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#368564 - 02/24/10 09:25 AM The Contrabanding Experience
Marty Offline

Have you ever heard of a place called Botes? If you’re watching this newscast in the Orange Walk or Corozal districts tonight, we’re sure you have. Botes is in Mexico – right along the Belize border, and it’s one of the most popular places to buy contraband. Or at least it used to be. For the past 6 months or so, the Customs Department in the Orange Walk Direct has enforced a zero tolerance policy – those caught smuggling – even a box of Mexican matches will have it confiscated. It is a tough, no nonsense policy and we took to the Yo Creek/San Antonio road on Saturday to see what the contraband and the customs experience is about.

Jules Vasquez Reporting,
Santa Cruz Village, there’s not much to see here. In fact, a government school and a hurricane shelter are the only things that tell you you’ve arrived. It’s at the end of line – the south western edge of the Orange Walk District on the periphery of the Albion islands – sitting at the border with Mexico adjacent to the community on the other side, known as San Francisco Botes.

But for the folks we met there it is the beginning of a journey back home – saddled down with plastic bags and knapsacks full of groceries. The groceries they carry are from Mexico – contrabanded into Belize.

And while they go on foot – those moving greater volumes use bikes. This woman is strapping up this bike with a boxful of cabbage and two sacks of avocados. This bicycle has two boxes of cabbage and two sacks of avocado as well. And if that’s not enough – the smuggler then puts on a sack of carrots. And this bicycle is being saddled with a box of lettuce.

After filling that up – she’s puts three bags of groceries on her handle and cauliflower on the back and she’s off – followed by the lettuce carrier – and for good measure, he gives us a good cursing out.

These are professionals – wholesalers – they will sell their product to storeowners. And they move between Santa Cruz and Botes Mexico on these – a village version of water taxis – kayucos as they are called. They are flat bottomed and wide – built to move cargo and remain stable in shallow water. Fittingly the water will take us to Botes – Spanish for boats.

We go down a narrow channel – about 300 feet as the boatman navigates the area with a familiar touch. On the banks of the channel – the remnants of the contraband trade are visible; all the packaging discarded for onward smuggling. From the narrow channel we emerge into the mighty Rio Hondo. This is not an artificial border – the run of this river defines the border between Mexico and Belize

We have to start taping immediately. Our boatman advises us that the Mexican military maintains a strong and strict presence over there – and they won’t allow us to tape freely. He’s right and after some negotiation, they allow us to tape only this riverside area.

Still we sneak into the town – into this Mini Supermarket. It is a small Mexican grocery store selling the same basic items you would find in any comparable store in Chetumal, except it’s busy as the supply trucks keep on pulling up. And there is one other major exception, all the shoppers we found there were Belizeans paying in Belizean currency.

The ones we encountered were from the villages of Trinidad and August Pine Ridge – which are nearer to Botes than they are to Orange Walk. They paid about $2 for the bus ride to Santa Cruz and another $2 for the boat ride. They bought beans, minsa, flour and some soft drinks and chips - they didn’t want to talk on camera but told us why they shop in Botes.

Belizean Shopper #1,
“I am a poor woman and a single mother. I come here to buy my small groceries because in Belize it is very expensive – with 50 dollars I can’t buy my provisions and when the Customs finds us they take away everything.

What we will do if they tell us to not come and buy over here because it’s contraband...? And they’ll take it...but sometimes there’s a necessity because with fifty dollars only soap and small things you can buy with 50 dollars in Orange Walk.”

Belizean Shopper #2,
“We buy a lil thing just to come on a weekend. We don’t buy it to sell, just to have a party from home.”

Jules Vasquez,
“But if you meet Customs on the way…”

Belizean Shopper #2,
…He will tek it.”

Jules Vasquez,
“Even those small things?”

Belizean Shopper #2,
“Yes everything. If you bring a two chips they will throw it in your face.”

Jules Vasquez,
“How often you come here?”

Belizean Shopper #2,
“Me not every time just some times if my family has a birthday then I would come and buy some things to have a small party.”

And though I had no party – I decided to test the system – bought two soft drinks for which I paid two dollars Belize. For fear of being robbed, she didn’t want to show me inside the cash register but it contained only Belize dollars.

I had the same experience when I bought two Modelo beers and two Pepsis at another store. These sections were taped off my cell phone camera because the military had by then stopped us from taping inside the village. But again, her cash register contained only Belize dollars.

Nonetheless as the footage shows I paid and got change back in Belize dollars – my idea was to see if I could smuggle these beers through the checkpoints. And while we bought beer, many shoppers also bought these meats – and the shopkeepers just keep stocking up in this case with bags of chips. All in all though it is a very unremarkable shopping experience but an affordable and convenient one for these villagers of the western reaches of Orange Walk – who crowd into trucks to go into the interior.

And so the shoppers keep coming to this Mexican village by the riverside. The river becomes crowded like a roadway – and it seems at times almost like a poor man’s Venice – the squat Cayucos our cross border gondolas, all the while snacking on Mexican junk food.

Our project’s contraband cargo would be these beers – the forbidden fruit of the trade. We headed back over to the Belize side – there was word that Customs was about so these folks parked on the water’s edge awaiting the all clear. But not us we wanted to get caught with our contraband cargo.

Back into the taxi area where the other shoppers were rushing home with their treasures. When we got there – the call of Customs was resounding through the village – that’s how it is – an early warning system that is hardwired into the native reflex in this frontier community. But there was no Customs – the coast was clear – so to speak.

Our first encounter with the Customs was half mile out – where we met a Customs checkpoint lying in wait.

Customs Officer,
“Anything to declare sir? Go ahead.”

But there would be no safe trip for the next set of travellers. And they turned out to be the same folks we had met at the supermarket - the same ones who gave us the interview. Now it was Customs asking the questions. The Customs search confiscated everything they had just bought - every bag of chips and beans, every soft drink – leaving them with nothing but the bitter memory of this encounter. Their groceries were put here in the back of the customs truck – and what they told me earlier proved prophetic.

Belizean Shopper #1,
“It’s unjust what they are doing to we the poor – they should take away bigger loads such as big colas and beers.”

That would be the same complaint from the passengers on the Alamilla Bus which came up the hill a few minutes later. The Customs officer boarded and searched under every seat in every corner for these colourful bags from Botes. The items seems small – consumption amounts – but the Customs officers tell us that their experience shows that in many cases these small bags are the property of big wholesale smugglers who break down their purchases into small bags to make it seem like the property of individual shoppers.

That may be the case, but there’s no way to know really. All we know is that the bus leaves and the items are confiscated – leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of area residents.

Belizean Shopper #1,
“In my family we are 8 persons and at times we do a little shopping here and I came and they took away one sack of flour and 5 packs of minsa and I say that’s not fair because they take it to their sweethearts and they don’t realize the family we have to maintain.”

They’re bitter and angry at the zero tolerance policy of Customs and truth fully it saddens me to see them lose their stuff. These folks are by no means wealthy – just villagers looking for cheap groceries. But then there’s the other side, they’re straight up smuggling and they know it – and they also know the risks and they also know that it’s against the law.

And tomorrow – we’ll show you the other side of this story – we’ll follow their confiscated groceries all the way to the Customs warehouse.

And tomorrow, we’ll also tell you how far our team got with those two Modelo beers they were smuggling. And, a note on the Mexican military presence in Botes. They told us they were there to control the smuggling of sugar into Mexico from Belize.

Channel 7

#368567 - 02/24/10 09:37 AM Re: The Contrabanding Experience [Re: Marty]
elbert Offline
I'm quickly becoming a fan of Mr. Vasquez.
Great reporting!
The Dive Shops Daily Blog

#368661 - 02/25/10 09:26 AM Re: The Contrabanding Experience [Re: elbert]
Marty Offline

Last night we took you to Botes, Mexico – that border settlement adjoining the village of Santa Cruz, Belize. As everyone in northern Belize knows, Botes is a contraband hotspot. There’s no formal border crossing, and contraband-ists go to Santa Cruz for the short hop across the Rio Hondo to get to Botes. Now, the smugglers know there’s a risk involved, but considering the money they save on cheap groceries, it’s worth it to them. Or at least it was worth it until recently when the Customs launched a zero tolerance campaign which has meant that every single scrap of Mexican contraband is confiscated – form a box of matches right up to a box of lettuce. But is it just mindless enforcement for the sake of it – or is there a method, a redeeming social purpose? That’s what we tried to find out when we finished our trek into contraband territory at the Customs office in Orange Walk.

Jules Vasquez Reporting,
We’ve followed their groceries from the point of purchase, to the point of seizure and now, to the point of storage here at the Customs Warehouse in Orange Walk. It’s the place where contraband goes for onward distribution or destruction – and it’s loaded – with soft drinks, beer and cigarettes which will be destroyed, even dynamite or “cuetes” as they are called as well as flour and rice which have to be stored separately so that rats don’t get it.

Jason Menzies is the Customs Officer in charge of the Orange Walk. He is the target of many hostilities and considering the culture of contraband in Orange Walk and what he’s trying to do to it, you can probably understand why.

Jason Menzies, Customs Department
“What we are targeting is the mindset that you can got there to shop. You are not allowed to go there to shop, it is an illegal crossing.”

And that is what’s stated here at the Customs Office on this sign which boldly states that “The landings at Santa Cruz village and others along the Hondo are not legal points of importation...” It’s just a sign to us but Menzies says it is their mission statement.

Jason Menzies,
“We’re here to protect the business community here and we can’t have people going to Santa Cruz and treating it like it is a grocery store. You have legitimate business people importing their goods, paying their taxes, trade licenses and whatever else is attached to legitimate business and then they have to compete with people going to Santa Cruz, buying their goods, bringing it across, it is unfair and it is an illegal crossing. So we have a zero tolerance on shopping in Santa Cruz, you are not allowed to shop in Santa Cruz.”

And on the road, “zero” means taking away all the items from those villagers who we met bargain shopping in Botes. He says it is a fight not against these folks but against a culture and a mentality that is prevalent in the north.

Jason Menzies,
“Its not that we’re taking away $50 dollars worth of goods from people. It’s that if we allow people to by fifty dollars worth of goods today that number of people with that mentality increases and it might be one family buying $50 of goods but when you take two three busloads of people buying $50 worth of goods then it has an impact and we are here to prevent that as much as we can.”

Jules Vasquez,
“The things that I saw people with people are not prohibited items, cereals, milk, some chips, a lot of chips I saw. They could legitimately bring those in through the border so why take it away from them here? It is not like they are bringing in beer per se.”

Jason Menzies,
“The only deterrent that people are going to understand is that you cannot cross there, you run the risk of losing your goods. If you want to cross, you cross at the Santa Elena Border or you cross at the Blue Creek Station where you will play duty and you are allowed to cross.”

Jules Vasquez,
“A lot of those people feel that straight that all the goods being confiscated ends up in your house, you are not buying groceries or it is for some girlfriend, that is how they view it.”

Jason Menzies,
“Well we have records to show.”

They do indeed have copious records - this filing system which Menzies has been keeping since August of 2009 tracks what happens to each quantity of goods confiscated. This thick file is for January when they re-distributed close to twenty thousand dollars worth of goods. It’s not exactly Robin Hood – but it is sort of.

Jason Menzies,
“It presents a personal loss to the individuals, economically. It also represents a loss to the business community in Orange Walk. So what we decided to do is that we donate it where the business community is not able to make donations because business is bad. We fill in that gap and we have all the school feeding programs benefit from the goods that we take in on a daily basis.”

The record shows that the goods go out to schools foster homes and social intervention programmes where they are signed for. It’s accountability, and to hear Menzies tell it on the enforcement side, it’s also paying off.

Jason Menzies,
“The traffic has fallen off quite a bit, the personal vehicle traffic has fallen over substantially because people don’t want to be brought in and be charged the $2,000 fine. So that has fallen off. What we contend with now is the bicycle traffic at night and it is more a business than personal shopping.”

And from what we saw these bicycle people were in business – and Menzies showed us pictures of very loaded bicycles they’ve intercepted at night or in the morning before first light – some carrying as much as 150 pounds. Those bicycles are piled up here in the customs warehouse – as are vehicles that have been confiscated from repeat offenders. Everything is put into evidence and Menzies says they have a 90% conviction rate mostly because the accused usually pleads guilty. It’s a lot of enforcement work but Menzies says he feels it’s coming back to the community.

Jules Vasquez,
“Out on that San Antonio Road, the village is extremely poor, people see the Customs Department as abusive, people see the Customs Department as greedy, people see the Customs Department as chancey.”

Jason Menzies,
“I don’t see it that way because what happens and the bright side of it for us is that in servicing the schools’ feeding programs with these same goods that we get, a lot of these children, these same individuals, their children go to these schools and if no one is aware the teachers are aware and the students are aware and so where the schools have free feeding programs, they know what we are doing and for us it balances out. So we have one set of people saying we are greedy and chancey but we have one set of people saying they fed us today.”

So maybe in the schools they are winning but on the road we guess it will be sometime before the Customs Department has any friends. And speaking of the road – we stayed on it with our contraband, getting the two bottles first to Orange Walk and then through two more police checkpoints on the road. We were never intercepted and while we got through with our contraband cargo – we suspect a lot of it had to do with the fact that we’re media, and most enforcement people know us and just gave us a bly. But for the anonymous, undocumented smuggler – every day and night he or she takes risks to get contraband across what for them are enemy lines.

And if you’re wondering, yes, those cigarettes were being smuggled inside a gas tank –which had been cut out and specially adapted by smugglers.

Channel 7


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