The second confrontation in less than a year between Belize security forces and protesting Belizean citizens over bus transportation took place last Wednesday in the town of Benque Viejo del Carmen near the Guatemalan border. Police, the Belize Defense Force and Dragon Unit personnel met in a standoff with high school students and commuters during a scheduled peaceful demonstration over increased bus fares.
Trouble began when Novelo's Bus Line imposed a rate increase, which doubled the fares of some commuters from Benque to Belmopan. These higher rates, announced April 15th were based on government's March 30th announcement of increased fuel prices.
Permission was given to commuters for a two-hour morning demonstration but when protesters wanted to march near the home of the Novelo bus owner, police refused to allow this and the conflict started. Following this, police ordered the crowd to disperse and read the Riot Act. Some demonstrators refused to leave, rocks began to fly, and a riot ensued whereby police and protesters were injured and gunshots were fired by security personnel. Protesters fled to homes, which were subsequently searched, and demonstrators taken into custody. When the angry situation escalated, tear gas bombs were thrown in an attempt to control the crowd which caused smoke to blow through the streets and open windows of several houses, affecting many innocent adults, children and the elderly in the area. By early evening things had quieted down, but Prime Minister Musa still declared a curfew effective at 8:00 p.m.
In the end, many police were injured and two protesters shot - one teenage schoolboy was taken to a hospital in Melchor, Guatemala and another young man was transported to San Ignacio; both were expected to recover. Order restored, the Prime Minister visited Benque and the gunshot victims the next morning before ordering the Commissioner of Police to carry out a full and comprehensive investigation. This investigation is to determine if security forces acted illegally or improperly in the execution of their duties and if there were any criminal acts performed by individual citizens. In his statement, PM Musa recognized the democratic and constitutional rights of citizens, but condemned any body confronting or provoking security forces, stating that the law must prevail.
The last riot which took place in Orange Walk last July was a similar situation, caused by Government's refusal to grant a permit extension to a local bus line. Consequently, rocks were thrown between police and protestors, and two demonstrators were shot. A recent announcement by the Commission of Inquiry blamed the Transport Commissioner and bus line owner, and recommended against monopolies.
The Association of National Development Agencies (ANDA), after careful review of the situation, issued a release on Tuesday stating the events could have been avoided if the Government of Belize (GOB) had acted promptly and within its regulatory mandate to ensure that bus lines comply with the legal rate limits. It said that once the GOB declared increased bus fares were illegal, the Department of Transport should have ensured that members of Belize Bus Association revert to original fares until negotiations were held.
ANDA recommended that the GOB: appoint a Commission of Inquiry with a team of independent members to investigate the circumstances and events of April 24th; ensure that corrective measures are taken at the Department of Transport as recommended by the Commission of Inquiry of the Tower Hill Bridge incident; initiate immediate legal action against the respective bus lines to recover monies collected illegally through the use of unapproved fares; and establish a fund from the monies recovered to compensate for the damage to property, and the coverage of medical and other expenses of those injured during the riots. ANDA stated it believes that the poor regulation of monopolies caused both of these riotous events and that unsatisfactory responses by GOB and the defiance of bus lines precipitated the events. Further, ANDA urged GOB to properly enforce the regulation of monopoly companies in Belize and to take necessary measures to ensure that the police department does not provoke civil unrest, but maintains law and order during demonstration events without violating the rights of people.