Orange Walk Erupts!
It has been a day of terrible reckoning in northern Belize. One man is dead and at least four more are injured – all the result of afternoon clashes between the police and cane farmers. We’ll have it all for you tonight – but we ask your patience as our team is trying to get back in from Orange Walk where they have basically been held in by police who have taken control of and closed down the Northern Highway at the Tower Hill Bridge.
At this hour the police riot squad is sweeping forward on the Northern Highway as cane farmers are still lighting fires and throwing stones – and out team is basically stuck on the side of the cane farmers. Though we have made appeals to the Commander of Operations, our team has not been let though to get to other side of the bridge – from where they can head to Belize City. As soon as they arrive, we’ll show you the images, interviews and stories they have gathered since 3:30 this afternoon.
All this is the awful culmination of a strike which started seven days ago and came to a head very early this morning – before dawn - when the cane farmers basically locked off Northern Belize, by obstructing all points beyond the Tower Hill Bridge. As we said, we will have it all for you tonight, but we begin where it all began, early this morning. Our team was the first Belize City media on the scene and here’s how it all started.
Jules Vasquez Reporting,
3 cane trucks were parked on the north and south sides of the Tower Hill Bridge – with a police mobile trapped in between them – not able to move in either direction. And the sign on one of the truck says it all: Take Away the Core Sampler, Take Away Nemencio Acosta who is Chairman of the Sugar Industry Control board and Take Away John Gillette who is the BSI factory manager.
The tone was militant but the mood was cool as both the police and the farmers were calm, keeping their distance with neither side escalating. Thousands of stranded commuters were caught in the middle of their uneasy truce.
About 8 miles away it wasn’t so cool. The junction of the San Estevan Honey Camp Road – which is the only route that can cut past the Tower Hill Bridge – the scene was more threatening as burning tires blocked the roads and a number of busses were stranded. Again over 100 cane farmers stood around keeping the fires burning and waiting for the police to respond.
It was more or less the same at mile 58 on the Northern Highway, an area known as Indian Hill. Farmers sat coolly on the road as tire fires rages behind them. Students who got an impromptu holiday because they couldn’t go to school stood around to watch the action. And standing by and watching is what most did this morning. There was no confrontation with police – no compromise.
And the man to whom all the farmers are looking is their CEO Carlos Magana. He went to the bridge to ask his members to let him pass so that he could attend a meeting with the Prime Minister in Belize City – but they were bitterly opposed to that.
Carlos Magana Back and Forth with Farmers
[Why don’t the cane farmers agree that Magana can go to Belize City to negotiate because they have not faulted the cane farmers at all. They are already at the point where they can arrive at a resolution to the problem. The Prime Minister only wants a few explanations for them to go to Belize and Magana says the people need to have confidence in their management because they have not lied to them.
If we the cane farmers don’t move, he will have to use forces ofthe country [and there is a back and forth with the cane farmers who say they are ready to do that.]
Carlos Magana, CEO – Cane Farmers Association
“As you see, you are a witness that we are trying to bring them to an understanding and that this is what we really wanted the government to understand, that once it gets out of the hands of management, it is a different story.”
Is this basically right now rule by mob?
“Yeah it is. We are going to defend their request. We want Belize to defend their request and that is what we are trying to see if we can achieve. But as you know, as you have seen, it is very difficult.”
Now the Prime Minister has indicated that he will not send the police or the BDF to engage with them today.
“Well I won’t want to say up to today. He has given us a time and that is until this afternoon and we are trying to see if we can negotiate that and I really hope that we reach that negotiation and it is for the interest of the country. I don’t think that any party, neither the government or the cane farmers would want to see ourselves engage in any civil unrest.”
But at this time there is no compromise because the compromise is that we don’t use it this season, the core sampler, and it is just used for data and then it be held off for two more years. But these people are saying to remove totally.
“I think at the initial stage that could have been a possibility but as you have heard and you are seeing it, it is an absolute no to the core sampler and we have three points of individuals. I don’t know if you have gone to the three different places and we have approximately more than 4,000 cane farmers involved in this now. So please, I am calling on the authorities to take this as a consideration. It is something that is requested by them and they have understood the social impact that it can have if they are continued being paid by quality.”
Sir, you can’t attend the meeting, they are not remove it, we are on path for a head on collision here.
“Yeah that is what it seems and I would really pray to God that it doesn’t happen.”
Cane Farmer #1,
“We are asking him to come here and finish this problem. It is nothing more than his presence that can terminate all of this problem here. We the farmers are very calm. If he is coming we will open for him to come cross and negotiate with the farmers. It is not a problem. This is just the voice of the people that is taking place now and he should understand that.”
Such militance and hardened resolve could be seen on the faces of all these farmers today: they are eyeball to eyeball with the Government of Belize – and they have take a third of the country hostage without blinking: it’s is now government’s move and that move will likely have to be made with force.
And while Magana was talking to the Prime Minister, his ultimatum was that if Magana did not make it to a meeting at Central Bank by noon, he would have a press conference to unveil government’s position. It is basically, that a compromise was offered on Friday to no longer use the controversial core sampler to determine payments for this season; it would still however be used to collect data. That was agreed to in a meeting with the cane farmers, but by the time the message got outside it was either rejected or aborted.
===================Late Afternoon Anarchy at Tower Hill: 1 Dead, 4 Injured
When our team arrived at the mouth of the road leading to Tower Hill just before 4pm, cane fields were burning, gunshots were firing and the mood was incredulous and outraged. Just prior to our arrival, about seven farmers hijacked a tractavator and went at the Core Sampler. Police tackled them and then detained them. Their friends went to their rescue and that’s when anarchy ensued.
Damien Gough, Witness
“We at BSI were informed there was a little eruption taking place out at the core sampler. Apparently a pickup filled with about six or so cane farmers showed up, a confrontation ensued between them and the police. The cane farmers were found to have, I think, some machetes with them and the police tried to take control of the situation, threw some of them to the ground and handcuffed them and tied them up. I understand they even fired even a couple of warning shots to get control of the situation.
But what that incident did was provoke the situation because from there all the cane farmers that were down at the Toll Bridge packed up in their vehicles and started speeding towards BSI. And now as you can see, at the entrance of the BSI compound itself, at the intersection, they managed to get control of one of the tractavators and are actually pushing the barriers back and police are actually firing back at them. Whether it is live rounds or rubber pellets, I don’t know yet. But there is actually an exchange of rock hurling and gunshots firing between the cane farmers and the police that are out here."
“They took a cane farmer and they started to beat him. The crowd didn’t want that. The cane farmers want peace but the way the government is doing this. It is not fair for us. We are Belizeans and if we have to die here we will.”
And the treason for that outrage was visible as the injured were brought out with gunshot injuries. Some of them were bleeding, unable to walk and – others had visible bullet wounds.
“They shoot everyone. They didn’t have to go on like that. They shoot my friend here. We just wanted to make things clear. We just went there because they arrested a man there and they didn’t need to arrest no one. They shoot like seven people. They took them to the hospital. That is not fair though.”
[Man Talking in Spanish and holding expended bullet shells.]
“We came to defend him and the police with real bullets.”
The Prime Minister has said that by 4 pm you guys need to go home. Will you do that?
“No because they started the real trouble so we are going to stay and some of our friends are going to get there. This Prime Minister is not looking after his people. So we have to remove this because nobody is defending us. So we have to take our own decision.”
One of the men hurt was fatally injured. He has been identified as Anastacio Gutierrez, a 44 year old cane farmer.
[Translated] “He got shot in his face. They are saying that the bullet entered his face and came out the next side and he died. A pickup carried him to the hospital. He had no gun and he was without a gun.”
Attorney Michael Peyrefitte witnessed the shooting death.
Michael Peyrefitte, Attorney
“Today I saw a man get shot in the head right in front of me. He fell on the ground immediately, we took him to the hospital, he was dead. He died instantly and it is totally unnecessary for this to happen. The cane farmers would better know what the situation is as it pertains to the conflict between them and the police. But I saw another Belizean die today and I am saddened by that.”
Shortly after the fatal shooting, Magana along with attorney Michael Peyrefitte drove into the BSI compound to check on the status of the detained farmers. But the loss of life prompted an executive concession and Magana returned.
“That the core sampler will not be used for the rest of this year.”
I thought the farmers had already rejected that and they wanted it gone forever.
“Well at least it can give us a little relief at this point due to the way the mob is. At this point they are accepting it. What they are saying is if we can release the individuals that are in there.”
And while Magana and Peyrefitte drove into the BSI Compound to negotiate the release, the farmers lit tires on fire on the road leading to BSI. It was their last stand as most scattered. We are told trucks cleared the bridge shortly after and the riot squad made an appearance as they pushed the crowd into Orange Walk.
Seeds of Anarchy Planted on Saturday[/b]
Today is a tragic and terrible day in northern Belize as anarchy was loosed in the area of the Tower Hill Factory in Orange Walk. Credible reports say one man has died and at least four are injured after clashes between police and protestors. But the seeds of that anarchy was planted many days earlier. Both sides knew they would eventually block the road – and indeed from Saturday hostilities started to spark up between the police who were protecting the sugar factory and the cane farmers who were holding firm outside of it. On Saturday tear gas was released on a few farmers as police had to clear a road. Hearing the news Keith Swift headed to Orange Walk and he found farmers already cultivate the resolve and the hardline that came to bear on those terrible events this afternoon.
Keith Swift Reporting,
This was Tower Hill on Saturday – police men standing guard at the road leading uphill to block these roughly one hundred sugar cane farmers and their families. The police men were armed with guns and - one even equipped with tear gas to keep them at bay but the farmers remained calm and resolute.
Francisco Tillett, Cane Farmer
“From last night we were here and we will be here night in, day out and we will stay here.”
Emiliano Aban, Cane Farmer
“I am right here because of the core sampler and we will be right here until they take it out from here. If we have to stay here a month, we will stay here a month right here.”
“I am here because I am in protest too against the core sampler which is not doing us any any good at all. Instead it is just taking away the little bit of money that we get and we want to send a message to the whole country and to the government and to BSI that we don’t want that core sampler. Take it away and then we can continue working. If they don’t take it away, we will continue here as long as it is there.”
“We have to do this because this is our business. This is not politics because if we have to fight with the government we will fight with the government because this is not politics, this is our business.”
But they made it clear that they are in it for the long haul –even if their patience was growing thin.
Elizar Uk, Cane Farmer
“Six months we deliver cane and six months we don’t deliver cane. So between that six months we don’t have work. We just depend on the work we did. So that means that if we could survive for that six months, we could survive for the rest because if we continue to deliver cane to that factory, we know that we are the ones who will be affected.”
Mario Camara, Cane Farmer
“If this continues, people will get more drastic because they are just playing with us – telling us they will fix it and nobody does anything.”
And images like this of police blocking the Northern Highway to allow a convoy of 6 trucks loaded with sugar cane to basically sneak into the factory through the back door – is probably what made what the undesirable, inevitable.
And of course, that is what is at the center of this dispute: that the farmers demand that the factory be shut down but it was not as it continued to receive cane from BSI owned cane fields.