Late News of Belize and the Caribbean Coast
News Round-Up and Summary as of 6 June 2000
Provided by Belize First Magazine and Lan Sluder

Web edition at

BELIZEAN WATER TAXI HIJACKED IN GUATEMALA, SIX DEAD Three men believed to be Guatemalans boarded the Belizean-owned water taxi, the Mariestela, as regular passengers around 2 p.m. on May 30, and then, en route from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, to Punta Gorda, Belize, pulled guns, demanded the boat, and without warning began shooting to kill. Before it was over, at least six people were dead from gun shot wounds or from drowning, or a combination. Some on the Requeña Charter boat, facing gunfire at close range, jumped into the waters of the Gulf of Honduras, and some were thrown overboard. Among the dead are three Belizeans, including the captain of the boat, Julio Requeña, and Alicia Traheta; and at least one Honduran and two Guatemalans. The other deceased have not been definitively identified. Three are known to have survived: Larry Smith, an American expat who holds Belizean citizenship was shot in the back during the attack but survived 17 hours in rough seas. Smith, who with his wife operates the Seafront Inn in PG, is recuperating in Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in Belize City. Also surviving were Ernesto Requeña, the driver of a boat, and 19-year-old Belizean college student, Evelyn Rojas, who was returning to Belize for spring break from a Guatemala university. The motive for the killings has not been established. Robbery of passengers is not believed to be the reason, as money and valuables were not taken, so speculation centers on drugs--though there is no evidence that the owners of the boat were involved in any drug activity--or on the theft of the boat or possibly on something to do with business competition on the water taxi route. According to eye-witness reports, the Guatemalans appeared to want the boat and seemed to be trying to kill the captain, as they fired at him in the boat and also later in the water. The Mariestela reportedly was found adrift in the Sarstoon River, but the whereabouts of the three Guatemalans, one of whom may have been wounded in the attacked, is unknown. Citizens in Punta Gorda, Belize’s sleepy southernmost outpost without a reputation for serious crime, were shocked by the hijacking. Belizean observers noted that Caribbean Guatemala has long had a reputation for lawlessness, and that incidents of Guatemalans coming into Belize waters for illegal purposes, including the killing of manatees, are not uncommon. The Requeña boat made daily roundtrips between Punta Gorda and Puerto Barrios. The boat was said to be equipped with a radio, but the Belizean crew, as is the custom in Belize, was not armed.

IMF GIVES BELIZE PLUSES AND MINUSES IN NEW REPORT Economic growth surged in Belize in 1999, accelerating to 6% from 1.5% in 1998, according to a summary report from the International Monetary Fund released in late May. Inflation is seen as no problem in Belize, as consumer prices actually declined in 1999, by about 1%. Strong economic growth with low inflation is expected to continue in 2000. Increase in international reserves and a slowdown in the expansion of the external debt also were seen as positives by the IMF. However, on the negative side, the IMF expressed concern about the “sustainability” of the government’s fiscal approach and advised a more conservative approach in controlling public sector wages and public debt. It said that Belize still has a restrictive trade policy with high tariffs and recommended trade liberalization. The IMF also expressed concern that the government’s effort to provide financing for 10,000 new homes, a key program of the People’s United Party which came back to office in late 1998, carries risk to the government’s fiscal policy. “It is essential,” the IMF report stated, that the exchange rate peg remain at the current 2 Belize to 1 U.S. dollar level. The consultative report noted that has PUP has “designed its economic policies with the intention of achieving high rates of economic growth and reducing poverty. It has opted for a policy mix of initially boosting public spending on infrastructure and housing, reducing taxes, and promoting tourism and foreign direct investment. To restrain the growth in public external debt, which had increased sharply between 1995 and 1997, the government has begun to privatize the remaining public enterprises to help finance the additional public spending and raise economic efficiency. The authorities are also committed to maintaining the exchange rate peg at Belize $2 per US$1 (its level since 1976) to limit inflation and to preserve confidence.”

HATTIEVILLE PRISON BREAK-OUTS BECOMING ROUTINE Eight prisoners, including several serving time for violent crimes, escaped from the “Hattieville Ramada” on the Boom Road the morning of June 5. This is only the latest in a long series of escapes from the prison, which has been called one of the worst gaols in the world.

UNIVERSITY OF BELIZE SET TO BECOME REALITY IN AUGUST The “Harvard of Belize” is set to come into being August 1, 2000, when several existing institutions, including Belize Technical College, the Belize College of Agriculture, the Belize Teacher's Training College, the Bliss School of Nursing and the University College of Belize will merge to form the UB. The university’s central campus will be located on a one-square-mile tract in Belmopan, though for the time being classes will continue at the campuses of the constituent colleges. Belizean citizens and permanent residents can attend UB for a tuition of US$10 per credit hour, with student fees of not more than US$112.50 per semester. Baccalaureate programs are planned in civil engineering, entrepreneurial studies, teaching and nursing. Classes are expected to start the third week of August.

FREE E-MAIL Costa Rica’s government has announced that beginning later this year all Costa Rican citizens will be able to send and receive e-mail and use the Internet free of charge, via a system of community computers in public buildings set up by the country’s postal service and state-run telecommunications company. Officials at Costa Rica’s postal system say the free Internet system could be expanded through Central America. Critics say the Tico postal system is inefficient and corrupt, with theft of mail being common, and that the state enterprises may not be capable of running a region-wide computer system.

BELIZE ADDS PROTECTION FOR INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY WITH NEW COPYRIGHT LAW Pirating of cable television channels and music tapes, both common in Belize, may stop with the passage of the new Copyright Bill, 2000 in June. Under the new law, copyright owners will enjoy the same privileges of intellectual property protection that are now in effect in the U.S. and in Western Europe. Violators of copyright may be sued in court. At present in Belize, it is common for books, music tapes, video tapes and cable TV programming to be duplicated, republished or rebroadcast in Belize without payment to the copyright owners.

NEW MAYA CITY DISCOVERED Archaeologists have unearthed in the Peten region of Guatemala what they believe to be a Maya city as large as Tikal. A team of Guatemalan archeologists uncovered the El Pajaral. The city is from the Postclassic period and dates to 1200 to 1400 A.D. The site could rival, at least in size, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Copan in Honduras and Caracol in Belize.

CONTROVERSY OVER CORAL BLEACHING Controversy erupted in late April after an article appeared in the British journal Science noting unprecedented bleaching of coral in Belize in parts of the central barrier reef due to higher-than-normal water temperatures related to El Niño. Richard B. Aronson, of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, and others reported that, for the first time, “a coral population in the Caribbean has collapsed completely from bleaching.” Mass media reports, ignoring the actual language of the article which discussed only one part of the central reef in Belize, sensationalized the dry scientific report, making it appear that all coral in Belize waters was dead. Even President Bill Clinton picked up on it, mentioning Belize’s coral bleaching in a speech. Divemasters in Belize and divers who had visited Belize recently were quick to respond that, to the contrary, that while bleaching had occurred in some areas in 1995 and again in 1998, that in most places the reef had returned to health. In other areas, especially in the northern reef, there had been no significant bleaching at all. Coral bleaching occurs when coral colonies under “stress” expel their symbiotic algae.

HAMANASI RESORT A tax concession has been approved for Hamanasi Resort,
a 30-room resort south of Hopkins Village, catering to scuba divers and adventure travelers.

Lan Sluder/Belize First