Crawford was detained only hours after he gave us a short tour of the Modiri property, which sits between Bradley Paumen and his tour site at the Dark Night Caves. These sought-after cave systems are the subject of dispute between both men, who can't decide on whose land the system sits.
Today, we got a chance to visit it for ourselves for the first time, and Daniel Ortiz has put together the most comprehensive look at the dispute so far. Here's his story:
Daniel Ortiz reporting
This "keep out" sign marks where the public road ends, and where Michael Modiri's land starts. Currently, it's also the only access which makes the trip to the Dark Night Cave System possible from Belize City's Harbour all the way to this Cayo South tourist getaway.
So, locked behind the Modiri blockade lies a picturesque nature trail, complete with exploration of the different parts of the Cave system. There's ziplining, and cave tubing, and the great outdoors here in the Belizean jungles. All of these make for a perfect package for those adventure tourists who come from all across the world, and undoubtedly, the earnings potential from the tourist traffic is visible.
Daniel Ortiz, 7News
"One would look at this and say why are these two white man fighting over bush."
Jerome Crawford - Director, Crew Security & Executive Escorts
"Well, this is a very beautiful place. It have some beautiful trail. It have a lot of caves that you could go into and explore and some of the caves even have pottery work still in them and you could do bird watching, maybe you could get some wildlife pictures while you are here. You could go rafting on the creeks. I mean people from all over the world pays lots of money just to come to Belize and do this stuff. I think that's where the problem is. Maybe one party got greedy and didn't want this stuff to work out. But in value, you can't put monetary value on a piece of property like this. It's a real beautiful place and me and my guys went through it for a few days and even us that lives here, find it to be very beautiful and we appreciate beauty and nature when we are back here."
The problem is that the two international landowners cannot seem to get along in a neighborly fashion.
Modiri says that Bradley Paumen has refused to stop trespassing on his land to bring his guests to this getaway. He hired Jerome Crawford as his chief security to stop anyone from coming here. He says that he is happy that everything has been quiet so far, and except for a dispute a couple weeks ago, there has been no head-on confrontation from Paumen's employees trying to force their way unto Modiri's property:
"So far it's been good. We had no problem. Only the first day they blocked us at the bridge coming in and didn't want us to pass on a public road. But since that day everything got cleared up so far."
So, while the final destination is contentious and rife with controversy, the journey here is also cause for quarrel. Normally, tourists - or anyone for that matter - travel along the George Price Highway, and then down this recently paved Franks Eddy Road. Instead of going to Nohoch Che'en, they take this dirt road which takes less than 5 minutes to travel. Here, they arrive to this bridge, which sort of acts like the first checkpoint. Arriving here, you've now entered Bradley Paumen's Dark Night Tour Company compound. Normally, on a ship day like today, the tourists would congregate here first.
Modiri claims that Paumen has been stopping him from getting to his property by putting up a blockade here. Notice that the sign says that it has been acquired for public use, one of those acquisitions for a public purpose that the Government has become recently well known for.
File: November 3, 2016
Michael Modiri - In Land Dispute With Paumen
"3-4 years ago everything was getting ready to hit the ground and start. He blocked the gate, they came in, they couldn't get access and we couldn't get back to my land and since then he has blocked me. Access became available only through court orders."
So, the next leg of the journey continues down this road which all public can access, about 7 minutes more of driving. Residents say that it has been here for years, long before either Modiri or Paumen came into the picture.
Ricardo Peraza - Tour Guide, Franks Eddy
"That road was open for logging from the 80's and I could recall I use to work at Jaguar Paw when Jaguar Paw opened in 1994. We use to run tours in all those places and nobody stop us. We consult with forestry department and we consulted with NICH and they give us the okay to go. Once you are certified, nobody could stop you. From long time that road had been there. Afterwards when Tropical Dream comes, then they sold the land and Mr. Paumen bought it and things started to happen. We didn't have any problems. This was brought to me some months ago since I am the president of the lands committee."
But, the next checkpoint in the journey is where all the problems happen. The public road ends right at this "keep out" sign where Modiri's land begins. Keep clearly in mind that it was an extension of that road which Paumen built after the Barrow Administration acquired Modiri's land under the guise of "public purpose". The Supreme Court reversed that acquisition and gave it back to Modiri because the judge concluded that the Ministry of Natural Resources improperly acquired it. So, he has all rights to do as he pleases, such as to keep people out. And, in this case Paumen's employees, residents from Franks Eddy Village, and local tour guides who depend on these Dark Night tours are feeling the pain of this standoff.
File: November 4, 2016
Bradley Paumen - In Land Dispute With Modiri
"I don't like the public eye. That's why you don't get to see me very often, but I do have the best people in the country working for my company and the last year, if Dark Night bleeds, I bleed and they bleed, you know and they bled a lot. To me that are what makes Belize very special? We got waterfalls, we got caves, we got the second largest barrier reef in the world, but it's the people, the good people here it's what great about Belize and I got some of the best. We want some compassion here. We are asking the government for some compassion for these good people. They kids need, their families need the money. If you got a good job here and got a good job for a while, maybe you don't realize it, but it's hard to get a good job. It's hard to find a job that you love, you know. And you get that job and somebody takes that job away from you, your livelihood away from you and you see your family suffers - your kids can't get an education, you can't take care of your parents, whatever. Those people are suffering for no reason. This is an easy fix. This road been here for 20 years. Now I know there's been some legal matters and it looks pretty bad. But the reality is if some of this information would have been available earlier, things would have been different. How the minister of works declared it a public road. It fits all the credentials. Let's get it done."
But Modiri says, he's a reasonable individual who would allow Paumen to resume his tour guide activities if he would only pay some sort of rental fees for use, inclusive of the court 300 thousand dollar court award.
File: November 3, 2016
Daniel Ortiz, 7News
"Persons who know nothing of the history between you and Mr. Bradley Paumen would look at that and take the interpretation that you're doing this out of spite, out of just badmindness."
Michael Modiri, In Dispute With Bradley Paumen
"Well it's intended to stop unlawful access. Respect the law, honour the agreement that he made with me, his attorney and my attorney met and we came up with an agreement that he's not honouring. If I was malicious I would say okay I'll block the gate, it will take me six months to build my own operation and in that six months you're dead, I won't let you in; but that's not the position I've taken. I said you're welcome to use it, keep your employees, keep the tours going but pay your rent."
But, while that dispute simmers, hardworking tour guides and residents will keep on losing out on money making days like today for an indefinite period. That could lead to desperation, and eventually, confrontation to see the tour business return:
"The sad part is the tour guides and the rest of people that work in the company that they are the ones losing out on these days, because 3 days' work - 1 week, that could mean a lot of money for them and I could understand needing work and putting food on the table for a family. So my heart goes out to them and I hope that they understand the nature of what is happening and I would advise them to try to both sides of the story and not listen to one side and try to go and take things into their own hands. I understand the desperation of needing to put food on your kids table, but just stay out of our way. We are cool so far. Whatever they have between themselves is out of our hands. So I would hope that the workers just leave it be and hopefully it could be settled in a matter of days."
Today was a ship day, and the Dark Night Compound would have normally received cruise guests. But, as you are aware, the security team is currently preventing anyone from entering Modiri's land. It is uncertain how Jerome Crawford's absence from his security post will affect the Modiri blockade.
Yohny Says No To NICHThe 2017 cruise ship season started today with the arrival of two ships. That meant the Fort Street Tourism Village was abuzz with activity - but cave tubing specialist Yohny Rosado wasn't celebrating. And that's because he says NICH suspended two of his guides for no good reason. Rosado told us more today in front of the Tourism Village:...
Yohny Rosado, cavetubing.com
"Allegations are one of my guys went to cave tubing when the cave was closed. One guy Jimmy Cortez could fight 10 employees of NICH. They have park rangers there. How my Jimmy would beat up 8 park rangers. They have 8 of them living in 2 houses."
"You are saying if they were serious, these people should have prevented him from doing the tour."
Yohny Rosado, cavetubing.com
"They were supposed to be there. There were no park ranges. They were no sign. Jimmy saw the caves and Jimmy went cave tubing. When they came out back, they say he went when the cave were closed. They were sleeping, they were partying. I don't know what they were doing, but there were no park rangers when Jimmy got there and Jules, be real, where do you go and you get suspended from a job without a hearing? What kind of country we live in. Jimmy will never go to the caves if there are park rangers and caves are closed. He went there, the river was fine, the tourist were okay. When they came out of the caves, they say' oh you will get suspended.' What kind of law NICH have to suspend and fire and let someone stop making money in a critical year like this where we can't make money."
"How long are they suspended for?"
Yohny Rosado, cavetubing.com
"Indefinite. Not 1-2 weeks, the paper say indefinite. This thing ya di get so silly I have proof where the park rangers are stealing from us, the guides, and the tour operators and from NICH. I have proof. On each given day you take an amount of people and they tell you Mr Rosado you gwen have $300 fi wee. Bwai how come bwai? We let some people gone een. Bwai we noh do that so, we have to pay NICH; we have to pay Belmopan. They give we wah paypa how much people the bus bring, how much they write."
"It's because I don't pay them then they have a grudge against me. "I will show him a lesson."
"All you have here is a paypa. I'm saying, do you have independent evidence fi suggest that they are deliberately miscounting the amount of heads you have?"
Yohny Rosado, cavetubing.com
"It's very easy to prove. NICH have a record. I'll tell you this, when you do business, if I send someone to Habet and Habet to purchase 20 pieces of pipe, they give you an invoice and the invoice tell that you each pipe cost so much and the boss always get a copy of what you paying for. At NICH they don't give you a copy, they just keep one copy and that's for them. They're supposed to give me one and tell me what they're charging every day."
Marisol Amaya, reporter
"Well, take a picture."
Yohny Rosado, cavetubing.com
"No we're doing business, Marisol . We're doing business. In business you don't take pictures. That's why I told them write it down for me. You won't tell me words no more, give me what you are charging me for I need to write down on piece of paper."
NICH flatly rejects his claims of corruption or a conspiracy to ensnare his guides. They say that Rosado's operator was suspended because he took a group to the park when in was closed due to flooding. NICH says that when the caves are CLOSED notices are sent out to all operators via email, and it is also posted on Facebook and Twitter. NICH says it must ensure the safety of visitors as well as park rangers.
Operators Say BTB is Pushing Them Out
But NICH isn't the only institution Rosado was complaining about. He also complained about the BTB - which he says is pushing all the small operators away from the door of Terminal One at the Fort street Tourism Village - and into the Memorial Park. This is a proposal that has been floated and rejected many times, but this time the BTB seems determined to push through. Rosado claims that it's all because of Carnival Cruise Line which is complaining about the jostling for tours that confronts visitors as they step out of the terminal. Here's how he put it:...
The BTB rejects that assessment; they say there's a much larger plan to overhaul the entire Fort George Tourism zone - for which full consultations will be held starting this week.
No Tears for Paumen and Modiri from FECTAB Execs
Last week, businessmen Bradley Paumen and Michael Modiri renewed open hostilities in their ongoing war over access to the cave tubing system in the area known as “Dark Night.” The men traded accusations via the press and on Friday, Paumen’s employees marched on the National Assembly in Belmopan, seeking Government’s intervention. The Federation of Cruise Tourism Associations of Belize (FECTAB) has remained on the sidelines, mostly neutral, after levelling harsh criticism at the Government for following up Paumen’s company. Today, two-thirds of the “Three Musketeers” of FECTAB, David Almendarez and Yhony Rosado, told us that their sympathies lay with their fellow workers, not their bosses.
David Almendarez, Tour Operator
“It’s ironic that about a couple years ago, the Minister of Lands acquired that land in the public interest for the sole benefit of Dark Night. And the orchestrated move was so nicely planned that we even had Mister Morrison from N.I.C.H. involved in that process. They acquired that land, they gave him his own cave, and he did that knowing full well that he didn’t have full access to that land. He used the Government’s corrupt powers that be to illegally acquire the land, and the courts decided that that was illegally done. So while I empathize with the workers of Dark Night, I think it’s just fair. But it goes to show a bigger light: that these foreign investors come to Belize, they get their own way, they get to do what they want, and the cruise ships that pride themselves on doing the best tours, use these guys who are accused of murders, who are accused of doing things illegally, and give them awards, and the B.T.B. big them up and all of that good stuff. It just goes to show the level of inequality that we have in our country. So while I feel very sorry for the workers of Dark Night, I think the law is fair. And if Mister Paumen figures that he needs to do that cave, then go buy the land from Mister Modiri, and stop trying to sucker the man out of his thing and trying to short-change the man.”
Yhony Rosado, Tour Operator
“We must say that we have been invited by Mister Paumen to do cave tubing at his caves when NICH caves closed, but we refuse it, because we have pride. We must say that Mister Modiri tried to give us access and opportunity to do business with him; we refuse it because we know the level of fight that he and Mister Paumen is carrying out. So we at FECTAB, we as local tour operators, we want to make money, but not with those guys. We want to make money with our government…”
“Clean money, and NICH. But NICH, they are giving preference to that cave now, so you can go and do Paumen caves rather than NICH.”