All 5 coast guard personnel detained in connection with the 3 men missing at sea have been released. As we told you, the family believes that the Coast Guard has something to do with the disappearance of the men, so, the police had detained 5 of them for questioning. As we've been reporting, the men have a violent past history with the Coast Guard.
But what does the Coast Guard's Command have to say about this very serious allegation? We asked commander Elton Bennett today and he told us that the CG has always exercised professionalism and would not have any reason to retaliate regardless of previous hostile encounters with these men.
Commander Elton Bennett, Vice Commandant, Coast Guard
"As it relates to the detention of the Coast Guard men, the investigation has been done by the police as it relates to the 3 missing men out at sea. The information reached the police and the police had ask us for certain information which we provided to them. We have them all the necessary information for them to conduct their investigation. We have nothing to cover. We will cooperate completely with the police. As a result of that the police pinpoint some personals from the Coast Guard which they had in detention last week and did their questioning. I believe that all 5 men were released a few day ago."
"That's the update that we gave in our newscast a couple days ago. Sir the main story with this case is that the 3 Belize City fishermen have had bitter encounters with the coast guard involving a shooting incident as well. It is being circulated that this is somehow a retaliation by the Belize Coast Guard against these men because of this history. Could you comment on that?"
Commander Elton Bennett
"That's not how the Coast Guard operates. We don't retaliate. We are professional organization. It is true we've had two recent incidents with one of the same individuals. The Coast Guard was very professional in handling those two incidents, one of which we charged one of the individuals for firing at the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard did not return fire. They went and detained the persons professionally, brought then in and charged them accordingly. The most recent case, the Coast Guard again, went to one of the fishing camp of those individuals and found a firearm. Again, we handled the situation professionally, and handed them over to police for prosecution. So, yes we've had run-ins with those individuals, but I don't see the Coast Guard or any individual in the Coast Guard taking it to the extent of having anything personal against those men. We have always handled those 3 in particular professionally and we have shown that we have done so. But if there is any indication or any information at all that personals in the Coast Guard may be involved, then we handed it over to the police to investigate and that is exactly what happened over the past few days. We called in the police and say look this is what we have. As far as we are concerned, there is no indication of any life taken. There is no signs of the men, there is no sign of the vessel, there is no probably cause to indicate that these men were killed or murdered at all. So we fix our side of things to do a search and rescue case and that is what we did, but if turns out to be any criminal activity, then we do that investigation in support of the police."
In terms of the case, the search has been called off until there is reason to resume. There is a standing patrol at Turneffe Caye so the personnel stationed there will be on the lookout.
But, the Coast Guard's public image has been taking a beating. Also as we told you on Wednesday, 3 other Coast Guard personnel were arrested and charged with extortion. On September 3, Ricardo Rivero, a resident of Consejo Village in Corozal was transporting 10 cases of contraband beer from Mexico into Belize through the Bay of Chetumal. He was stopped by a team of Coast Guard officers, and according to Rivero, they demanded money from him, and agreed to look the other way as he transported his contraband. He paid the men and then went on his way. But Police caught the 3 Coast Guard officers. The men are 25 year-old Leslie Staine from Belize City, 32 Dubian Montero from Bullet Tree Village in Cayo, and 19 year-old Rayliee Usher from Hattieville. We asked commander Bennett about this case and he expressed the force's disappointment and told us that it's a question of discipline as an officer.
Commander Elton Bennett
"That investigation again is being conducted by the police. I was made to understand it was a sting operation that the police launched in the Consejo area. That's an area where the coast guard is operationally based, along with the customs department and we conduct joint patrols and operations in that area. So, it's an unfortunate incident where the 3 coast guard men got involved with extortion and the police did an operation and apprehend three men. They were brought in, charged and I believe they are now out on bail. If that is the case then it's really an unfortunate incident for us. It not what we had envisioned members of the coast guard to get involved with. We've always held a good reputation. Its nor the type of behavior that is expected of the coast guard and strict disciplinary measures will be maintained and as it relates to that particular case I know that there is a criminal case, but we also know that internally to ensure that we maintained that level of discipline."
The 3 officers are in the process of being interdicted. Now, looking at the incidents over the past few months involving the Coast Guard - including Keyren Tzib, then the allegation that the unit may be involved in the disappearance of the 3 men at sea and then the extortion case - all this casts an unsettling image. We also asked Commander Bennett about this and he conceded that while this incidents were all isolated, it does reflect a major breach in discipline and ethics.
Commander Elton Bennett
"We've had a recent few incidents internally that we are dealing with and it very unfortunate to say it's the vetting process - not necessarily. The coast has grown over time and we've had increased personals and with that brings different characters into the organization. But we are responsible for the organization. We are trying to keep that image and trying to ensure that we maintained that professional posture. We cannot pinpoint and say what exactly is the cause of the most recent incidents. They are all isolated incidents, but severe breaches of discipline in most cases."