Amandala:
The headlines for the first half of 2011 were dominated, as they were the year before, by heart-wrenching stories of the all too frequent murders that have put the Old Capital under a state of virtual siege. At roughly 120 so far this year, the murder rate is almost eclipsing the 129 cases reported in 2011—although there is optimism in some quarters that 2011 will perhaps see a slight reprieve from the brutal killings of the year past.

Murder conviction rates continue to be dismal; however, the period, January to June, saw some notable murder convictions. In a high-profile murder case for a quadruple murder that occurred in 2002, for which Leslie Pipersburgh and Patrick Robateau were charged, life sentences were handed down for two of the four killings, those of KBH security guards, Kevin Alvarez and Fidel Mai, whereas for the killings of Cherry Tucker and David Flowers, which had occurred that same night and for which the duo had also been charged but not convicted, the two have gone unpunished.

The men were first sentenced to hanging when the matter was heard in 2004 in the Supreme Court, but there were subsequent proceedings, which ensued up to the Privy Council level, where a retrial was ordered. This year’s ruling came subsequent to that retrial.

In another case, Orlando Wade was convicted and sentenced to life for the gruesome murder of Dorla Pitterson, which occurred in Sandhill in 2008.

Then, on March 1, 2011, a jury of six women and three men declared their guilty verdict on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit robbery. The men arraigned were Honduran Miguel Mayorga, 45, a painter; Belizean Cesar Junior Aldana, 25, a construction worker of Belize City; and Guatemalans Eswin Rosalez, 19, Carlos Juarez, 20, and Jose Ismael Cordova, 19, all masons. Days later, it was reported that they had been sentenced to 14 years for the first charge and 10 years for the second.

In May, former Belize Defence Force soldier and security guard Glenford “Bucket” Bermudez, 40, was sentenced to life for the murder of his wife, Raquel Requeña-Bermudez, 41, on November 22, 2007.

In another set of convictions, two Dangriga men, charged separately, received extensive sentences for rape. Cedric Casimiro, 42, got 75 years for raping an 8-year-old girl, and Fidel Williams, 41, got 80 years for raping a young woman.

For the pitiless murder of Nigerian taxi driver, Francis Chukwu, over the December holidays, three persons were arraigned in January: Egbert Daly, 19, and Jermaine Zuniga, 31, both of Antelope Street Extension; and a 17-year-old minor of Iguana Street.

The first murder victim for the year, 2011, was Michael Malic. On the evening of Sunday, January 9, the youth was shot 13 times while standing in front of a store on Bagdad Street, where he had reportedly gone to purchase cigarettes.

Among the murder victims between January and June were Raymond “Killa” Gentle, Trevor “Sargy” Trapp, Devon Reynolds, Jerome Jason Wade, Samuel Price (brother of George Price, who passed later in the year), Trevor Neal, Kenyon Plunkett, and Errol Ferguson.

The April murders of Yan Yin Chen and Fei Lan Wu, both Chinese women who were living in Belize, sparked public protest by the Chinese community, which called upon Government to reinstitute the death penalty.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow had told our newspaper, however, that this was not for the government to act upon—it would depend on whether the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) is amenable to upholding death sentences. The Privy Council, which the CCJ has replaced, had been blamed for overturning death sentences granted in the lower courts. Belize has not seen an execution since Kent Bowers in 1985.

Instead of pushing for the resumption of the death penalty, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, in the wake of the Chinese protest, announced a suite of crime measures, including trial without jury, anonymous witnesses, and the more controversial preventative detention (PD) proposals which contemplated detentions for up to 21 days. Those PD proposals had first been proposed in 2008, but were later withdrawn when they faced fierce opposition; but the opposition was just as fierce—if not more so—when they were reintroduced in 2011. Barrow consequently announced that he would abandon those proposals, but the move to institute trial without jury did succeed and took effect via an amendment to the laws in August.

The Government also introduced legislation to ban heavy tint on vehicle windows, claiming that this would improve road safety while aiding law enforcement on the roads.

The nationalizations of Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) and the Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), and the proposed 9th Amendment Bill, which became the 8th Amendment to the Belize Constitution, dominated the media for the latter part of the 6-month period. Beginning in early June, Prime Minister Dean Barrow and former BEL CEO Lynn Young were engaged in a back and forth over BEL’s financial woes, which resulted in the government having to prepay its light bill to help the company stay afloat.

BEL had been in a dispute with the Public Utilities Commission since 2008, and amid the negotiations with Central Government over the possible buy-back of the company, the PUC threatened to cancel BEL’s license over a million dollars plus in arrears to the regulator.

On June 20, 2011, the Government executed the BEL takeover, installing Jeffrey Locke as the company’s new CEO after taking over the majority stake held by Fortis Inc of Canada. The former BEL executives were terminated by the former management and paid nearly $3 million before their departure.

After the Government took control of BEL, it began negotiations with Mexico, from which Belize purchases some of its power, for a more favorable credit arrangement with improved rates, in the hope that electricity rates could be reduced for Belizean consumers in 2012. An application for a rate decrease of about 4% is pending before the PUC.

Incidentally, days after Government nationalized BEL, the Court of Appeal overturned a Supreme Court ruling that favored the Government’s 2009 nationalization of BTL. The Government surrendered control of BTL back to the Ashcroft group, but only for a few hours before it reversed its stance and decided that a clear court order had not been given to return the company to the former owners. Government took back physical control of BTL and subsequently (in July) moved to renationalize BTL, later amending the Constitution in a fashion it had argued would make both the nationalization of BTL and BEL “unchallengeable.” As things now stand, both nationalizations are being challenged before the courts.

Two of Belize’s leading agricultural industries continued to face major troubles in 2011. Firstly, sugar in the north saw the shutdown of the milling facility for several weeks due to mechanical trouble with the steam turbines; whereas citrus continued to suffer from the war between rival camps of citrus growers in the south. Both industries have been afflicted with major financial challenges during the course of the year. BSI, whose troubles were relieved by a credit extension agreement from its overseas banker, is still looking for a strategic investor to pump money into the factory and help improve its debt profile, and farmers have been working to negotiate a buy-in on the production side of the industry.

The transport industry saw its share of troubles also, with a restructuring of the bus routes. On Friday, May 27, before the break of dawn, operators blocked portions of both the northern and western arteries into Belize City, in protest of concessions granted to West Line which slashed the runs of BBOC – the Belize Bus Owners Cooperative. Government reconfigured some of the runs and the protests were quelled.

The year 2011 also saw protests over the petroleum industry, as well as protests over the handling of the Chetumal Street squatters by the Belize security forces. Early in June, police and Ministry of Works personnel demolished the homes of squatters in Chetumal Street Extension, off the Western Highway, and removed the remaining families, some of whom were identified as Hispanic migrants with Belizean residency.

The squatters were mobilized by activists to take their plight to the Belcan Bridge, which they blocked in protest of their ouster from the area.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow said that the squatters had been previously asked not to build on the land, because Government had intentions to use it. Media reports have indicated that the site is to be used for a bus terminal and a sporting complex.

We would be remiss to end this installment of our Year in Review without mentioning the big butane scam exposed by Channel 7 News in January 2011. 7 News Director Jules Vasquez and businessman Lascelle Arnold demonstrated how Belizeans were being given much less butane than they were being charged for, being short in one test by as much as 30 cents on the dollar. There were allegations of deliberately rigged meters, and the Government later stepped in with regulations. Vasquez and Arnold later said that their lives had been threatened because of the public revelation. Several months later, it was reported that the butane standards were still not being complied with, and there are concerns today that consumers are still being shortchanged.

On a matter of national security, the raping of the Chiquibul Forest by Guatemalans illegally crossing the border to harvest xate palm, cut logs, burn and farm inside Belize, poach macaws, and even loot archaeological artifacts and Belizean gold continued to be kept in the spotlight all through 2011. We will discuss this topic more in the second installment of our Year In Review, along with Government’s commitments to increase security presence on the ground in the most trampled parts of Belize’s western jungles.

Government’s legal defeat in the case of the 2009 nationalization of Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL), and its defiant stance, refusing to let go of the company in the face of the court’s ruling of unconstitutionality, led to the dramatic renationalization of the company in the second half of 2011. Just a few weeks ago, BTL declared $15 million in dividends to shareholders—the bulk of which went to the Government of Belize, which will apparently await the court’s ruling on how much it needs to pay former shareholders for the company.

The July 4, 2011, renationalization of BTL led to the grand debate over the proposed 9th Amendment to the Belize Constitution, which actually became the 8th Amendment. Government’s stated reason for making the changes to the Constitution was “putting beyond dispute the ownership” of BTL. At the same time, however, the dialogue broadened to probe the wider effect of the 9th Amendment – including what legal minds argued was a broader move to make Parliament supreme, even above the Constitution. The churches, the private sector and civil society, as well as the wider Belizean public, had their say through the media and at public consultations over the matter. Government eventually agreed on a compromise to amend the language of the bill to allay concerns, and later passed what is now the 8th Amendment.

What was originally the 8th Amendment to the Belize Constitution was quashed, principally because of public outcry over the Government’s preventative detention proposals, which could have created room for detentions without charge for up to 21 days. However, the Government proceeded on August 1 to abolish trial by jury for murder and murder-related cases, as well as cases where either party can successfully argue for a non-jury trial. The Government also introduced provisions for anonymous witnesses in special instances.

These measures, according to the Government, were intended as a part of a suite of measures announced following a defiant protest by the Chinese community over the senseless killing of two Chinese women in Belize City. Hundreds strong, they demanded the reinstitution of the death penalty —a matter which Prime Minister Dean Barrow has said is really in the hands of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), which would now have the final say on whether a sentence of death can survive its journey up the rungs of Belize’s judicial system. Previously, the Privy Council was blamed for quashing death sentences.

Belize’s economy continued to face challenges in 2011, and the country’s largest bank, the Belize Bank, recorded its largest annual loss on record—$33 million—at the end of the 2010-2011 financial year, due to a large pool of non-performing loans.

While the Belize Bank was able to keep its doors open, despite the reported loss, fire forced the closure of business for Raul Magaña. In June, Raul’s Rose Garden, a half-a-million-dollar brothel established for 30 years, went up in flames. No one was hurt.

Meanwhile, the year saw a number of disturbing deaths by violence, including a slew of gruesome murders not related to gang activities. On July 2, a Jalacte man saw a dog dragging a dead newborn girl, who had a left arm and a left leg missing. The mother was accused of concealment of birth.

Murder convictions scored in the second half of 2011 include the prominent cases against two women: Viola Pook and Kimberly McLaughlin (also known as Brannon), who both received life sentences.

In July, housewife Viola Pook, 54, was declared guilty of the 2008 murder of her common-law husband of 23 years, Orlando Vasquez, 48 (also known as Orlando Mai), which reportedly happened at their home in Rancho Dolores Village, Belize District.

McLaughlin was convicted of the murder of Anthony “Antics” Herrera, 42, a race jockey and caretaker of the Castleton Race Track in Burrell Boom, Belize District, who was chopped in the side of his neck in December 2008. The woman alleged that Herrera harassed and abused her sexually. In court, she alleged that police had coerced her into incriminating herself.

The year 2011 saw a number of sexual molestation cases, but one which had a quite interesting outcome was that of an accused sexual predator, 62, of Plues Street, Belize City, who allegedly tried to rape a 14-year-old boy in San Jose Succotz. Village residents beat Reginald Roy Cumberbatch badly before they handed him over to police for formal charges and arraignment for aggravated assault.

2011 also saw the emergence of a constitutional challenge to Belize’s statutes which outlaw sodomy. The church community joined the Government of Belize in the case filed by Caleb Orozco and the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM) against the Attorney General of Belize. Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama issued a memo last month, directed also at overseas agencies, declaring that the US will act as defender against human rights abuses perpetrated against those in the community of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals – called LGBT. Prime Minister Dean Barrow told us that Belize will, nonetheless, defend its laws in court.

Belizeans, plagued by diabetes as the leading cause of death, endured a sugar shortage for several months in 2011. In a nation which has exported roughly $100 million worth of sugar this year, sugar could scarcely be found on supermarket shelves, and consumers were often told that they could get sugar only when they bought other items from the same store—an illegal practice which persisted despite declarations from the Government that consumers must be sold the sugar whenever they request it, as long as the store has it in stock.

In the wider scheme of things, the Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) continues to grapple with financial challenges, as it continues to explore options for a strategic investor to revitalize the sugar industry. Saddled with over BZ$120 million in foreign debt, BSI has been grappling with major financial difficulties at least since 2010, and official reports had indicated that unless it was able to get a bailout by the end of September to settle its debts with ING, a foreign banker, it would face foreclosure. ING has since given BSI an extension to 2012.

The security forces reported a shameful case of missing military guns in October. On October 12, officials had reported that twenty-two M16 A1 rifles, two M4 Colt Commando rifles, eleven 9mm Beretta pistols and seven M4 Carbine rifles had been taken from their storage facility in Ladyville. On the heels of that report came the report of a burglary at the British Army Training Support Unit Belize (BATSUB), which reported the theft of four laptop computers.

Much happened in national politics this year, and both of the mass parties say that their crews of 31 standard bearers are ready for early elections, which may happen before the end of 2012, which would shorten this term of the ruling United Democratic Party by about a year. That gives the Belize Unity Alliance, made up principally by the Vision Inspired by the People (VIP) and the People’s National Party, much less time to get their machinery in motion—but they remain optimistic that voters, tired of both “the red” and “the blue,” will withdraw their support from those mass parties.

Municipal elections are slated for March 2012, and the Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage hopes that it can also get the Government to hold a referendum on offshore drilling on the date of the municipals.

The Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) is entering this electoral race with a new leader, in the person of Freetown area representative Francis Fonseca. Fonseca took over the reins of the PUP after the controversial resignation of former leader Johnny Briceño, who challenged the “big boys” in the PUP to bring back the millions which they had allegedly hidden overseas: He asked “...where are those millionaires, those people that made millions of dollars over the 10 years when we were in government? Where are those people that benefited?”, and called on them to bring back the money for the party’s coffers.

This year, Friends for Conservation and Development was persistent in putting the Chiquibul in the national spotlight, as it bravely continued its conservation efforts to protect Belize’s most prized forest from continuous raping by illegal Guatemalans, who have been encroaching and intruding on protected areas principally in the south and west of Belize.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Dean Barrow confirmed to our newspaper that the Government has agreed to a recommendation, first made by FCD, to increase its security presence on the ground by expanding the number of operational observation posts out west. FCD had reported the loss of an estimated $15 million worth of logs – cedar and mahogany, millions in xate leaves, as well as undetermined losses due to poaching of the scarlet macaw and illegal farming in that area. Over 40 illegal migrants continue to be settled there, including inside the Chiquibul National Park, which has strict protective status. There is no official word yet on the relocation of those migrants to Guatemala.

Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS) announced late November that Belize and Guatemala would pursue the process to take the case of Guatemala’s unfounded claim to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and that the parties are on track to hold simultaneous national referenda, on the question of whether the case should go to the ICJ or not, by the end of 2013.

In one of the saddest cases of violent deaths to be reported in the media this year, Castula Westby, 68, passed away following a vicious attack perpetrated against her in her bed where she slept - she was stabbed several times. The incident happened at around 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 27, when her attacker climbed through her window.

In early September, the Government, led by chairman of the National Security Council, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, brokered a truce with Belize’s major gangs. Barrow said that as a result, gang-related murders have virtually ceased. The Government has been spending a hefty sum to pay many of those engaged in the truce, for work along with government projects, such as the Belize City infrastructure works. We are still awaiting a response to our question to the Prime Minister to specify exactly how much is paid from government funds to sustain the gang truce.

Meanwhile, out-district murders continue to be a serious concern. Although the December holidays did not see the same spike in murders as last December, things have not been all peaceful. Lorne Lisbey is dead, in a case of apparent murder-suicide, after he reportedly attempted to take the life of his ex-common-law-wife, Judith Rhaburn, 31, and in the process killed Rhaburn’s mother, Anacleta Pech, 50, and her sister, Ana Julia Clarita Cortez, 30, in Carmelita, Orange Walk, last Thursday, December 22. His body was discovered not too far away from where the killings happened. He had a bullet wound in the back of his head.

There has admittedly been a visible reduction in gang-related violence. And if current trends hold true, the murder rate for 2011 will be lower than 2012. We pray! Amandala’s Aaron Humes, who tracks the murder stats for our newsroom, estimates the murder count at 122 to date, versus 129 reported by the Police Department for last year 2010.

At the close of the year, Belize still has no Integrity Commission. As we reported back in July, that body, which has jurisdiction to carry out its work under the Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act, has been inactive since its former chair, B.Q. Pitts, became Attorney General in June 2010. Politicians are supposed to make regular filings of their assets to the Integrity Commission. VIP has raised concerns that politicians have not been complying with the requirement.

Meanwhile, the second half of 2011 saw the appointment of a New Chief Justice, Kenneth Benjamin of Guyana; a new Chief Magistrate, Ann-Marie Smith of Jamaica; a new Auditor General, Dorothy Bradley; and a new Chief Elections Officer, Josephine Tamai.