I am probably going to offer a counter narrative to this discussion, but it is based on an intimate understanding of the alcalde system.
Like most Belizeans who saw the image of Mr. Rupert Myles, a black man, handcuffed, tied to a rope, on the side of the road, I was shocked and offended. The images that came out of events in Santa Cruz village were reminiscent of images of slavery, part of Belize’s painful colonial legacy. I found it jarring to see Belizeans holding another Belizean like that.
When I first heard that Mr. Myles had been refused permission to live in the village of Santa Cruz, and was being forcibly removed, I was more than shocked and offended. I was outraged. To think that a man who wanted to live in the community where his wife was born and raised, with their children, and had been refused did not sit well with me. It seemed to me to be a huge injustice.
I think many people who saw the images felt similar feelings. I had the opportunity to work with the people of Santa Cruz and Santa Elena in 2012, installing photovoltaic lighting systems in their schools and in the Rio Blanco National Park. I found the people to be hard working, good company, fun, concerned for the future. At that time, the highway was being run through their villages, and graders, and dump trucks, and bulldozers and other heavy machinery were passing through the village all day. While the work environment as we built the photovoltaic systems was good, the conversation was about the future. The threat everyone identified was Guatemala.
The highway passes right through both Santa Cruz and Santa Elena. I had worked up there in the 1990s in the cacao industry, and at that time, there was a simple one lane dirt road that went up, up, up. In the rainy season, that road could be challenging. Very little traffic went there, because beyond these villages there was only Pueblo Viejo and, then, after a tunnel of green, the little frontier town of Jalacte. Any traffic that went there, or beyond, turned around the way it came in, when it left.
Now Jalacte is a larger village, with San Vicente north past Jalacte, on the Belize border. The road, now, is a large road, mostly paved, and, instead of a tunnel of green, there is a broad sweeping vista on all sides of bean fields, corn fields, and there is no shade. There is a regular bus up to the border, even though the border crossing is not an official port of entry. Change has come to that area, in the form of immigration from Guatemala, environmental degradation from cleared land, land that has been cleared and does not benefit Belize. All of the production is heading to the border, to feed the insatiable and growing market of Guatemala.
In 2012, while working closely with men and women from these communities, I found them to be kind and considerate. Not once did they say anything even remotely racist. My friend, Marlon Sutherland, from Belize City, was helping us on this installation, and he is a large Creole man. The people who worked with us treated him with the same level of respect and kindness they treated me and the rest of our small crew, laughing, running jokes. The younger guys made jokes with the men in the road crew, down from the city, working in the area, and seemed to have a rapport with them. So, I had a level of disconnect with what I was hearing, the images I saw, and the community I knew and worked with. What happened to the kind people I knew? Where did this come from?
The backlash in non-Maya communities was instant, and strong. “Who are these Maya who deny us the right to live in their community, yet they can come da PG and tek land?” While it is a protocol laden exercise for non-Maya to move to a Maya community, it is very easy for a Maya person to move to town. And they have, by the hundreds, seeking jobs, education, opportunities. In 1986, when I first ended up in Punta Gorda, there were few Maya people living there. What is now called “Indianville” was old pasture, with old logging roads. I used to ride a mountain bike back there. Punta Gorda has doubled in size, and then some, in the last 29 years. So this sentiment, which had been smoldering for years, became a loud uproar.
As time went on, more information was revealed. The first paradigm shift I had was when I read that he had moved into the village without consulting anyone, just taking a piece of land with no consultation with the community, or the alcalde. I was surprised when I heard that. Communal land does not mean a free-for-all. One does not grab land. There are procedures. There is a process. The alcalde is a central part of that.
I have lived in San Pedro Columbia since 1988, the largest Kekchi Maya community outside of Guatemala. While the village is predominantly Kekchi, we have Mopan, Meztizo, East Indian and Creoles living here. I live up river and across the river on what has been traditionally occupied by Mestizo, Creole and East Indian people, and the alcalde system is a part of life here. From village fajina, where the men come together to open trails, clear felled trees on the river, clear around the school, clean the village burying ground, to clear the boundary of the village, or to court for misunderstandings, the alcalde is an arbiter of disputes, a coordinator of efforts, and the voice of the village when speaking to external entities. The alcalde is generally a man, but, in recent years, there have been female alcaldes in villages in Toledo.
Santa Cruz is a traditional Maya village, eschewing private property for communal lands. The Alcalde is a very important institution in Maya communities, and there are protocols to be observed when you work in any community. When preparing to work in a Maya community, one always makes ones intentions clear to the alcalde. I have installed photovoltaic lighting systems in schools in various Maya communities, some village level photovoltaic water pumping systems, provided training in agroecology and permaculture, worked in the cacao industry, and one of the first things you do when working in any of these villages is to go speak with the alcalde. Sometimes its a formality, like when we install a lighting system in a school. There are no objections or any involvement from the alcalde. Sometimes they help to negotiate with the community to facilitate the project, like when we installed photovoltaic water pumping systems. In those instances the Alcalde found us people to help dig the trenches, haul the material, assist us in our work, and then to facilitate the training to manage the systems, and then set up water boards.
One of the things the Alcalde system does is tie the present and the future to the past. In these times of dynamic change, when young people are leaving the villages to find work, when over %90 of households in Maya communities are considered to be living in poverty, when many men and women migrate to find jobs that other Belizeans would not take, when young Maya people are bombarded with imported massages from US television, the alcalde system offers a form of stability in a rapidly changing world. It is a central part of Maya culture and life in Toledo District. It is part of the fabric of the community. There have been some good alcaldes, and some bad alcaldes, some hard working, and some not so hard working. They are humans, like the rest of us.
After hearing that Mr. Myles had moved into Santa Cruz without approaching the alcalde, I then saw letters the village had written him, asking him to stop building, to come meet with the alcalde. In his own words, he not only did not meet with them, he expanded his house and activities on the land he had selected. I then read that he had bulldozed a land into what the village had set aside as a reserve around the Maya site of Uxbenka. I saw the letters about his move onto the Maya site. I thought, “Wow. How did that happen?”
When I heard that he had a confrontation in the Alcaldes court, the pounding of the desk, the abusive and disrespectful language, the threat to retrieve the firearm, I had a “Wow. How did that happen?” moment, again, because I have lived with the alcalde system for the last 26 years. It is hard for people who do not live with the alcalde system to understand this, but the alcalde system is court. Its not “like” court, it IS court in Maya communities. That is an egregious act of disrespect, and one that would lead to detention.
To understand how disrespectful that is, imagine some outsider in a dispute at the Magistrates Court in Belize City. Imagine the outsider, from Santa Cruz, being unhappy with the way court was proceeding, and then pounding his hands on the Magistrates desk, and telling the court he was going outside to get a firearm. I think everyone knows exactly how that would play out. They would be found in contempt, charged with use of threatening words, and most likely end up in Hattieville. Mr. Myles was very clearly in contempt of the village Alcaldes court.
The Alcalde is appointed by the community. It is not political. Unlike the Village Council, which is political and partisan, the alcalde is selected based on the respect of the community. There are laws about the Alcalde, and the Alcalde does have power of arrest.
According to the following excerpts from:
INFERIOR COURTS ACT CHAPTER 94 REVISED EDITION 2000
PART VII Alcalde Jurisdiction Preliminary
72.-(1) Except as provided in subsection (2), no appeal shall lie from a judgment of an alcalde court in the exercise of its civil jurisdiction. (2) With respect to a judgment pronounced in proceedings taken under section 70 (1) (b), any party aggrieved by the decision of a court may require the court to transmit to the Chief Justice all papers and documents connected with those proceedings together with the reasons for the decision and therein, and the Chief Justice shall make such order as the justice of the case requires.
73.-(1)The criminal jurisdiction which the court has, and is capable of exercising, is to hear and determine the following criminal offences- (a) riotous and disorderly conduct and breaches of the peace; (b) common assaults; (c) trespass and malicious injury to property, the damage resulting from which does not exceed twenty-five dollars; (d) larceny and praedial larceny where the value of the goods or articles does not exceed twenty-five dollars; (e) threatening and abusive language; (f) fraudulent evasion or attempted evasion of customs duties where the value of the goods or articles does not exceed twenty-five dollars; (g) the commission of any wanton or mischievous act causing damage or annoyance to any person.
(2) Every person convicted before a court of any offence shall be liable to a fine not exceeding fifty dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two months.
75.-(1) The Attorney General may, by Order published in the Gazette, appoint a fit and proper person an alcalde in each district.
(5) An alcalde or deputy alcalde when functioning shall be the president of the court and shall have and exercise all the jurisdictions, powers and authorities of the court in the district in which he is appointed.
85. If anyone commits an offence which is considered by an alcalde to be of a more serious nature than those set out in section 73, or any indictable offence, he shall be conveyed on an order of the alcalde to the nearest summary jurisdiction court and the offender shall be dealt with according to law.
86. The alcalde may, with the approval of the Minister first had and obtained, use as a prison for the purposes of this Part any fit and proper place within the district of his court, and exercise such lawful means of securing any prisoner, as may be necessary for his safe detention during the term of his imprisonment, or he may deliver that prisoner, or cause him to be delivered, to the Superintendent of Prisons, with a warrant of commitment and the Superintendent of Prisons shall imprison him in a convenient prison in terms of the warrant
When Mr. Myles behavior became aggressive, when he threatened to get a firearm, it is not a surprise he was detained. This does not make it “okay”, but banging his hands on the Alcaldes desk, threatening to get a firearm? The result was predetermined. It was inevitable. To those who think this is because he is black, I know, for sure, that this would have happened if he was Maya. In fact, I doubt things would have gone as far as they did if he had been Maya. They would have dealt with this much earlier.
Many people have said that Maya people, or the people of Santa Cruz are racist, or xenophoic, but I do not think that this is the case. I believe that if Mr. Myles had decided to go through the alcalde system, he would have been allowed to live in Santa Cruz. There are numerous non-Maya men, East Indian, Mestizo, Creole and Garifuna, who live in Maya communities in Toledo, and non-Maya women have married to Maya men. And they live in the villages without problem. Some just ended up with land in a Maya community without a partner. All of them showed respect to the alcalde system.
In closing, I want to clarify that I am not saying that Mr. Myles “deserved it”. He did not. What happened was unfortunate and regrettable. He did make the outcome that occurred unavoidable by the standards of the community he ostensibly wanted to be a part of with his behavior. It is unfortunate that the community responded the way they did, but it seems that at the time, there appeared to be no alternative. I hope that if Mr. Myles wants to make a life for himself in his wife’s village, he will be allowed to go through the normal channels, and one day be an accepted part of that community.
I hope that this cools off, and the high emotions felt, now, fade, and we all go back to being Belizeans, who love our country.