Sugar and blood!
The heightened standoff in Sugar City, Orange Walk, descended into unthinkable violence this evening, with one cañero confirmed dead, three injured, and five detained by police.
“Today I saw a man get shot in the head right in front of me,” Michael Peyrefitte, attorney for the cane farmers, told 7 News this evening. According to Peyrefitte, the man fell to the ground and died instantly. He commented that it was “totally unnecessary” for that to happen.
At press time tonight, two of the three injured have been treated and released from the Northern Regional Hospital in Orange Walk; the third remains in serious condition and was set to undergo surgery this evening.
A day of deadlines, ultimatums and threats back and forth ended with police gaining the upper hand over several hundred cane farmers who had staged riotous, moving protests from the toll bridge leading into Orange Walk, to the Tower Hill factory of Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) Limited.
Angry cañeros had tried earlier in the afternoon to overturn the vehicle of Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, with himself and two others inside, and all day long there were reports that BSI’s cane fields had been set ablaze. Some continue to burn tonight.
The unrest began to unfold six days ago, when thousands of cane farmers began with a strike, halting the delivery of sugar in protest of the introduction of a core sampler, which BSI had begun to use to implement a quality-based payment system for sugar cane.
Very early this morning, that strike turned into multiple blockages of the Northern Highway leading in and out of Orange Walk Town, the burning of tires, and even fist-to-fist confrontations with one man who had reportedly questioned the actions of cañeros.
Tonight in downtown Orange Walk in the vicinity of Queen Elizabeth Park, policemen were advising business establishments, including stores and bars, to close down until further notice.
At about 6:00 this evening, an estimated 4 to 5 hundred cane farmers had gathered out at the BSI factory at Tower Hill, but they were just as quickly scattered by a combination of police and riot squad, who threw tear gas and fired rubber pellets into the crowd.
The crowd had not done anything save burning a few tires on the entrance road to BSI and a few feet away, at Mile 51 ½ on the Northern Highway.
Reports to Amandala are that at around 3:30 to 4:00 in the dark this morning, groups of cane farmers blocked entrances to Orange Walk Town, at Mile 50 at the Toll Bridge, at the San Estevan Road, at the bypass road to Corozal, at the Carmelita Road - all the entrances and exits of Orange Walk.
They used cane trucks and personal vehicles to set up the blockades.
CEO of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association (BSCFA), Carlos Magaña, told Amandala this morning that the blockades were done as a “coercive gesture” to accelerate negotiations between BSCFA, BSI, and the Sugar Industry Control Board (SICB)—talks that had stalled over the weekend.
They could not reach agreement over the weekend on the demands by cane farmers: that the core sampler system of quality control be stopped with immediate effect; that John Gillett be terminated as factory manager for BSI; that Nemencio Acosta, chair of the board, steps down, because cañeros felt he was being biased; and that the parties work out a revenue sharing agreement for the usage of bagasse in the BELCOGEN project.
When Amandala arrived at around 11:00 this morning at the Toll Bridge, we found it completely blocked with at least four cane trucks on either side, and well over 500 cane farmers assembled on the northward side of the bridge.
Similar groups had assembled at the other entrances and exits of the town, and in one case there was a reported assault of an individual who dared to question cañeros’ reason for starting the protest. He was reportedly beaten up, but there is no word on his condition, even though our reports say he managed to escape serious injury.
At around 11:30 a.m. Magaña announced to the cañeros that he would be meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister/Orange Walk North area representative, Hon. Gaspar Vega, at the office of the BSCFA on San Antonio Road in Orange Walk Town.
That meeting lasted until just after 1:00 this afternoon, but Magaña emerged saying that he and Vega were unable to reach an agreement to suspend blockage of the road or termination of the core sampler.
Vega had agreed to meet with the people from BSI – its CEO, Joey Montalvo and Finance Director Belizario Carballo. At press time, results of that meeting were not forthcoming.
For their part, cane farmers were upset and attempted to overturn Vega’s vehicle with himself and two other persons inside. We observed roughly a hundred cañeros circling Vega’s vehicle, and with their hands they tried to overturn it – and nearly succeeded.
After Magaña told cañeros what happened and also that Barrow was willing to meet as requested, things eased down a bit. But the confrontation would soon descend into chaos when high-ranking police arrived on the scene.
In Belize City at the Radisson Hotel, Prime Minister Dean Barrow held a press conference which began about a quarter of two in the afternoon, broadcast live nationally on LOVE FM. Mr. Barrow said he would not travel to Orange Walk Town, as the cane farmers were requesting, because he would be part of a “mob scene.” He said that if the cane farmers did not inform him by 4 p.m. that they would remove the trucks which were blocking the highways, then the security forces would do what they had to do. If the cane farmers made this concession, then he, Hon. Barrow, would travel to Orange Walk Town on Tuesday morning to meet with the relevant parties.
During his press conference, Mr. Barrow informed that he had met with BSI officials and representatives of the cane farmers two weeks ago, and as late as Friday last, he was of the opinion that an agreement had been reached which would be acceptable to all parties.
At about 2:00 p.m., a contingent of police vehicles arrived on the Tower Hill scene, headed by Assistant Commissioner of Police, Crispin Jeffries, commander of operations for the Police Department, who informed cañeros that they were committing an offense, and if they did not remove their blockades within 2 hours, at 4:00 p.m., police would move them by force. He told assembled media houses, including Amandala, that if they were there at 4:00 p.m., they, too, would be moved out of the way. He also said that he did not want the media caught between the cañeros and the police when trouble began.
ACP Jeffries, in his almost traditional role of agent provocateur during demonstrations like these, added a new dimension this time around by toting around a digital camera and taking pictures of the scene and the cañeros. The cañeros did not take kindly to it, and one actually approached and began shoving Jeffries about, almost causing another riot.
Random stoning in the direction of the police by the cane farmers began at 2:40 p.m., but police quickly brought it under control.
Shortly thereafter, attorneys Michael Peyrefitte and Hubert Elrington arrived from Belize City and met a delegation of cane farmers at the middle of the Tower Hill Bridge. The two attorneys said they were hired by the Cane Farmers Association to mitigate the standoff. They addressed cañeros in both English and Spanish.
Magaña explained that the Prime Minister had said that he would not be able to meet with cañeros if the current situation with blockades were to continue. They were incensed by that stance, and kept interrupting and shouting while Magaña spoke.
At around 3:30 or thereabouts, one of the cañeros announced that someone had been shot while trying to enter the BSI factory. A crowd began running in that direction, and they learned that a group had tried to enter the factory an hour and a half earlier, whereupon police had responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live bullets from an M-16 rifle.
Atanacio Felix Gutierrez, a cane farmer, was fatally shot. At press time, we have no particulars for him, although he has been reported to be from San Victor Village.
Three other persons were injured and taken to Northern Regional Hospital. As for the 4 persons who were detained inside the compound at BSI by police, Magaña went to negotiate for their release, to no avail.
This riled up the cañeros even further, and they proceeded to block the entrance to Tower Hill factory with tires, which they set on fire. They also burned a Gaspar Vega political campaign T-shirt.
Amandala attempted to leave the disputed area late this evening to return to Belize City for our Monday night edition; however, at the junction with Tower Hill near the Guinea Grass cutoff, Mr. Jeffries and his riot squad turned our team back.
Police had taken control of the Toll Bridge and had advanced as far as the Guinea Grass cutoff. They ordered our team to turn back and told us that if we attempted to advance, we would be treated as hostile, and cameras would be treated as weapons.
They weren’t kidding, either. Patrick Jones of Love FM tried to pass and the squad fired twice over his head with rubber pellets.
Police threw tear gas several times in our team’s direction, where a mixture of rebellious cañeros and Guinea Grass residents were also gathered, effectively dispersing the crowd, roughing up some people a bit.
At around 6:00, a group set a heap of tires afire at the entrance to Tower Hill, near Mile 51¾, and the police again fired tear gas grenades in that direction.
Our team hightailed it into Orange Walk in the back of a pick-up truck. We tried to get a boat to cross the river to get to where we left our vehicle, but were told by the boat captain that police were not allowing people to go back as long as the situation continued.
At around 7:00 tonight, a section of the riot squad was seen marching towards Orange Walk Town, having pushed back the cañeros.
The Toll Bridge was finally passable after 7:00 p.m., with traffic moving again in both directions and the BDF keeping guard at various checkpoints leading out of town. The crowd of cañeros had dispersed from the battleground … for now.