Two shot during protest over bus schedule

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 30            August 2, 2001

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On Monday, disgruntled commuters, fed up with diminished bus routes, raised a protest by blocking the Northern Highway near Orange Walk. According to reports, two persons involved received treatment for gun shot wounds, one in the hand and the other in the leg, resulting from the "riot".

    Earlier in the day, the Government Press Office released a notice stating the following: The Department of Transport hereby advises commuters using the public bus transportation system that over the next few months, the majority of Road Service Permits, especially those that provide service to villages, will expire. The Department is presently reviewing the performance of the operators and will be making required modifications and issuing renewals based on the review. At this time, the Department foresees very minimal modification and in the most part a general renewal of existing permits.

    The Department assures commuters that this exercise is being conducted with a view to eliminate conflicts and ensure smooth functioning of the system. In no way should the level of service, in terms of bus availability and fares, be adversely affected. Bus operators who may seek to take advantage of this time by exploiting the process for personal gain should be reported to the Department immediately. The Department also takes this opportunity to remind all permit holders to apply for their renewal as soon as possible and do not wait for the last minute. There are 166 permits involving 334 buses to be processed.

    The incident occurred around 5:15 a.m. Monday morning as a bus bound for Belize City was stopped by the Transport Department near the Guinea Grass junction. Angry commuters disembarked, joined forces and moved the bus to block the road as well as the Tower Hill Bridge on the Northern Highway. Present at the scene was Commissioner of Transport Glen Arthurs who negotiated with bus owner Amelio Tillett and a representative from Castillo's buses, Andrew Bowman. Under extreme pressure from the protesting community, Commissioner Arthurs finally agreed to extend a pre-existing permit for two weeks. In the meantime, Belize Police Force, Belize Defense Force and Dragon Unit personnel unsuccessfully used tear gas in an attempt to control the crowd. Refusing to budge, the protesters, armed only with sticks, stones and bottles, pummeled the "security forces." One frustrated officer resigned to using live ammunition on the angry mob, an event caught on film. This type of force being issued on a crowd not bearing firearms was said to have never before been witnessed in Belize. Two people were confirmed wounded by a security officer's gunfire.

    Obviously not eliminating conflicts, this Department of Transport review has spawned much controversy and now a violent confrontation. Bus routes initially maintained by small family-owned businesses have reportedly been given over to the larger bus lines. Further complaints were that PUP-owned bus lines are said to be given approval over UDP-owned bus lines, but protestors comprised both political parties. Both bus lines involved were previously only given two runs each to Belize City but villagers complained more affordable runs were needed to satisfy the demands of their areas. Another complaint involved the price commuters were forced to pay from the bus line which was awarded the majority of the transportation business, clearly an infraction of the department's policy on exploitation of customers. The standoff lasted some twelve-plus hours before protesters allowed traffic on the Northern Highway to commence.

    A government press released Tuesday announced that a meeting held that morning between Prime Minister Said Musa and the Ministers of Transport and Security resulted in a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the road permit and the subsequent use of force by security forces during the protest. The commission is to be chaired by a Justice of the Supreme Court appointed by Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh. The commission will include former Commissioner of Police Sherman Zuniga and Father Lazaro Augustine of the Roman Catholic Church. The BDF Commandant and Commissioner of Police have launched separate investigations into the conduct of their personnel.

    The press release further reminded citizens that "our democracy  entitles citizens to a peaceful public protest," but demands personal responsibility from its citizens to "protest in ways that do not obstruct the freedom of fellow citizens such as blocking public roads and bridges and assaulting security officers."
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