A group of Belizeans were arrested on Sunday afternoon in Santa Cruz, Orange Walk for illegal entry to Belize. One of those men was Giovanni De La Fuente, a member of the Northern Territorial Volunteers. Word got out and soon after their arrest, social media was abuzz with the report. Today we spoke with De la Fuente who said that while they were detained, they were never charged. So what happened? According to De La Fuente, he and at least seven other Belizeans decided to visit Santa Cruz Village located in northern Orange Walk. Santa Cruz Village is a small community located just along the banks of the Rio Hondo River and immediate across is the Mexican village of San Francisco Botes, popularly known as Botes. Of note is that the area is an unofficial point of entry to Belize but every week for the past decades, hundreds of Belizeans visit Botes to socialize and to shop. It is also known as one of the points along the northern border where large quantities of contraband goods enter the country. Customs officials have maintained a heavy presence in the area and immigration personnel have also visited the area to clamp down on illegal immigrants. So, back to the original story, Del La Fuente says that over the past three weeks, they have been receiving reports that Immigration officials have been monitoring the area forbidding Belizeans to leave the country from that border point.
Giovanni De La Fuente, Belizean Citizen: “We went to look at the situation in that area because we have been having reports for the past three weeks that Belizeans are being deprived of the opportunity to access Santa Cruz Village and to access the Rio Hondo River and so a group of us; about seven or eight of us decided to get together and we went down to Santa Cruz to look at the situation.
Dalila Ical, Love FM Reporter: “When you got there, did you say any immigration officials? Police intercepting people from getting into Santa Cruz?”
Giovanni De La Fuente, Belizean Citizen: “When we got there, there was a group of Belizeans on the river banks and they wanted to go over the river but apparently they were afraid of the Police and Immigration and BDF and Customs that were present and so yes there was a presence of these government officials on the banks of the river. Nevertheless we proceeded into our canoe and we decided to take a ride down the river.”
Dalila Ical, Love FM Reporter: “Where exactly did the group go. Did you go into Mexican territory? What happened?”
Giovanni De La Fuente, Belizean Citizen: “Ok we were proceeding along the banks of the Rio Hondo and we encountered a hut on the Mexican side that sells refreshments. I personally got me a litre of water to drink, other people got soft drinks and then we proceeded back to the banks of Belize, the same place we had departed.”
Dalila Ical, Love FM Reporter: “How long were you all out there?”
Giovanni De La Fuente: “I would say 15 or 17 minutes.”
Dalila Ical, Love FM Reporter: “When you arrived, what happened?”
Giovanni De La Fuente, Belizean Citizen: “Well when we got back we encountered a different scene. There were reinforcements and lots of people with guns, lots of guns and immediately upon arrival of the banks of Belize a certain police officer by the name of Mr. Cocom in a short pants and a white shirt and a big machine gun over his shoulder informed the entire group, “ all you guys are under arrest” for illegal entry into Belize.So this is a police man putting on us an immigration offence. There were immigration officers present but none of them ever uttered a word.”
The group was detained and taken to the Orange Walk Police station, but as they waited for their charges, they were told to go home. De La Fuente says he had hoped the charges would have been filed since their aim was to challenge the law in court.
Giovanni De La Fuente, Belizean Citizen: “After about two or two and a half hours the immigration showed up with their charges. Each person was to receive two charges, one for illegal exit and one for illegal entry and just as he was about to hand us our charges he received a telephone call. Apparently there was a change of heart in the immigration department and I believe that they realized the situation and that made them change their minds and they totally withdrew charges and you know Belizeans how would it be or what do you think about the situation whereby citizens of Belize will be charged for illegal entry into Belize. By releasing us we did not get the opportunity to test the system in court because there is no charge. So I believe that something further has to be done I don’t know Belizeans what do you think? What about all the Belizeans that go to the Freezone on a daily basis they are not exiting Belize and they need to produce a travel document is this fair ? Belizeans what do you think? Do you think that we should be under this same 1940 law that states that there are only certain areas that you can enter and exit Belize. This is not a fight with the immigration department on a personal note we need for the issue to be ventilated in front of the courts and let us see what the court will say.”
Reporter: “You are aware that that area is an illegal point of entry. There is that argument do you think that that was the best place to do what you did?”
Giovanni De La Fuente, Belizean Citizen: “I think it is an illegal point of entry for foreigners I don’t think it is an illegal point of entry for citizens of Belize.”
The members of the group, as far as is reported, were the only ones detained, and that included the boatman as well. But this was not the first time that a Belizean pushed his luck testing the laws at that border point. Rene Cuello, another resident of Orange Walk Town had done so about one month ago but was not detained, although police had cautioned him at the time. He was also part of the group on Sunday. He says he has been trying to challenge the old immigration laws for some years now.
Rene Cuel, Belizean Citizen: “If they don’t change their ways, to treat us like dignified Belizean citizens we have to continue until they listen. I’ve been fighting this for about four years. I started because once I went on the Mexican side and I had a friend there at the immigration department and he made me pass. Now when I came back and he was not there, he was transferred,and I am scared of coming into my country. I parked in the Mexican side there and for a good amount of hours before I decided ”Why am I afraid to come into my country.” and I proceeded to drive. I was still scared and lucky thing the officer there knew me so I went in but then I started developing this idea of ”why should I be scared of coming in to my country.”, once I can identify myself. In fact the immigration law says if you are a Belizean you just have to identify yourself and tell the officer why you don’t have a passport, it’s an old law from 1945. So that is what started in me that I can’t be afraid to come into my country you are supposed to be protected. So I want to send a message to the government officials , they have to give us our constitutional right it is not right to be oppressing our people. It’s your own people you’re oppressing.”
Reporter: “How would you answer to critics saying well these are just, and it’s been a criticism of the Belize Territorial Volunteers that this is just a group of people seeking to make trouble.”
Giovannie De La Fuente, Belizean Citizen: “Well if you think that this group of Belizeans is just seeking to make trouble well then you will also have to include any and every person that is a Belizean that has previously stood up for injustices that they see in their country and if you wish to dump me along with any other person that has stood up for injustices in this country please proceed.”
Love News attempted to get comment from the Immigration Department but was unsuccessful.