The previous administration was plagued with numerous land scandals, which many say, eventually contributed to their massive defeat in the 2008 general elections. And, as if those scandals were not a lesson learnt, there is yet another scandal surfacing; just that this time around it involves a senior elected Cabinet Minister.

    Documents leaked to the media last week show that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Cooperatives, Honorable Rene Jaime Montero has obtained and is allegedly selling an island located in a lagoon on Ambergris Caye.

    The land in question is an island measuring 3.69 acres located some 3.5 miles north of San Pedro Town on Ambergris Caye within Laguna de Frances. Minister’s Fiat Grant Number 823 of 2007 entered in The Crown Lands Books (Grant section) shows Minister Rene Montero as the holder of the island. The island is registered as Cayo Frances which, according to realtors in San Pedro, largely consists of mangroves and the area is used for sport fishing, mainly Tarpon. Montero obtained documentation to the island on September 28th, 2007 under the former Minister of Natural Resources Honorable Florencio Marin. Documents show that Montero was given Cayo Frances as a “Return of Land.” The document allegedly surfaced when the Minister began transactions to sell the island in late November of 2009.

    While Minister Montero possesses ownership documents to Cayo Frances, another document leaked shows that the island was already owned prior to it being given to Montero. In 2005, the same island, known as Cayo Frances, was granted to the Social Security Board (SSB) by the Government of Belize. Minister’s Fiat Grant number 873 of 2005 shows that SSB was granted the 3.69 acre island. That island was granted to SSB on the 27 of September 2005 in “lieu of land acquired for compensation,” which was approved by the then Minister of Natural Resources Honorable Johnny Briceño. According to former SSB Chief Executive Officer Narda Garcia, Cayo Frances is part of the land purchased by SSB under her watch.

    Just how the island which is originally owned by SSB transferred from one owner to another is yet another mystery. SSB Chief Executive Officer Merlene Martinez told The Sun that to her knowledge SSB is not the owner of the land. When asked if the island was sold, Martinez stated to her knowledge that it was not. Garcia stated that legally the land in question (Cayo Frances) still remains the property of SSB. In fact, Garcia claimed that SSB received an offer by an interested buyer for US $1.5 million. According to Garcia, the offer was turned down because SSB felt that the land was “valued much more.” Garcia claimed that if SSB really wants to protect its investment, they can fight the matter in court and as first owners, the courts would rule in SSB’s favor.

    There is a president set in the Belize’s court system which recently ended in 2008. In brief, Belizeans may recall the case involving William Quito and Santiago Castillo Limited in Belize City over a land dispute. At the time Quito provided documents to the court showing ownership to a parcel of land in Belize City; land that Santiago Castillo also had a title to. After years of legal battle that ended at the Privy Council in London, the court ruled in Quito’s favor pointing that Quito was the first and original owner of the parcel of land. Case in point is that the first and only owner of Cayo Frances is SSB; the title in the hands of Minister Montero, it is believed, would then deemed illegal since SSB never sold or transferred title of the property.

    But the issue of Minister Montero and Cayo Frances is just one of two issues that have come under scrutiny. Another document shows that on August 12th, 2008 Montero was granted a prime parcel of land on an island in the Belize District. Minister’s Fiat Grant Number 559 of 2008, shows Minister Montero as the owner of 3 acres of land situated on the West coast of Bannister Bogue Caye. Bannister Bogue Caye is situated in the Spanish Lookout Caye Area in the Belize District. The parcel of island was given to Minister Montero by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources Gaspar Vega for “return of land acquired.”

    In an attempt to speak to Minister Montero on Wednesday morning, Montero told The Sun that “the whole story is in the Amandala and the Belize Times.” Montero declined to give his side of the story and promptly hung up the phone. The Minister is out of office for a month on vacation leave.

San Pedro Sun