On Wednesday night, Commissioner of Police Chester Williams and other security personnel, as well as Minister of Tourism Manuel Heredia, met with the San Pedro community to discuss the way forward in light of the double murder of well-known tour guide Mario Graniel and visitor Gary Swank. Williams informed the residents about his plans to police the island moving forward. Andrea Polanco tells us more in the following story.
The murders of tour guide Mario Graniel and tourist Dr. Gary Swank have left the San Pedro community concerned for their safety and their livelihoods. The killing of the American citizen has prompted sensational headlines across the international media which have instilled fear in visitors. That fear for personal safety has tourists cancelling their reservations to the island.
Brittney O’Daniel, Hotel Owner
“In the last couple days I have fielded probably twenty, twenty-five emails half of which are already cancelations. And I have another ten or fifteen that I thought I would respond to tonight and I thought I would wait until after the meeting tonight so that I could tell my guests something to make them feel safe and not cancel their reservations. So, my question would be to the Minister, what should my email say to my guests to let them feel safe, besides letting them know that we are getting ten cameras?”
With tourism accounting for forty percent of the country’s GDP and San Pedro being the largest tourism destination – politicians are eager to get a handle on the crime for economic reasons, as well as for the safety visitors and locals alike.
Manuel Heredia, Minister of Tourism
“Tuesday gone, I brought the matter over to the Cabinet, although the Commissioner and my Director had already spoken with the Prime Minister but Cabinet is the decision making of this country. They expressed deep concerns about the industry and we will do whatever it takes to make sure that we can get to these culprits and that we can apprehend the people responsible and we can have the industry feel comfortable.”
Daniel Guerrero, Mayor, San Pedro Town
“We still should maintain ourselves calm and positive, even though we have a cancer and that cancer we need to cure. It is not easy.”
So, on Wednesday night, more than one hundred and fifty residents, including business owners, tourism stakeholders and other concerned citizens attended a public meeting where some attendees shared strong messages displayed on placards. The Commissioner of Police Chester Williams led the meeting – where he laid out part of plan to address the growing crime on the island. Part of that plan is the hiring of a dozen special constables equipped with two golf carts and a motorcycle. This new team will complement the other unit of tourism police officers on the island.
Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police
“We have agreed that we will be hiring twelve additional special constables to be employed within the Tourism Police sector in San Pedro. Those of you who know San Pedro would know that there is a police booth in the San Mateo area that is not in use due to the fact that the police simply don’t have the man power to man the booth. What we will do, we will take the booth at San Mateo and the booth will be given to the tourism police unit. The twelve officers will operate from the San Mateo booth. They will be working on a two shift system from six am until twelve midnight. At that location, we are going to establish a permanent check point.”
To support the police work and keep watch over the island, Commissioner Williams says that ten high tech cameras will be installed. This is being sponsored by the Belize Tourism Board at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars.
“Through B.T.B. we have also received the approval for the purchasing and installation of ten high definition, high resolution PTZ cameras with night vision capabilities. Those cameras will be set up in strategic locations on the island and the system that we will be setting up will be a sixty-four channel system. So, we are starting with the first ten and we invite residents or business places to add to the system and hopefully we can get it to sixty-four. The cameras will be monitored at the police station on a twenty-four hour basis. We want to be able to have coverage along the water ways, as well as by the bridge and in the gang ridden areas. We will also ensure that we monitor the airways – the area where the planes come in the airstrip we want to put a camera there to monitor who comes on the island on the plane and we will put cameras as well where the boats dock to see who is coming on the island and who leave the island.”
The Coast Guard is also increasing its presence in the area. They have committed two vessels to do patrols on the lagoon and the sea. Lt Commander Greg Soberanis addressed the community.
Lt. Commander Greg Soberanis, Fleet Commander, Belize Coast Guard
“From the coast guard perspective we need to be more involved in the community here in San Pedro. We understand, we have identified our shortfalls, our gaps, our vulnerabilities and this is something that we intend to correct. And so we will be working very closely with the mayor, the San Pedro Police, but most of all there has to be greater engagement with the community here in San Pedro.”
And so to kick start the engagement on Wednesday night residents shared their concerns and suggestions to help address the problem.
Peter Lawrence, Businessman/Pelican Properties
“We have had three Americans who were murdered; Greg; Cliff and now we have Dr. Swank. And we are back at the same thing.”
Elito Arceo, Tour Operator
“I hope that we are not missing the point that how far-reaching the implications of what is presently going on with all the cancelations and everything are, that this wouldn’t blow away next week or tomorrow. This has the potential to go on for a couple years with massive consequences.”
Omar Arceo, Tour Guide
“I live in fear. I am very sad about what is happening on my island. I am a tour guide. I live in fear. I am tired of hiding, running away from criminals and when they catch them the law is too easy on them.”
Kevin Gonzalez, Resident, San Pedro
“I think we should develop something that is called Ambergris Caye Tourism and Safety Development Committee that is made up of key stakeholders and they meet every month and they listen to all the issues and they give recommendations to the two gentlemen sitting there. The community has to have somewhere to put their frustration or their suggestion. We can’t continue meeting like this when something happens. Only when it happens then we show up. And not only they are at fault, you, as the community, are at fault also.”
Williams assured the community that the Department’s commitment to San Pedro and made it clear that criminals will not be tolerated under his watch.
“I can tell you that we are going to do all we can to be able to rid San Pedro of those gang members who want to operate and hold the masses of this community hostage. We are not going to tolerate them. We are not going to negotiate with them. We will do all we can to get them where they belong.” Channel 5