Eruption At The Port Started with Minor Incident
Weeks of mounting industrial tension at the Port of Belize exploded into anger today when management went ahead and fired 36 employees for redundancy.
That was at 11:00 am - and within 90 minutes, the Port would be convulsed in chaos, with the GSU unleashing tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protestors, Stevedores who were protesting the firings.
For the Barrow administration - which has been publicly taking the side of these stevedores - it will be a day of infamy: the day the security forces turned on peaceful protestors with extreme force and prejudice.
7News has been on the story from dawn to dusk, and we've captured all the action and the reactions. We start, where it all started, at 6:30 am with the blocking of the Port's main gate:
At 6:30 this morning, Port workers started arriving at work to find that this bus had been deposited in front of the main gate at the Port of Belize to block the entrance.
Two dozen police officers were dispatched to the Port. And they weren't about to put up with any trouble from this senior stevedore:
Guy Neal, Senior Stevedore
"Just now I wanted to go in the place, the officer assaulted me, pushed me. Look at him to me, I don't want any violence, I am a body builder. Only weapons of destruction could take me down. I called Chester and tell him to do something because the officer doesn't have any PR out here."
Shortly after that, the officer commanding eastern division appeared to take charge of the scene, he consulted with his officers and set out a plan to move the bus. It was fairly rudimentary, a chain plus a flatbed two truck and by 08:15, the bus that had blocked the entrance for 90 minutes was gone simple as that. The 18 wheelers started to roll out and the police took firm and unquestioned charge of the gate, securing it with manpower and firepower.
But little did they know how fragile that firm showing would prove to be within three hours.
So, that was all resolved by 8:15 am, relatively peacefully, with one stevedore, Edward Saldano detained for obstruction after he got in front of one of the two trucks.
But that caused no real fuss and things remained calm - leading up to 11:00 when the stevedores had to go inside the compound as usual to offload a ship that had just arrived that.
But, shortly before that, there was a sudden blackout at the Port - and that's where the tension started to mount. Cherisse Halsall picks up the story:
Things ramped up at 10:30 with a facility wide blackout and the cutting of all communications inside the Port of Belize. which led to workers having to leave the building to escape the unbearable heat. And in his usual position at the gates of the port, CWU president Mose Hyde told us that the port's difficulties seemed like a sign.
Mose Hyde, President, CWU
"It's a beautiful thing you know when you're on the righteous side mysterious things happen to come and show you solidarity so that's what's happening."
And just a few minutes later 36 employees were terminated by text message. The rage was palpable from one woman who'd lost her job:
"They work me hard, 9 years."
Mose Hyde, President, CWU
"When you go for the 36 people you selected 29 union members but worst you found 4 of our reps. They handpicked people who are the most outspoken, who are the most courageous, who look out for other workers and who are our most strongest union members here..
"The position that we are holding right now is based on the fact that you can't just leave 36 people without a job without having a legitimate process."
Then the shouting began as Stevedores entered the port to unload a ship that was due in at 11:00. But by then a vehicle had been set on fire. And by the time the fire truck rounded the lane, it's entrance had been blocked by a small Mahindra pickup in a coordinated simultaneous incapacitation of the port.
Then there was a struggle for the door:
Roy Neal, Stevedore
"Before I got through the door the WPC pulled the door on my foot. I told her mein you can't do that I said you can't strong me you know, I said you can't do that, so when I pushed the door open another little fat one who was around there, I told him boss you can't strong me i'm going for water then the rest of Stevedores they pushed the door open then we didn't get the water because it was finished already. When I'm going back in now. They were trying to keep me out when I was already there. But we were the ones that built this place. We know how the fence went up; they can't keep us out if we really want to."
After which the media was locked out Forcing Krem News editor Marisol Amaya to crawl in under the fence. From there, things quickly escalated with the arrival of several truckloads of GSU officers. They stood between the staff and the port.
It seemed like overkill with the officers in full riot gear to combat the small group of unarmed protesters
They sat in protest to await a 2:00 PM injunction hearing where government was trying to stop PBL from firing the 36 workers - that they'd already fired.
Via phone, he Commissioner of police had given the group the go-ahead for their sit in. But in a colossal collapse of communication, the GSU didn't get that memo.
And soon rubber bullets and tear gas canisters began to fly
"Everybody was out her peacefully, peacefully sitting out here on the ground they opened fire, you have people that are injured, it doesnt make any sense."
Mose Hyde, President, CWU
"Everything is on video right, everything is on video. Imagine the brutality that we face, imagine, and extremely. I want to know who gave the order because the Minister of Labour had just called me to say that he had spoken to the commissioner, the commissioner spoke to me but there was another order just now."
"Who gave the order to have people who were fighting for their rights face such levels of brutality.
"They declared that we were being riotous and then said you have two minutes and then just unleashed in Belize, working people, not criminal people, not people with any kind of weapon, not people with any kind of sticks just having the courage to stand up."
"Now we see who has the power in the state because the state said we could stay there but the real power in the state said no and the authorities and the enforcement decided that's the power that they would listen to."
Those orders unleashed an attack on the Port's own employees, an attack that didn't end when the sit-in dispersed. And with the crowd running for cover one officer took position to aim at them from a distance.
His colleagues remained behind their shields in riot formation. On the ground behind them CWU member Trevor Jones, who'd been hit several times, lay unconscious.
And after angry shouts from the crowd, the officers finally got him out of the sun and under the shed
It took further pleas before they allowed his colleagues to transport him to the hospital for what was by then much needed medical care.
And in the aftermath of all this violence, violence that AG Micheal Peyrefitte seems to have bent over backward to avoid, it's the Commissioner of police who has a lot to answer to.
Mose Hyde, President, CWU
"The question that he has to answer is, did he give that order, was he informed of that order because we were sitting and they declared the riot act, read us the riot act while we were sitting that should be an explanation that the people of Belize should get before evening."
"What will the state say about this because this is on pure video. We sat down because we said we didn't come here for violence. We won't bring any violence but violence has been visited upon us."
And that violence was visited most visibly on Raymond "Dinget" Rivers. The always outspoken stevedore was shot with rubber bullets about 10 times - and you can see the welts from where he was hit.
Security Minister: GSU Should Not Have Released Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets on Protestors
The pain is all too real for the stevedores and the port workers, they were suffocated and brutalised on the frontlines today - but there is also political pain for the ruling UDP.
The party put out a proud press release at midday boasting, quote, "the United Democratic Party strongly supports the waterfront workers at the Port of Belize and commends the Attorney General for interceding on their behalf to protect the rights that are duly afforded to them under the Belize Labour Act." end quote.
It goes on to inveigh against the Ashcroft Alliance and all the usual political jazzâ€¦but when you look at what happened on the ground today, the strident public statements and the reprehensible police conduct are irreconcilable.
This evening we asked the Attorney General and Minister of National security how government talked one way, and acted the total opposite. His answer was quite shocking:
Jules Vasquez- Reporter
"In taking this position of advocacy that we hear you taking today, anyone that was on the ground today would say: well, you all are being hypocrites. You are saying one thing and then doing the other. You are saying that the Port is wrong to have done so but at the same time, peaceful protestors on the compound today were shot, were knocked unconscious, were smothered in tear gas, how do you justify or reconcile this?"
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - Attorney General
"It is not reconcile and there is no reconciling of it. It makes no sense that the government would apply for an injunction on behalf of the Labour Department that would clearly also benefit the stevedores, then we go the next day and rough up the stevedores. The instructions to the Commissioner of Police were clear. Those people, as long as they are being peaceful are allowed to remain on that compound to at least 2 o'clock, until we hear the ruling of the court. My instructions to the Commissioner was clear. I am sure that his instructions to his commander was also clear. Because there was a three way phone call that had myself, the Commissioner and the Commander for that Division and the instructions were clear that those persons were to remain there until at the very least the court had ruled. Somebody, some police officer or police officers decided upon themselves obviously to ignore those instructions and that is why currently we have told the head of the Union to go to the police station and make a report. Those police officers will be charged after they have been arrested because they ignored a direct order and some direct instructions from their commissioner and their commander. An investigation will be done and somebody will be made to pay. At least one person will be made to pay when it comes to that incident because the instructions were absolutely clear. Leave those people on the compound until the court has ruled."
Jules Vasquez- Reporter
"Someone read the Riot Act. That invokes the power of the state to let rip."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"Well whoever read that Riot Act was reading it not on behalf of the state but on behalf of themselves. We will do an investigation. We have already started an investigation and there will be hell to pay. Because under sky and in no world would I send the police department to rough up and arrest stevedores on behalf of the vampire Michael Ashcroft and his Belizean minions. That would never happen in a million years."
"But it happened."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"But it happened and so somebody will feel the wrath of the Government within the Police Department."
COMPOL Says CWU Has Rights To Feel Betrayed
And this evening at 5:00, the Commissioner of Police called an emergency press briefing to say much along the line of his minister. By then he had already had a debriefing with the GSU to try and find out the answer to that burning question: who gave the order?
This evening he told the press that the incident has undermined his credibility, with the CWU which whose members, he says, were well within their rights to believe that he set them up.
Chester Williams- Commissioner of Police
"The Port of Belize wanted the police to move the people off the compound. So, I said to the commander of Eastern Division, my position is that once these people are on the compound and they are peaceful, then let us allow them to express themselves peacefully. They will not stay there all day, they have to go home. After I gave that directive to the commander I also communicated with Mr. Hyde who is the president of the CWU and I told him that we were going to allow them to remain on the grounds providing that they remain peaceful. He gave his assurance that they were not about trouble that they were going to be peaceful. A few minutes later, I got a call that shots were being fired at the Port of Belize Limited and that the GSU were deployed to the area. Now for me that was a total wrong move. When we have people who are agitated, especially who know that they are in the process of losing their livelihood, we would expect that the police would do the utmost best to ensure that whatever we do would not be such that would cause more agitation. So, in a situation as volatile as what was happening at Port, I would have never made a decision to deploy a paramilitary unit because their mere presence would have made those agitated people believe that: you know what, here is the state enforcing their might on us. And it would cause them to become more agitated. When recieved that call, I called the OC in Eastern Division and I directed that the GSU be removed immediately. Mr. Dawson assured me that he was going on the grounds to ensure that the GSU were removed. But by that time the damage was already done because persons were already shot with rubber bullets and people had become more agitated. Now I want the public to understand that as a police department, we must always strive to be professional, we must always strive to do things in a peaceful manner. Brute force and ignorance does not make situations better for us. I believe that if the ordinary uniform police officers had been left in the area with those who were protesting the crowd would not have become more agitated. But Mr. Dawson has given his explanation as to what transpired, I am looking at it and I have also asked the Union to have those persons who were shot to come in to make their complaint and we will address it swiftly. Certain elements from the GSU have been transferred because we need to send a strong signal that we are not gonna have our officers go out and use force that is unnecessary against people who are dissenting peacefully."
Government Says It Canít Believe Port Went Ahead
And, in our interview this evening, the Attorney General also explained the government's rationale for its last minute application:
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Attorney General/Minister of National Security
"We did not think that just summarily trying to dismiss people without the process taking place, was in the best interest of the stevedores, the company or the Port of Belize. So we felt that it was neccessary to at least bring the court's attention to it and hopefully we can get the court to stop the company from dismissing these people before we can exhaust the process that was agreed upon."
"Why at the eleventh hour would an injunction be sought when you guys knew that this was coming and perhaps could have proceeded to do so prior to the service of those letters."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"The real question is, why would they attempt to fire the people just before you have a hearing? If they believe that they have every legal right to dismiss those employees then just wait for the court to say so. We filed this from yesterday. We decided on this from early in the week, so it's not like a last-minute application we made. We never thought that these people would be so low as to actually do that, but when we found out that they were hundred percent serious about it, then we realized that we had to represent the Labor Department since the Labor Department being a government department is full-fledged a part of the process of trying to mediate between the port and the stevedores."
"It's not that we acted too late, it's that we realize then at that point that they were seriously going to attempt to do this when all along they claim that they were trying to go through the process to come to some sort of amicable settlement."
Jules Vasquez, reporter
"You're acting against an actor who does not care what the state may say, the actor may feel it is within his prerogative to hire and fire as any private company would."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"That is an essential service though, that's one issue. One of the problems is that is an essential service to the country. So any dealings with those workers or that company and that situation has to be carefully looked at by the government."