Contraband passing through from Melchor to Benque is nothing new – in fact, in the west it is almost a way of life. But, as with any illicit movement, things can get dangerous very quickly and on Monday evening, the community's sense of peace was shattered when gunshots rang out. Benque police were chasing a suspected smuggler, right past a yard where children were playing, which put them right in the line of fire.
Our news team went to the town today, to speak with residents about the shooting, and they told us that this latest incident is only a symptom of a bigger problem:
Daniel Ortiz Reporting
The Churchill Street in Benque Viejo Town is a stone's throw away from the Guatemalan border town of Melchor de Menchos.
All you really have to do is walk down this hill - which takes about 5 minutes - cross the Mopan River, you're basically a few minutes away from cheap Guatemalan goods.
Robert Galvez - Resident, Churchhill St, Benque Viejo Town
"We are about 10 minutes away from the Center of Melchor, from here. This area, when you come out from here, you come behind the bar "Fugata" in Melchor, and a lot of things happen here. This is a place - this is another border to enter Belize, illegally.
And that illegal border crossing invites contrabandists looking to capitalize on the difficulty of the area to police.
The residents say that living near that hill has now become dangerous because Benque Police officers are putting their lives at risk.
In trying to stop a contraband operation on Monday night, police officers allegedly opened fire in the community putting 2 children in the line of fire.
2 young boys almost got hit, traumatizing them, and another resident was grazed by one of the shots.
"Monday night, approximately about 7:30 p.m. in the night, while we were relaxing, kids were playing in the yard. Suddenly, we heard an outburst of fire, where one officer known to us opened fire, almost hitting my son, along with his friend Zahir. Suddenly, another police officer appeared in the corner of the lot, and opened fire at some guys running. We cannot stop these guys from into our yard. We cannot stop that because police, if we try to stop these guys, police won't be here 24 hours taking care of us. So, all we do is we just let them go through. Sometimes, when they run through your yard, they drop the contraband on the ground. Suddenly, police come and try force us to take the blame for that. So, actually, they opened fire and almost hit these kids, and this is not first time. Every night, they're firing in this area. They have to realize that we have people living in the area. If they want to take up a firing range, the river is down here; they can do all their catch down near the river. But they go all the way up to the area up there and open fire. Every night, we have a 'John Wayne' gunplay in this area."
ASP Dinsdale Thompson - (Via Phone) O. C., Benque Viejo Police
"I know of an incident that did occur. No one was shot. The officers were on riverside patrol, when they went into the area, they encountered contrabandists trying to run good on the riverside. What the officers did was to set chase behind the suspects. Upon setting chase, yes, they did discharge firearms then caused some disruption to the members of the public. The officers were called in; I did start an investigation into this matter."
The suggestion of irresponsible use of deadly force is bad enough, but the community of Churchill St. has come to distrust and fear the police officers who work the hill patrol.
They say that police harassment and corruption has become so regular, it seems normal along this unregulated border point.
"We could say the police are not doing their job. All they do is to peep on the females washing. They come and harass the people around the areas, unprofessionally. They always go up this areas here, spy on the ladies washing and bathing. They also see what they are doing. They wait for the females to go up this hill, and ask them to search their clothes buckets, and throw all their clothes on the ground. They just leave it there, look at you, laugh, and just go about their way. They female has to take it and put it back in; that's unprofessional. On a regular basis, we have the police here - we know that everything we're talking about is the police because that's what's happening. We're not lying about them. We have prostitutes coming from the other side of the river into the river. These catch them, take them to the area on the hill that we call 'La cuerva' and use them. The guys have illegal people coming here with money. They take away their money, their shoes - we see it, and all of us to justify that this is happening. Sometimes they have a big catch here with contraband goods, and if the guy in charge of the good has the money, he pays off the police and go away like nothing happen. We see this happen every day in this area. And every time we have the foot patrol police near the river peeping on the females, and when the other parts of Benque call for police back up, 'The police are at the river. Right now, when they come up, we'll send them over.' That's the problem here. We need to have them enforce; send people who act professionally out here."
Unfortunately, nobody has taken steps to collect proof of these activities while they're in progress. So, it's become an issue of whose story is more believable. Naturally, favor swings toward the officers the community is complaining against because at this point it's an unfounded claim.
ASP Dinsdale Thompson, O.C., Benque Viejo Police
"It's all allegations, and if any such incidents would come up to my office, or any of my administrative sections, then we look at it thoroughly and in no way tolerate officers to be in that way abusive or using their powers in that way. We are fully into openness and transparency when it comes to reports. Police officers have their mandates in relation to any such types of issues that come up. We do not tolerate police officers behaving in that way in any form or fashion."
The community says, however, that despite all the bad blood, in good faith, they are still willing to trust and work with the police if they'd practice better better enforcement techniques.
"If the police do their jobs properly and coordinate, not everything is intelligence. You have to gather the information, disseminate it, take out the 'juice' from that. That's what they should be working on. This area is a big area; if they get away from them from here, it's because they are not coordinating and doing their jobs professionally. When the guys with the big blue Ford, MIT, they come professionally in the area. They don't harass us. They speak to us, gather whatsoever information they need, and they carry on their duties and move out. They are not harassing us the way these other guys, the police in Benque, are doing it."
Marta Sanchez - Churchhill St., Benque Viejo Town
"Please try to respect the people, and the people will respect the police."
ASP Dinsdale Thompson, O.C., Benque Viejo Police
"What I would want them to do is that in the event that they know of behaviors, please come to the police station. I will launch and investigation into the matter fully, and any officers found guilty in any way form or fashion will be dealt with according to the laws of Belize."
The residents of Churchill Street now suspect that certain officers will try to increase raids on them as a sort of punishment for going public with this matter, but they felt they couldn't remain quiet about it anymore.