A Customs Officer and an Immigration Officer have been charged in relation to an incident regarding a tugboat named “AJ Ellis.” The chain of events began when the tugboat was reportedly sent to Roatan, Honduras for repairs despite borders being closed. When the five men on board the tugboat returned to Belize, they were tested and were to remain on the tugboat for fourteen days. However, they did not abide by this and by the time their positive test results came back, they were already at home in Independence Village, Stann Creek District. While the men will be charged for not remaining in quarantine, the operators of the boat, the Big Creek Group, stated that AJ Ellis had clearance from several agencies before it was taken to Honduras. Considering that two of those agencies are the Immigration and Customs Department, the police’s investigation led to charges being filed against Immigration Officer, Robert Flowers and Customs Officer, Dion Castillo. The two junior officers were charged with abetment to exiting Belize illegally, and were in court in Belmopan today. Attorney Hurl Hamilton was retained for the case moments before it started and gave a brief statement.
Hurl Hamilton, Attorney: “I would have to wait and see what is the evidence that the police has. Abetment, exiting Belize illegally I haven’t had time to consult with my clients fully so I would have to wait and see what the police have and then I can perhaps be in a better position to comment. Bail was granted to each individual in the sum of $1,000 plus one surety and they’re to return back to court on the 24th of September. I believe that would be the court in Mango Creek in the Independence Village.”
The Customs Department has spoken out against the charges levied against Dion Castillo. Comptroller of Customs, Colin Griffith, explained the situation as they understood it.
Colin Griffith, Comptroller of Customs: “The situation with the AJ Ellis is that since March 30 of this year during the whole period of SOE the AJ Ellis have been functioning on the Big Creek Port it’s a vessel that is owned by Banana Enterprise, it is one of their cargo vessels and AJ Ellis have made some sixteen trips to move cargo. Customs have to classify the AJ Ellis as a compliant trader we have never had an issue with the AJ Ellis and there is no way that officer Dion Castillo would have known that the clearance issued on the 25th of July the intention of the AJ Ellis was to perform a private enterprise between Roatan and mainland Honduras. That information we got in speak with principals of Banana Enterprise yesterday and they informed customs or none of the other entities were informed that the AJ Ellis was going out not for commercial purposes in bringing back cargo to Belize. So the custom officer and all the relevant agencies acted on the performance of AJ Ellis in being a compliant trader. So happened that an investigation has culminated with the custom officer being charged criminally. I have to register my strong objection to officer Dion Castillo being charged and also it was annoying to recognize or to learn that the Belize Police Department decided to object to bail. The intention is to have this young public officer incarcerated. I cannot countenance the reason behind that. I have been informed that the intention to object to bail is that by issuing the clearance to this vessel to which the officer had no idea that it would not have gone for commercial purposes was tantamount to the officer being a border jumper. I disagree with that.”
Griffith stated that he has contacted the Commissioner of Police since the Department was taken by surprise when the officers were arrested.
Colin Griffith, Comptroller of Customs: “The Customs Department is satisfied that officer Dion Castillo operated as how a normal customs officer would have operated and did not do anything that is outside of his job description – nothing whatsoever. I can never countenance how is it that we could reach where we are. Enforcement agencies have always been able to sit together and resolve issues and if there are matters to be addressed administratively we address those matters administratively. I personally called the Commissioner early this afternoon asking if there could be a sort of stay of execution for us to discuss this matter but he informed that it was out of his hands but it is clearly now in the hands of the Customs Administration and there is no way I as the Comptroller of Customs could not sit and express my displeasure, my complete disgust with this situation and my support for my officer. It has sent ripples through the Customs Department and the other agency. I just got off the phone with an individual from Immigration. For me it’s a real bad day for the public service and I do trust that this matter would find it’s own way to ease it’s way out but to have officer Dion Castillo criminally charged is untasteful.”
According to Griffith the AJ Ellis has not caused problems in the past, and as such, the department does not use its resources for low risk entities. Due to the upstanding pattern of behavior, the department would have no reason to question the tugboat’s motives.