Mass Prison Break, 28 Escaped, Tonight, One Is Dead
The biggest mass prison break in Belize's history happened last night - 28 men escaped from the prison - and, tonight, 24 hours later, two prisoners are dead, two are injured, and three have been recaptured - while more than 20 escapees roam the countryside of the Belize District - playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with police.
It is a serious domestic security situation - and police are swarming the rugged terrain of the Belize District at this hour, determined to find the escapees. They are believed to be in the area of the Sibun between miles 17 and 31- hemmed in between the river and the George Price highway.
The fatal flashpoint came this afternoon when a joint BDF - BSAG unit and police team came into contact with a sub-grouping of escapees off the Coastal Highway in an orange orchard.
The escapees had stolen an M4 Carbine assault rifle with two full magazines from one of the prison guards, and he opened fire on the security forces with that, hitting one soldier in the foot, and grazing a police officer.
Here was the distress call that came from the law enforcement personnel on the ground in that moment:
Voice of Police Officer
"Officers hit, Coastal Road. We have 2 BSAG men who got shot. We need urgent assistance. We are under fire, Coastal Road, orange orchard. Over."
But, without backup, they managed to kill the alleged gunman, Akeem Smith. He was fatally shot - and police recovered the M4 carbine - which had a single round left. The Commissioner of Police has confirmed his identity. The BDF solider was taken to the KHMH and his injury is non life threatening.
Police have caught three other escapees - we'll have their identities later - and, as you just heard, one has been killed.
And, that's where it is tonight - as more than 20 escapees are in the tough terrain of the Belize District, police on their tails. They have made contact with the community - travelling in a pack of 20 - and have committed what are reported to be petty acts of theft. They are not believed to have any food and water, so there is increasing desperation. The public in that area is warned that it is a live threat and the men are still to be considered armed and dangerous.
The Jailbreak 28
So, while that's what happened today, how did they escape last night. It's a historic event - 28 men all busting out at once - but it also appears to be a monumental failure in protocols and procedures.
Cherisse Halsall has the short version of this story:
It's the largest Prison break on record - this prison guard spoke to police - after he had been stripped, tied up - and had his gun taken away.
Interview of Prison Guard
"I went and I put in first I put in Ponce then I put in the 17, then I gone up to put in Dominguez. So when I finished put in Dominguez that done for me now when I came to go into the tower. Guerra put his knife in my throat. So I can't do anything. They took the tower keys and they start to open the cells with the knife at my throat. I didn't move, because I was afraid he killed me. So right away everybody started to come out and then they handcuffed me and then I saw this man bawling, they had a cloth in his mouth and he was wrapped up. He couldn't speak. They handcuffed me too and they dash me on the floor with him. They said that if we didn't complied with them we would die."
He chose life, and a total of 28 men, some of them armed, fled the prison under the cover of night.
But police had been alerted and were quickly on the scene searching the nearby grasslands for the frightened and desperate convicts.
Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police
"We immediately mobilized our specialized units and deployed them to the Kolbe Foundation. We also sought the assistance of the BDF special assignment team and they too came in to assist the police and the prison authority in the search of the escapees."
"It was rather difficult for us to do much last night due to the fact that it was that and so what we did was to insert some of our officers along with prison officers in strategic locations where we believe these escapees might use as a result to escape the prison area."
But the tower guard was detained at around 1 and the inmates didn't flee the prison until night had fallen meaning that both restrained officers were held hostage during a 3- 5 hour gap.
It's an anomaly in the timeline that prompts the question of whether the breakout was some kind of inside job. But those are questions that National Security C.E.O. George Lovell says he won't be prepared to answer until after an investigation.
George Lovell, C.E.O., Ministry of National Security
"Before we get ahead of ourselves and say things here which is more based on speculation, what we intend to do is to have an independent investigation into this matter. Where if it is that any of these prison guards are in fact culpable, they will be held accountable for their actions. But we don't want to get ahead of ourselves and start to point in a particular direction when we don't have all the evidence to lead us in that particular direction. So I would want to reserve the kind of response that we would give to that question until we get the facts."
But that day could be a long way away with the immediate concern being the recapture of those 28 escapees, many of them murderers.
And this afternoon an exasperated Commissioner made a plea to the public and the families of the men to either hand them over or convince them to surrender to avoid bloodshed.
Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police
"And so we are hoping that with the assistance of the public and I want to take this opportunity to appeal to the general public if it is that you have any information in relation to the whereabouts of any of these escapees to please call 911 or 922 numbers. It would be of great to us. The quicker we can get these individuals off our streets the better it is going to be. I also want to appeal to family members of these escapees that if it is that you know where they are it is not too late for them to surrender. I don't foresee them running from the long arms of the law for too long and if it is that we have to be continuously pursuing them upon being caught the fact that they are armed can cause things to go opposite direction and so if your loved one is among these escapees please it's not too late to ask them to surrender themselves to the authorities and make life easier for them and for us."