addressing the crowd. He was the President of the Public Services Union. As I entered the crowd, I summoned a Special Branch Officer to cover me from the rear. Then, I made my way through the crowds. As I came nearer to Mr. Tillett several persons saw me advancing toward him and they began shouting: Kill him! Kill him! I believe Mr. Tillett heard their shouts and he turned and looked at me in the crowd. I raised one hand and continued advancing towards him. At this point Mr. Tillett raised both hands said to the crowd: “Calm down, my people. Calm down.”

I advanced towards him and he came down from the rostrum. Within earshot, I told him that the Governor had declared a State of Emergency and that the meeting which they were holding had become unlawful. I told him that in view of that, I was requesting that he ask the crowd to disperse. He did so, and the law-abiding crowd dispersed. Those who chose to give trouble and loot remained, milling around Brodies, Hofius, Belize Bank and Battlefield Park.

I sensed that the crowds remaining had clear plans to remain unruly and create problems. The Commissioner sent a further contingent of officers, numbering about 20, including an Assistant Inspector, in support of myself and the officers who were already deployed on crowd control at the location. I quickly set up a command post at the then BTL office on Church Street. The office would soon provide refuge to my team.

I kept headquarters informed and sought reinforcement as I saw events developing. We, the police officers, soon became the target of the mob. By about 4 p.m. that day we came under intense pressure from the crowds. The first store that suffered a break-in was Matus Store. Looters stole any and everything which they could carry – chairs, ‘fridges, stoves, etc. Thereafter, Hofius and Brodies suffered the same fate, as did the other stores on Albert and King Street. The BDF came in support at about 4:30 p.m., and British Forces later.

The Amandala publication which followed the 2nd April unrest, featured one of my colleagues being under attack. The story is told on the front page. The rest is history. Hundreds were arrested and corralled at Queen Street Police Headquarters.

After things calmed down in Belize City, I returned to my post in Belmopan, but within days I had to go north, to take over Corozal Town. There was serious unrest in that town, and the officer-in-charge asked for early retirement in the face of the trouble. Eddie Longsworth (The Pigtail Man) and Florencio Marin, with the mediation of Magistrate Ramirez and myself, led to the return of law and order and peace in the Town. Maxwell Samuels soon succeeded Mr. Esmond Willoughby as Commissioner of Police. Mr. Willoughby retired in 1982.

My career post-1981: Following my tour of duty as Officer Commanding Corozal (Police) District at the end of 1982, Commissioner Samuels appointed me as Head Special Branch. I served in this capacity until early 1986, when the Branch was restructured and upgraded to the Security Intelligence Service (SIS). I became its first and only Director. The service remained functional until 1989, when it was abolished by the incoming administration following the general elections.

The new administration had offered me a new appointment with the same salary and all the benefits which I enjoyed as Director of SIS, but I respectfully declined because the abolition had decimated the careers of many of my colleagues. I did not see it right that I should go on in a secured job, whilst many of my colleagues, who were very well trained, highly qualified and competent, were having their lives and careers, as well as mine, destroyed purely for political reasons. The country lost years of experience and specialized training in abolishing the Service.

After the change of government in 1993, I was offered and accepted an appointment as Director of Immigration. I carried out those duties until 1995, when I was made the fall guy for policies which the government had implemented but at the time chose not to acknowledge. It was not until several months, or years later, that the incumbent Minister acknowledged the facts publicly. (A Reporter article spoke of the retired Minister’s acknowledgement.)

That article suggested that had theMinister acknowledged the facts earlier, my circumstance would have been different. I need say that the Minister was truthful and honest and acknowledged to the Prime Minister, from day one, that I had been acting under his instruction and was merely completing some applications on the programme which the Cabinet had approved. I have every respect for the then Minister, Hon. Philip Goldson. His greatest desire and wish was to do right for Belize.

I am humbled for the opportunity to have served my country and people in the various capacities. There is more to this story but this is the end of this chapter.

Ephriam Usher

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