The Mayan struggle for integration within Belize’s modern day society By: Hubert Pipersburgh


Hubert Piperburg

Hubert Piperburg

The rule of law is for all Belizeans and no one group should be excluded from her protection.   If we are truly going to live in a peaceful constructive nation as envisioned by our forefathers then we must have laws that promote and uphold justice for all Belizeans from the Rio Hondo to the Sarstoon. In a liberal constitutional democracy the constitution is the supreme law of the land. Mayan, Garifuna, Creole, Mestizo, East Indian and all other ethnicities that live in our nation are protected by the Constitution of Belize.

In the case of indigenous or customary communal rights, as worthy as they may be; human rights, common decency, and societal norms cannot take a back seat to it, in short, those rights ends where international human rights begins. Sweeping the Santa Cruz incident under the rug and kicking the proverbial ball down the road only leads to more of the same. It will continue to fester just below the surface.

The Santa Cruz event grants us an opportunity to seek some concrete solutions. We can live and let live or we can tackle the issue of race relations, as uncomfortable as it may be.

Despite where you fall in this debate or whomever side you chose to believe. For some, there is something that’s still not quite right with what went down in Santa Cruz. Some are willing to dismiss the symbolism of the photos and videos; regardless of the conclusions that are drawn from them, for me, they are disturbing. That incident should serve as a cautionary tale as to where intra-race and ethnic relations are heading in Belize if allowed to fester.

Now that the we have had time to reflect I can say, without reservation, that it appears as though Mr. Myles ran amuck of the manner in the way the Mayans traditionally do things via their Alcalde system. From all reports, if accurate, appears as though Mr. Myles actually built a structure on a sacred Mayan mound. If so, that’s wrong on many levels. However, It does not summarily excuse the alleged inhumane treatment of Mr. Myles by the Alcalde and his crew.

Undoubtedly, there are many that feel something is seriously wrong as it relates to race relations in Belize. However, society as a whole has been reluctant to admit this and face the issue squarely and seek solutions.

As a humanist, I unequivocally support the rights of the indigenous people down south.

However, I’m not in support of the creation of a Bantustan type enclave where tribalism and racial considerations are deciding factors. The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) is the final word and foremost authority on any litigation. The court recently issued a consent decree that instructs both the government of Belize and the responsible Mayan leadership to reach an amicable solution; all parties involve must find a lasting solution that not only places Mayan land rights on a legal and administrative footing. It must also ensure customary indigenous land rights not lead to any racial separation and isolation. The CCJ consent decree was important in Belize’s struggle against racial isolation because it granted the Mayas an opportunity to find peaceful constructive ways for peaceful coexistence with all other ethnicity.

In addition, if Belize is going to avoid further Santa Cruz type incidents that can make racial separation worse and more difficult to overcome. It’s the duty of the government of Belize to develop a comprehensive policy that will make the Indigenous Mayans a permanent part of our Belizean family.

Our Mayan brother and sisters struggle is the epitome of liberation struggles where land tenure and access to and who controls land is a lynchpin for debate of private v communal lands.

My hope is that we are not missing the underlying principle of this unfortunate episode. Certainly, many Belizeans will need time getting use to the new reality that International Covenants of which Belize is a signatory grants the right to self-determination and a limited from of self government to indigenous peoples within national states

Culture Clash. Written by Aria Lightfoot

my way or highway

I have gone back and forth with my thoughts regarding the incident in Santa Cruz. Unlike many people, I was not taken aback seeing a Black man hogtied by the Mayans because I have seen that image before. The time before that, the detained man was a child molester in a village somewhere in the Cayo District.

I grew up in a smaller community in Belize, I know that residents many times take matters into their own hands, with follow up help of the police department. Village justice if you will. However, when I heard Myles’s claim of discrimination and eviction due to that discrimination,  I was taken aback. He claims that he was a victim of racial discrimination. The feisty Mayan woman in the background seems to support his claim, even though she said nothing, her body language suggested a frustrated woman. The video showing the interview with Myles also presented a young polite Mayan police obviously carrying out the will of someone else. There were several follow up photographs and video images; one with Christina Coc using a rag over her face as a sign of rebellion maybe;  and then Coc being confrontational with a local politician;  and then finally a video of the Mayans chasing out a videographer out the village with machetes in hands. All these videos were aimed to inflame emotions but really shared little information about what truly transpired, leaving the conspiracy theorists to their active imaginations. As expected, social media lit up with many opinion pieces regarding the incident, most supporters of either side accepting a one- sided version of events to make a point.

I am someone who attempts to see things from all perspectives. Many times I examine issues through heated discussions and many times I would reread the discussions and rethink my position.  I love learning about cultures and I have an affinity for Mayan culture because I grew up in a household with a young archeologist aunt who absolutely loved everything cultural and Mayan. I was also told that my great grandmother, part Ketchi, had a sister who was a traditional Ketchi woman who visited often when my mother was young. I preview that story with my opinion because I want to highlight how many of us in Belize have multi cultural interactions and relationships regardless of how we look or which culture we currently subscribe to.

Belize is a melting pot of cultures and to some extent I understand the Mayan’s plight to secure a permanent place in Belize due to changing demographics, demand and exploitation of land that has equated to a loss of security and stability for many. Recently Nigel Petillo had a similar fight and was able to secure a large plot of land divided into individual lots. I think overall many Belizeans can admit to having a fleeting sense that Belize has caught the attention of those with bigger wallets and more influence over our leaders. To another extent I see why they fight for communal land is a preference over individual properties.  The same fleeting sense warns of a foreboding that individuals would be susceptible to the influence of Big Oil and money especially in an environment of poverty made worse by the influence of western images of wealth. Ultimately, I think each side saw this dispute from different understandable angles.

Myles is in a common law marriage to a Mayan woman and have decided to live amongst the Mayans. I am not sure where Myles grew up and how he perceives power in Belize but I think that he may be ignorant to the ways of the Mayan people. This ignorance helped fuel this incident.  Evan X Hyde advocated for Indigenous and African History to be taught in schools because we were subjected to Belize history as written by the Europeans instead of Belize History – the true story. The first time I learned about the Alcalde system was taking my paralegal course at UB. The very idea was foreign to me and arguably foreign to Myles. Myles wanted to build a home with his family – a Mayan woman and children who would likely be part Mayan. The laws of Belize allows one to defend their home to the extend of death if they feel threatened and maybe Myles felt he was defending his home and did not understand the Mayan tradition or the power of the Alcalde.

On the flip side of things, the Alcade system is deeply rooted in the Mayan culture and coupled with a recent ruling with the CCJ, the Mayan has the Alcalde system and the highest court backing. They also have many international attorneys, association and financial backers, so they have become a powerful voice. They saw the actions of Myles disregard for their traditions and laws so severe that they decided to arrest and evict him. However, according to our laws, they are not granted the power of eviction and arguably they may or may not have the power of arrest based on the facts available.

The question is who is wrong and who is right? Both arguably have laws allowing them some level of power; one the power over his home and domain and the other the power over the affairs of the village. My mother use to say that power is something that many people want and few can truly handle because many have power and lack discretion.

First Myles wanted to live in a Mayan village and he ought to understand that in a small village, you have to live and socialize with your neighbors. In small places, individualism is viewed as rebellion and disrespect. He lacked the understanding of the system in place and probably didn’t take time to become a full participating citizen in the community. He lacked discretion to understand that fighting a community could ultimately become volatile fast.

Second, Christina Coc showed poor leadership during this incident. This should have been her opportunity to educate while advocating. Even with an Alcade in place, it seems that she plays a powerful role in her community. She has the respect of her people. Wearing a mask and demanding respect is no way to gain respect. When one juxtaposes Myles rebellion to the Alcade system as Coc did to the Belize legal system, you see two very stubborn people who want things their way only. Coc has powerful lobbyist friends on her side and she has well respected attorneys at her call.   She could have used the same power of the media to force the government to address the situation before it reached deteriorating levels. It has now deteriorated into derogatory cultural biases from different sides.

Third, the Alcalde maybe should have sought out the help of a higher authority before ordering action. The government moves at a snail pace and maybe a rush to action may have help to contribute to this. However I understand that as a leader in his community, there had to be some decisive action to undo the perceived threat and disrespect.

Finally, the police could have carried out the arrest in a different manner. How much of a threat did the Mayans really pose to the gun carrying officers? Arresting them at night may have been strategic so as not to cause a riot, but allowing them to dress properly should have been the very least respect shown to the Mayans who were merely acting according to the will and tradition of their leaders.

Finally, the gas-throwing politicians in the mix- you know who you are! You are fanning a dangerous flame in Belize. Racial divide in a multicultural community will blow up in your face.   Belizeans are a very interrelated people. Many of us carry the DNA of every race in Belize and we have close family members and friends from every race and culture in Belize. This is the best time for discretion- withhold the urge to gain brownie points from this incident because there are absolutely no winners. This incident was a teaching moment for me. It highlighted to me many different issues of Belize cultural identity and ignorance about cultures. The media is so heavily based in Belize City that the nation of Belize is really served up  lopsided views of cultures, news and information. The books and teachers have not done much in teaching real Belizean history and culture and the media personalities and politicians are agenda driven to divisiveness that they serve no purpose except to make what could have been settled by a mediator into an international incident.

It leads me to reach out different opinions from people I respect.  Please take time to read the entries from Christopher Nesbitt, Dr. Jerome Straughn, Mario Lara, Hubert Pipersburg and Jeremy Enriquez. Please click on the names below to read their essays

Jeremy Enriquez

Mario Lara

Dr. Jerome Straughn

Christopher Nesbitt

Hubert Pipersburg

Fanning racial divisions will distract Belizeans from bigger national issues By Jerry A. Enriquez, Amandala June 28, 2015

Jerry Enriquez

Jerry Enriquez

Last Sunday afternoon, when my friend Wil Maheia shared with me his video clip and photos of Mr. Myles, a Creole Belizean man, handcuffed and tied in the Maya village of Santa Cruz, shortly after the incident occurred, I was stunned with utter disbelief, confusion and anger.

It was the same sinking feeling that haunts whenever I learn of the discriminatory and brutal harassment of disadvantaged, impoverished Black men in Belize City by U.S.-trained and funded Belizean security forces. The pointless, persistent and eager incarceration of Black men for minor non-violent offences and the consequent destruction of their families for generations also evoke within me such disgust even as it seems to have become an accepted, ministerial-complicit part of our racially color-coded postcolonial society. Such behaviour is also intertwined with history and continues to be a dominant practice in many countries.

That is why the image of Mr. Myles handcuffed and bound with rope was poignant, powerful and emotionally provocative. Despite the request by many for media persons to relate the context and facts that led to this image, none was forthcoming for several hours. Consequently, outside Santa Cruz, the general population around Belize had no other information except for hours of replay of Mr. Myles’ convincing narrative, thereby unearthing deep raw public emotions about discrimination, ethnicity and racism.

On the other hand, having also worked voluntarily with the Maya leadership for a number of years in support of their struggle for their indigenous land rights, I can affirm that making blanket statements about any race of people is itself a hallmark of discrimination. Over the years, I have had countless hours of positive interactions and richly informative discussions with the Maya leadership. This has brought about deeper appreciation of one another’s cultures and their struggles to maintain their traditions amidst the onslaught of an increasingly encroaching money-driven individualistic values that destroy self, culture, communities, and nature.

Such support was also nurtured by my personal experiences working with indigenous peoples of Suriname whose land rights struggles against their government are similar to the Mayas. Yes, there are positive and negative persons within all ethnicities. Unfortunately, people tend to highlight and remember mainly negative impacts over positive ones for years.

What Mr. Myles did to the Mayas and the response of the Mayas to Mr. Myles did not have to reach this stage if systems were in place and responsive to mediate their behaviour. Without sharing much details, Mr. Myle’s alleged that his being handcuffed and tied was as a reflection of racism by the Mayas. The Maya leaders had a different narrative. They alleged that Mr. Myles consistently disrespected their community by building his house within an archaeological site. According to the leaders, neither the police, BDF nor NICH responded to their request to assist in dealing with the alleged violation by Mr. Myles. Allegedly, when he threatened gun violence, the leaders were forced to defend themselves and subdue Myles in the way that they did.

By the time the Maya leadership shared their thoughtful narrative the following day about the series of events that led to their actions, it was too late. In these days of media soundbites, images have become more convincing than mere words. The emotional impact of an unforgiving public had taken root and quickly spread like toxic fumes across the social media, thereby threatening to erode the cautious public respect that they had earned after winning major court cases to protect their internationally recognized indigenous rights.

This incident evoked a catharsis of sorts – to unleash years of underlying pent up feelings about experiences with racism. However, we as a nation cannot remain there. We must interact and engage constructively to seek ways to nurture a healing process, to rebuild trust and community spirit. All Belizean groups were hurt and are evidently still hurt by racist experiences. The persistent marginalization and impoverishment of Black Creoles in Belize City, Garinagu and Mayas of southern Belize, for example, are not by coincidence and have deep historical roots not yet effectively addressed.

We the people have to be very careful that this concentrated emotionally divisive national response does not distract from the bigger picture of our national development. When reactive emotional responses take root, individually or collectively, genuine listening, critical thinking and the objective analysis of all angles of facts and information can get lost, and the truth blinded.

Ironically, it is the lack of understanding, awareness and goodwill, the lack of respect and connection with our common humanity and the rush to judgement of others that form the seeds of discrimination, sexism, and racism. These very qualities have prevented true nation building and have kept our nation torn by political, religious, social and ethnic divisiveness.

Through mediation, Mr. Myles and the Maya Leadership can still reconcile and resolve this issue peacefully. They ought not to allow this to drag on for long.

What this incident reveals is that there is still need for dialog towards genuine respect for all cultures in Belize. We haven’t yet begin to heal as a nation as political divisiveness continue to cloud many nation building issues. Our nation is yet to articulate a common vision and long term plan derived from the people. There is a paucity of leadership while political parties are engaged in narrow destructive ego games. Political discourse have remained destructive, immorally distorting of truth and bearing of false witness against others: – most embarrassingly poor examples for our upcoming generation.

While we try to resolve these and many other issues, we have to check our proverbial small change. We might be grossly distracted by the noise around to avoid looking at more pressing issues such as Belize’s burgeoning and unsustainable debt, unresolved unfounded Guatemalan claim, increasingly fractured democracy, discriminatory justice system, lack of accountability in the management of public finances and resources, the paucity of leadership to nurture a robust democracy, and so many other issues.

The need to heal our racial divide speaks to the failure of such institutions like our archaic churches that have remained uninspiring in their hollowed sepulchre of increasingly alienating European traditions and deities. It was their role to nurture peace, and to inspire love and community, respect and the foundations that fuel the human spirit through these challenges. They cannot even attract the youths.

Our education system also has not effectively prepared our youths to engage in critical national development issues either. Many still graduate without the awareness of Belize’s history, our Constitution nor understand how we are governed. As a result, many are rendered emotionally vulnerable to whims and fancies of slick politicians who can easily sway their decisions. A more dynamic education could have also nurtured more cross cultural experiential learning opportunities for it is the lack of such in depth understanding that have a number of leaders (hardly exposed to the lives and culture of others) ingrained in a condescending discriminatory ego-filled behaviour against others who they view as lesser beings.

It is the gross lack of understanding about indigenous rights, as well as the rights of Afro-descendant people nationally and internationally, including its historical roots and objectives that is also causing a rift in the nation. There is need for a serious discussion about this, but people must take the initiative to also do their own research about our common oppressive histories and current trends.

We cannot continue to fan discrimination against each other as Belizeans. Rather we need strategies and actions for bridging gaps, for healing and for appreciating one another. The intent to continue to divide and conquer us as a people is from a much bigger source. As Belizeans squabble, there are international interests for continuing to own more of our land and resources while we prevent our own fellow Belizeans from living as they wish. When hundreds of thousands of acres of Belizean land are granted to foreign entities in concessions or for ownership, for example, no one seems to mind. Certainly those blocks of foreign-born owned lands are totally out of bounds for any Belizean.

In this global play of huge stakes, if we as Belizeans continue to fan the seeds of division and continue to assault our own fellow Belizeans, we shall perish together. As the saying goes, “It’s not about the noise around the market, check your change.” Check? Dividing Belizeans against one another is a game that the colonizers played well to achieve their selfish objectives.

There are big people who feel hurt that the rights of the Mayas are constitutionally and internationally recognized and affirmed. They have their greedy interests. As they seek to continue to undermine plans for indigenous management of resources, they seek to set up native Belizeans to fight against each other. While they seek to hoodwink us, others are working to dominate and play “footsie” with our natural resources, our economics, our public finances, our governance and eventually all of us. Those who speak out, they want to hush.

Just check around your towns and cities, for example. Who owns most of the resources? Who are becoming richer? Who are becoming poorer? We have to rise above the jealousy, the deceit, the alienation of one group against the other and see the big picture of what is happening to our nation. Let’s stop the quarrel and channel our energies resolving the bigger picture. Let’s heal and unite, all of us. The power is in our hands. We the people. Belizeans. Respect!

Mario Lara’s thoughts on the Santa Cruz incident in Belize


Mario Lara

Mario Lara

July 3, 2015

Most people who read this essay may already have strong opinions about the Santa Cruz incident, the characters involved, the subsequent aftermath, and all the various related issues. A lot has already been said about this incident as it seems to have dominated the radio airwaves and social media. I must admit that I’m feeling very intimated as I attempt to put my thoughts on paper because I’m not entirely sure that there is anything more that can be said and I am not a blogger. But, a new friend of mine, Aria Lightfoot, with whom I’ve already had some very spirited debate on this and other topics, has invited me to write on her blog. And, I decided that this might be a good opportunity for me to step back and do a bit of reflection. I have been accused, by Aria and by others, based on some comments that I’ve made, of romanticizing the Maya and being biased in their favor. Perhaps by forcing myself to reflect some more, I might be able to disabuse myself of any negative bias that I may have. I encourage all Belizeans to step back a bit and do the same. While it is important for us to speak our minds, it is equally, if not more important, to step back and reflect a bit.

First of all, this is a very unfortunate episode in Belize for all parties involved. In the heat of the moment, there seems to be no winners here at all. But, I am of the conviction that something positive can and must come out of this tragic set of circumstances and that Belize and Belizeans can get through this stronger and more united with a clearer sense of who we are as a nation and a people, and what it means to be a Belizean in all of our various multicultural and ethnic flavors.

One of the related issues that have been front and center in the discussion is that of racism and bigotry in Belize – the darker side of a multicultural and diverse society, if you will. The allegations made by Mr. Myles Rupert that he was unwelcomed in the village of Santa Cruz, and that as a result he was ultimately insulted, humiliated, and wrongfully detained by the Santa Cruz Maya village community and village police simply because he’s black, is very disturbing and sad. The video clip of a black man in handcuffs and tied with a rope is very jarring, especially at this time when we have been bombarded on social media with images of black people being abused by those in authority. The hash tag black lives matter message resonates not just with those of us living in America but with black people everywhere within the sphere of influence of America, especially with those who have access to the Internet. So, this unfortunate incident and that video clip that instantly went viral in the Belize social media circuit have sliced open a gaping wound in the Belizean social fabric, exposing the racial bigotry and ethnic tensions that have simmered beneath the surface of Belize’s fragile haven of tranquility for decades. We’ve all been aware of it, but never before, at least not to my recollection, has it polarized us in such a quick, dramatic and tangible manner.

So moving were the images of the video clip and the news of a black man allegedly humiliated and unlawfully detained by members of the Maya community that it compelled the Prime Minister of Belize and law enforcement to spring into action and come down like a hammer on the accused perpetrators of such a heinous act.   News media outlets informed the public that the Prime Minister pronounced immediately that what the Mayan people did to Mr. Rupert was outrageous and that their disregard for the man’s human rights was unjustifiable.

Given the measured and tepid responses by the GOB to recent aggressions by Guatemala and incidents such as the grounding of a Guatemalan military vessel on Belize’s precious barrier reef, and the capture of a group of Belizean citizens by Guatemalan forces, the quick and forceful manner in which the Maya villagers were arrested, and then the public pronouncements by the Prime Minister that they were guilty even before a proper investigation or much less a court trial had been conducted was quite a shocking display of indignation toward the Maya by the Prime Minister. The fact that the Prime Minister himself is a black man is not easily overlooked in this situation; and one has to wonder whether the alleged actions of the Maya community touched a core nerve with the Prime Minister that is rooted in his black (not his Belizean) consciousness and identity.

At any rate, it has sparked a debate about race and bigotry in Belize that hasn’t fully dissipated and perhaps never will because, as I’ve said, the issue of racism and bigotry simmers beneath the surface of Belize’s tranquility.

Not surprisingly, the version of events offered up by Mr. Myles differs significantly in details compared to the version of the events offered by the Maya community. The story is well known at this point. The leaders of the Maya community assert that Mr. Myles was trespassing and living on Maya communal land to which he had no rights or permission, and that he behaved in a disruptive and threatening manner when asked to leave said land.

This brings us to another related issue that has been front and center in the discussion – the issue of Maya customary and communal land rights and the reluctance of the GOB to recognize and protect those rights.   The Maya community have engaged in a decades-long struggle in order to gain legal recognition of their customary land rights; and they recently scored a massive victory when the Caribbean Court of Justice ruled in their favor and against the GOB affirming a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that indigenous Maya land tenure does exist in Toledo and also mandating the Government to take affirmative action to protect Maya rights.

This too has caused a rift in the Belizean social fabric and even among the Maya themselves. Some, myself included, are in favor and support of Maya customary land rights while others are strongly opposed and of the opinion that there ought not be any special rights conferred to the Maya and that such customary land rights are incompatible with a modern land management system based on private ownership of property. Here too, the Prime Minister felt it necessary to make a pronouncement on the matter and he stated that the consent judgment entered earlier this year by the Caribbean Court of Justice in the Maya Land Rights case did not supersede the Constitution and laws of Belize, nor did it transfer sovereignty over any part of national territory from Government to any particular ethnic group.   The Prime Minister’s statements are not entirely inaccurate.   The Maya communal land rights certainly did not transfer sovereignty to the Maya. But, this was never in question. Clearly the Prime Minster, being on the losing end of the ruling by the CCJ, is not very supportive of the Maya customary land rights despite the courts mandate for the GOB to take affirmative action to protect Maya rights. This then casts yet a different light on why the Prime Minister may have been moved to act in such a quick and forcefully manner against the members of the Maya community, and why the Maya may have felt, that given their ignored requests for assistance from the GOB in dealing with Mr. Myles, they had no choice but to act on their own.

This then brings us to the question of whether or not the Maya community had any authority whatsoever to act on their own and to detain Mr. Myles. According to the Prime Minister, they clearly do not. He stated that they needed an eviction order from the courts to enforce land rights and remove Mr. Myles. He further stated that no alcalde system, no cultural remit can supersede the laws of Belize. Here, the Prime Minister is speaking as a legal expert; and, while he presents a strong argument, the Maya leaders of Santa Cruz differ in opinion and are likely to argue their case in court. At this juncture, since they’ve been arrested, it seems they will have no choice but to do so.

The Alcalde system has existed in Belize since colonial days.  Yet, it remains unfamiliar to many Belizeans who did not grow up in or near Maya villages that have used it as a means of administration. The Alcalde system permitted Mayan cultural practices to continue under colonial administration and has continued to function in much the same way even after Belize gained its independence.   Indeed, it is one of the pillars upon which the Maya have been able to make their case for continuity with their ancestors and upon which their claim of customary land rights is partially based. O. Nigel Bolland in Colonialism and Resistance: Essays in Historical Sociology writes:

The British authorities attempted in the 1860s and 1870s to control the Maya directly, through a system of police and appointed alcaldes, and to confine them to rented land or reserves on Crown land. When this attempt proved impracticable, the colonial administration in the 1880s shifted its policy to one of indirect rule, through elected alcaldes, and largely abandoned the idea of granting reserves to the Indians.

The evolution of this Indian policy was, in part, influenced by general financial and humanitarian consideration then prevalent in the Colonial Office, but the tiny, poor settlement of Belize was not given much attention by the chief policy makers in London. More important in the evolution of this local policy were local considerations, namely the changes occurring in the colonial political economy and, in particular, the role of the Maya themselves.

The decline of the mahogany trade and the beginnings of plantation agriculture caused the colonists to change their view of the Maya, from a threat to the timber reserves to a potential labour force. But when the hopes for plantation agriculture faded, the colonial authorities were more inclined to leave the Maya to get on with their traditional agriculture.   The role of the Maya in shaping British policy [and the shift toward indirect rule on a whole] is important, though hard to assess.

Maya customary land rights today, much as it has been in the past, are caught in the cross hairs of the local political economy and future development potential of Belize. There are powerful and high financed groups (logging companies, oil companies, hoteliers) that have interests in the lands that have traditionally been occupied by the Maya and both the history and the present day situation help to explain why the Maya are so protective of their communal lands and why the State has been so slow moving to protect those rights; and why the alcaldes and Maya activists are becoming more and more vocal in asserting their rights.

An article published in The Amandala dated June 30 references further statements made by the Prime Minister Dean Barrow as follows: “Barrow said that all Belizeans must see Government’s acceptance of the Maya’s special rights as a signal, advancement to achieving multiracial harmony in Belize, and a demonstration of respect for and pride in our Maya heritage and legacy. He said that the move to legislate these rights must move as quickly as possible with everyone embracing the process – a work which he said would be “epic in scope” and “problematic and tortuous in the extreme.” While these are nice sounding words, taken within the context of all that has been said and done over the past several decades and especially in the last few days surrounding the incident at Santa Cruz, it is difficult to accept the Prime Minister at his word and difficult to remain optimistic about the future of Belize. But, we must remain optimistic and must hold him and each other accountable.

This Santa Cruz incident has revealed some difficult truths about who we are as a nation and as a people. Our image as a tranquil haven of democracy has been tarnished and our multicultural harmony is sounding rather discordant these days. And it begs the question, are tranquility and multicultural harmony ideals that we value and are willing to work hard to protect? I hope and believe that the answer is yes. Based on some of the discussions that I have read, heard, and participated in, that hard work and introspection that is part and parcel of moving forward has already begun.   Most reasonable sounding Belizeans whether their arguments lean more toward the defense of Mr. Myles or the defense of the Maya community acknowledge that there was wrongdoing on both sides and that we can do better as a people. I find hope and something quite optimistic in that tone. Even the jarring video clip of Mr. Myles in handcuff and tied with a rope, reveals the image of what appears to be a supportive Mayan wife or girlfriend in the background and a detained person being allowed to freely speak to the camera and state his case. This video clip, unlike the images of police brutality that we’ve been accustomed to viewing, upon further review, doesn’ t simply leave us numb; it makes us question exactly what is going on in the larger context not caught on tape.   The debate that has been sparked by the video clip and tragic set of circumstances, although unnerving at first, appears to be a healthy one, or at least moving in that direction, as far as I can tell.

But, we can’t stop at the issues of racism and bigotry. It is important that all Belizeans educate themselves as much as possible about the broader issues of Maya customary land rights, the Alcalde system, the role of GOB in developing a framework or mechanism that protect the rights of Maya and the rights of all Belizeans. How can we as Belizeans claim all of the Maya history, heritage, and temples and reap the benefits that these bring to our nation in the form of significant tourism dollars that contribute toward economic growth and all of our well being, yet ignore the present day Maya struggle to assert their communal land rights? How can we honor the Maya history of resistance that is part of our Belizean identity as we resisted colonialism and struggled for our independence and as we sing in our national anthem, “For freedom comes tomorrow’s noon,” without considering the plea of our present day Mayan brothers and sisters for their rights to be respected and not overlooked, as the lands that they have traditionally occupied and administered get parceled off and allocated? Whose freedom comes tomorrow’s noon? Our own? Those of the multinational corporations? Or, those of a multicultural society insistent on forging its own unique way forward? We cannot simply allow ourselves to be easily manipulated like crabs in a barrel and pitted against each other. We need to educate ourselves, hold our leaders accountable and hold each other accountable.

Those who are interested in reflecting some more on this issue and finding out more about Maya communal land rights, the court cases and rulings, etc. can start by going through some of the information at the following web site:

I also recommend an article written by Filberto Penados titled, “Reflections on the recent developments in Toledo.”


Mario Lara

Myles Away: The Meaning of Santa Cruz and the Possibility of Ethnic Conflict. Written by Dr. Jerome Straughn


It has been almost two weeks since an incident in the village of Santa Cruz in the Toledo district when a black Creole Belizean by the name of Rupert Myles was unlawfully detained by Mayan villagers and the photos of him handcuffed and surrounded by villagers have sparked an at times heated discussion about his detention. Based on his account of what happened, his detention is seen as a clear case of racism and proof is in the photos.

But in the immediate aftermath of the incident Mayan community leaders backed by the Maya Leaders Alliance stated that they did not discriminate against Mr. Myles but were simply enforcing their communal land rights. The MLA later issued a statement regarding the attempted eviction and detention of Myles. Mayan leaders stressed that Myles was detained because he showed little respect for the Alcalde of the village and was belligerent. Worse, he threatened villagers telling them he had firearm in a vehicle.

Today there are some Belizeans who believe Mr. Myles story of experiencing racial discrimination in the Mayan village of Santa Cruz, some who don’t believe his story, and some who believe that the truth lies somewhere in between. One thing is as clear as the pictures that were taken,  is whether one believes his story or not has a lot to do with their view of racial and ethnic relation in Belize, their perception of the southern Maya and their traditional culture, their support for one of the two mass parties in Belize, and most important their support or opposition to Mayan communal land rights. Within a week of the incidents Belizean were separating into two camps, and polarized individuals in each camp considered themselves to be right.
Race and Racism in Belize
           “Racism or something else” was the bold caption on a photograph posted on the Facebook page of the reporter Patrick Jones. The photo showed hancuffeed black Belizean Rupert Myles (with a rope that had been tied to his foot attached to the handcuffs) surrounded by Mayan villages armed with machetes. Because of the instantaneous nature of social media, the photo was likely one of the first photos of the incident. A responsible reporter, Mr. Jones was intentionally trying to be a responsible journalist, but nevertheless he was accused of irresponsible journalism.

In the midst of Belizean discussing the incident in social media a video was posted of Mr. Jones giving an interview about what transpired in Santa Cruz, and stating that the Alcalde of the village and firebrand Mayan nationalist Cristina Coc of the Mayan Leaders Alliance made racist comments about him living in the village. The Toledo Alcaldes Association and the Mayan Leaders Alliance would later issue a release rejecting what Myles had said and gave a detailed account of Myles actions in the village that led to his detention.
Though there has always been racism in Belize, the issue of race is often a difficult thing for many Belizean to talk about because of their views of Belize as a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country with a history that differs significantly from countries where there is deep racial divisions. But race and racism has been very much a part of Belizean history, before the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot of 1919 (often see as a race riot).

Nevertheless, Belizeans continue to believe that there is little or no racism in Belize and some Belizean who live in the United States continue to say that they never experienced racism until they came to the US. Often when the issue of race and racism is brought up there are many who feel that such discussion is divisive, and those who engage in it are often racist. But it is important to note that unlike a country like the United States, the sort of racial discrimination that exist in Belize tends to be subtle and not institutionalized. And so applying the word racism to what often occurs in the country is to use the word loosely.
The claim by Rupert Myles that he experienced racial discrimination in the Mayan village of Santa Cruz and him accusing the leaders of Santa Cruz village of violating his rights brought the issue of racial discrimination and Mayan communal land rights to the forefront. There were some who dismissed his claim and accused Myles of playing the race card. A people who have experienced discrimination and overall oppression that has resulted in them being marginalized and at the bottom stratum of countries in which they live, it has been hard for many Belizeans to believe that some Mayans such as the villagers are capable of anti-black racial discrimination.
But for some black Belizeans this was not difficult to believe, and days after the incident they recalled their experience living in a Mayan village and their experience with Mayan racism against blacks. Regardless, this claim of racism and the response to what happened was considered a distraction by supporters of the Mayan land rights struggle. In their steadfast support a discussion of Mayan racism was less than substantive or simply avoided – considered not worthy of being discussed.
What was worth talking about was what Myles did in the village. In his essay on the incident in Santa Cruz, Penados states that the incident brings to the fore number of important issues that can easily fall through the cracks. But none of those issues related to the discrimination Mr. Myles claimed he was subjected to. Nevertheless, Penados did address the issue and stated: “While in no way should we be insensitive to Mr. Myles’ claim of racism, we cannot ignore the question of Mr. Myles trespassing on Santa Cruz lands. The 2007 and subsequent rulings have affirmed that Santa Cruz residents own their lands. The village has a customary land tenure system.”

As for those who opposed Mayan communal land rights, the claim by Rupert Myles provided an opportunity to portray the Santa Cruz incident as a harbinger of things to come where Mayan communal lands rights is concerned in the aftermath of the CCJ consent order. The Amandala editorial titled “A Belizean Crisis in Toledo” suggested that in making a “big mistake” the Maya leadership “walked into a trap” when Myles was detained. But there is no indication that this was a trap. The incident simply reflected the rough road ahead in relations between Mayan and non-Maya in Toledo

   While many might not want to believe Mr. Myles story about racial discrimination in Santa Cruz, they must consider the extent to which race was a factor in the incident and address it. If there might have been an absence of deep-seated bigotry on the part of Mayan villagers, it is possible that because of his actions (seen as belligerent and allegedly threatening villagers) Myles was eventually racialized, his size helping to define him as a black man in a Mayan village. (As it relates to crime, black men in the town of San Pedro are very much racialized).In the heat of an exchange between himself and members of the community, there is a good possibility that his race became a factor in how he was perceived as a threat. He might not have experienced racial discrimination but there is a good possibility that there was the radicalization of Rupert Myles in the village of Santa Cruz.

Changing Views of the Southern Maya

If not for his accusation of racial discrimination and a rope being attached to a handcuff used to restrain him, the detention of Rupert Myles by a group Santa Cruz villagers would have not been so unusual for most Belizeans. They would have suspected that he had committed a serious crime in the village, and this was the kind of village justice they had seen before. Belizeans remembered that in the village of San Jose Succotz in 2011 there was the beating and hogtying of 62 year-old Roy Cumberbatch was accused of trying to rape a 14 year-old boy in the village. Cumberbatch was handed over to the police.
But Belizeans also remember that in 2010 Mayan villagers from San Marcos outside of Punta Gorda in the Toledo district burned down the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary of U.S. crocodile expert Vincent Rose. They did so after being told (supposedly by a local fortune teller) that two Mayan children were abducted by the couple who ran the sanctuary and were being held there. After conducting a search for Onelia and Benjamin Rash at the sanctuary and not finding the children, the ransacked sanctuary was burned down.
Lastly, fresh in the memory of many Belizeans was the 2014 illegal “communal detention” of the family of a suspected murderer in the quiet village of San Pedro Colombia, in their search for a suspect in the gruesome murder of 61 year old Agripina Coc. There was the concern that the villagers desperation for justice was taken too far.

In its editorial the Amandala newspaper tangentially suggested that Belize City Belizeans should ask themselves if they are not in need of some of the old-fashioned discipline the Maya felt pressured to resort to when they detained Rupert Myles. The editorial thought such village justice was much needed in high crime Belize City. Sympathetic to the Mayan land rights cause, but recognizing that they “did wrong,” the Amandala editorial was expressing a positive view of the Mayas, many aspects of their traditional culture, and their sense of community that many Belizean hold.

Like the Mennonites, Mayans in the villages are seen as living a virtuous life. Mayan villages that are still steeped in a traditional way of life, but confronting modernization, are what the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies calls the Gemeinschaft (communal society). In such a society there is greater social control and this is reflected in the role the Alcalde plays in the community and how members of the community who commit crimes and violate norms are dealt with. Focusing on the actions of Rupert Myles,
But many Belizeans no longer romanticize the Mayas and give the group an “ethnic pass.” They feel that in such a community a high level of social control can often create social problems. Belizeans also know that in seemingly tranquil Mayan communities there are crimes that remain hidden to outsiders. They are also critical of certain Mayan traditions and feel that Belizeans should not engage in cultural relativism where the some Mayans continuation of some traditional cultural practices are concerned. (Addressing the detention of Mr. Myles Penados had this to say: “The truth is that tying someone to detain and restrain him/her is not unusual in Maya communities as far as I understand.”). Lastly, with the land rights struggle the Mayas way of life (especially as it relates to communal land vs. title) has come under greater scrutiny.
It’s likely that over the course of the land rights struggle to the point where the Maya were triumphant at the Caribbean Court of Justice, the views and attitudes of the non-Maya resident of Toledo towards the southern Maya have changed. The same holds true for Belizeans in other parts of the country. And after the Rupert Myles incident, it’s likely that there is greater change in the views and attitudes of non-Maya Belizean towards the southern Maya.

Myles may have been simply dismissed by some as playing the race card when he was detained, but what cannot be dismissed is the views many Belizeans might now hold on the issue of Maya communal land rights (more negative). This should be of great concern to Maya leaders as the government of Belize moves forward in trying implement the consent order.
Communal Land Rights and Other Belizeans

In his essay Penados stated that there was a need to clarify what Maya land ownership and governance means for other Belizeans. I agree with him, but I thought he could have went further in noting how land rights is often the source of racial and ethnic conflict. Implicit in the writings of those who have addressed the incident at Santa Cruz is that after the long legal struggle that culminated with the CCJ consent order all it takes now is for the government to implement the [decree] in consultation with the Maya.
There is no mention of possible conflict in a multi-ethnic Belize of the type that occurred in Santa Cruz as a result of the communal land rights issue. All that is needed now in our “tranquil haven of democracy” is reconciliation and healing, not any attempt at critical examination of understanding why an incident described by some as a distraction had many Belizeans reacting in very emotional ways and Belizeans becoming more polarized over this issue. Myles is simply described as just a pawn in other people’s game and Joseph Estephan agent provocateur in chief.

Furthermore, some saw what occurred in Santa Cruz and the outrage expressed by many as fitting into the classic divide and conquer strategy that would benefit those interested in using and exploiting Maya land and resources. Overall, they accused the government of being part of a deliberate strategy to deny the Maya their communal rights. “We have seen what State inaction can produce in the case of Santa Cruz.” Penados states. Other went further in accusing he government of inciting non-Maya Belizean against the Maya..
In focusing on Myles on Estephan there is no acknowledgement of the genuine concerns, anxieties, and even fears of some Belizean about the issue of communal land rights for the Mayas. No provocateur was needed to stoke the fires of division. There is also no recognition of the fact that ethnoracial groups such as Creole, the Garifuna or East Indians often act in their own self-interest.

With the CCJ consent order, there is certainly a need for the government to move ahead in consulting with the Maya or their representatives, develop the legislative, administrative and/or other measures necessary to create an effective mechanism to identify and protect their property and other rights arising from Maya customary land tenure, in accordance with Maya customary laws and land tenure practices. But doing so will not be as easy as some may think.
Writing about the incident in Santa Cruz the Amandala newspaper Henry Gordon address the difficulties the government of Belize will have in implementing the consent order for what he calls special land rights. “Few seem to want to admit that is not as simple as that” he noted. ???. Globally, the issue of land rights is often a source of conflict between ethnic groups. In the case of a multi-ethnic Belize, trying to determine the possibility for such conflict rest on the country’s history and the views Belizeans hold of the country’s diversity. ???. The various ethnic groups of Toledo have coexisted for over a century, but the incident in Santa Cruz raise questions about a breakdown in ethnic coexistence over what Henry Gordon calls special land rights for the southern Maya.

Family Ties to Toledo and Learning about the Mayas
         Growing up in Belize City Toledo, and more specifically Punta Gorda was some far off place. My mother often lovingly called it the forgotten district. But my father’s family is from Toledo, Reflecting the diversity of the district and ethnic coexistence, my mother often spoke of my paternal Esther Adderly knowing some Garifuna and one of the Mayan languages.

As for the southern Maya themselves, I still remember as a child going to Friday market day at the Belize City Central Market and meeting a short Maya woman barefoot and dressed in traditional clothes. “Dah who dah woman?” I asked my mother as the woman sat beside the produce they were selling at Court House Wharf. “She is a Maya” my mother responded, “and she came from Toledo.” At that time the southern Maya were not much integrated into Belizean society and few had migrated to other parts of Belize.

Before she passed away, two Maya women from the south help take care of my mother doing domestic chores around the house. The younger women whom I often spoke to on the phone and the older woman whom I met highlighted Maya migration to different areas of Belize in search of employment and other opportunities. Before my mother passed away, I often spoke with Mrs. Balam about Mayan culture and life in the village.
Tensions in the future and the potential for Conflict

     In his essay Penados described the process in which an outsider becomes a member of a Mayan community, and how such membership is restricted. Where communal ownership of the land is concerned, he further described how one could enter Mayan village but not have permission to settle there. The Mayas struggle for communal land rights and consequently a sense of rootedness to some extent stands in contrast to the movement of the Mayas out of the villages and out of Toledo.
Where such movement and the communal land rights issue is concerned, some Belizeans in the heat of the discussion over the detention of Mr. Myles suggested that if what the Mayas are ultimately seeking is a homeland as discussed by O. Nigel Bolland, then how should other Belizeans think about them living freely in others parts of Belize. (Some also continue to question the indigenous status of the southern Maya, namely the Kekchi) Of course such suggestion of sort of an internal passport for the southern Maya highlight how divisive the land rights issue has become or can become
For over two decades the Mayas have been moving to Punta Gorda from Maya villages, and I was told by a long term resident of Toledo that this migration in the 1990s from the villages resulted in a sort of resentment by people of the town, especially Creoles and Garifuna, who noted that while the Mayas could freely move to the town, they could not freely move to a Mayan village.
In the aftermath of the Santa Cruz incident a video was circulated of a January 2015 exchange between Joseph Estephan and Cristina Coc of the MLA. In the video Estephan argued that he had a right to enter any Mayan village and while he might ask permission, which was just an act of courtesy. In response, and with a sense of power, Coc said that if he went into the village unannounced, he could be arrested for trespass. Non-Maya Estephan might be a provocateur, but this exchange highlight why there is likely to be continued tensions in Toledo and highlight one of the challenges the government will face as it tries to implement the CCJ consent order.

I like Filberto Penados believe that there will be other incidents like the one that happened in Santa Cruz. But we very much differ on why those incidents will occur. He believes these incidents will occur because the Government of Belize failed to address the situation as mandated to by the various court rulings and because agents provocateurs are busily at work trying to undermine the peace.

I also disagree with Jeremy Enriquez, who in an Amandala column titled “Fanning Racial Divisions Will Distract Belizeanssuggested that it is the gross lack of understanding about indigenous rights that is causing a rift in the nation. In some ways he is right that many Belizeans lack and understanding about indigenous rights. Indeed many paid little attention to the various court decisions. But whatever understanding they do have about indigenous rights, especially as it relates to the recent incident at Santa Cruz, there is every indication that many do not have a favorable view.

After Santa Cruz

A lot has happened since the incident at Santa Cruz where the unlawful detention  of  Rupert Myles is concerned, race and racism in Belize,  and the wider issue of Mayan customary land rights. First, the  discussion  continues – at times becoming heated – in social media and on various call-in talk shows in Belize.
On Facebook, some  have expressed their concern and disappointment about some of the comments made (mostly against Mayan land rights and the Maya) and few have stopped commenting on threads discussing the issues. As stated, the incident brought put certain emotions in Belizeans and it clarified or reinforced their views on the land rights issue. For the most part it has been a meaningful  discussion of the issue.
While  I have not been listening to the call-in talk shows,  I am sure the  comments have been interesting, but have also made  some Belizean  concerned about  the direction  in which this is heading in terms of the possibility of  ethnic conflict .
Lastly, a number of  newspaper editorials, newspaper columns , essays and blogs  have been written about the incident. There are many insightful things that have been said in some, but quite frankly, cloaked in the language of academia and intellectual discourse,  there have also been a lot of nonsensical or meaningless things said in some. What is being said is quite divorced  from the concerns of many Belizean in terms of what  Mayan communal land right will mean for Belize, especially in terms ethnic relations.
A few days after the incident of Santa Cruz,  the police before dawn raided the villages of  Santa Cruz and arrested 12 villagers. The MLA spokesperson Cristina Coc was also arrested. The villagers were taken to the Punta Gorda police station and charged with the unlawful detention of Rupert Myles (two were charged with unlawful assault) and Coc was charged for conspiracy to commit unlawful imprisonment.
The pre-dawn raid was condemned for the way in which it was conducted and the way in which the men and Coc were taken to court and were arraigned. Several of the men were shoeless and shirtless on their way to court and this image was just as shocking for many as the detention of Myles. It gave an impression of the Mayas being reigned in by the government and reporting on their arraignment Isani Cayetano, stated that “the striking image of  Mayan men disrobing outside of the Punta Gorda Police Station was as poignant an impression as the parading of Rupert Myles through Santa Cruz a few days earlier.”
But the way in which walked to court with with a red rag covering the lower half of her face and wearing a tee shirt depicting a woman with a rag over her face, in the style of the revolutionary Zapatistas the Mayan resistance movement from southern Mexico reinforced her image as a Mayan nationalist. The burly black police woman escorting her to court briefly removed the rag from her face and in doing so was perhaps asserting her authority and power. But Coc defiantly put the rag back on her face.
The Mayas were triumphant in their legal struggle and this in many ways had empower them. And after the detention of Rupert Myles, Coc supposedly had commented that what was done was “beautiful” and “empowering.” But her arrest and that of  the Mayan villagers  was a remainder of the power of the state and how it can be used.
Within a week after the 13 Mayas were arrested and arraigned, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights  of the Organization of American States wrote to the government of Belize seeking information on the arrests of the 13 Mayas on the grounds that the life and personal integrity of the Maya leaders was at risk for defending their land.
This inquiry served as a reminder  that  the Mayas had internationalized their cause through the OAS and other international organizations and had received tremendous legal and financial support from abroad. It can be argued that such  support was greater than the support that they received from other Belizeans. Nevertheless, such support from abroad continue to be a source of power
       Lastly, while the unlawful detention of Myles highlighted the likelihood of ethnic conflict between the Mayas and non-Belizeans as a result of the land rights issue, the heated exchange between the Senate exchange between People’s United Party Senator Lisa Shoman and United Democratic Party Senator Lisel Alamilla highlighted the upcoming conflict between the Mayas (and their supporters and the Government of Belize.  During a meeting of the Senate, Shoman accused the government of having been determined legally to deny the rights of Maya Belizeans, and went on to say that nothing had been done to implement the CCJ.
But Alamilla who was appointed head of the commission to deal with the issue of communal lands emotionally accused Shoman of pretending that the Mayan leadership wanted to find a solution to the issue. “They are undermining the CCJ Consent Order” she continued to say about Mayan leaders, and described the ways in which they had done so in several villages. .
Shoman also suggested that if the government had been implementing the consent order what occurred at Santa Cruz would have never happened. This view is quiet questionable as there is a likelihood that an incident such as the one that occurred in Santa Cruz is likely to occur again, whether the government  implement the consent order with great haste or do so slowly. This is because what the term communal land really means for the Mayas (and the right and responsibilities of owning the land communally) seems to mean something different for some Mayan leaders, and this is reflected in  Senator Alamilla’s response to Senator Shoman. 
Then of course there is the issue of what the term means for non-Maya Belizeans, and what will be their response to what some Belizeans see as the Southern Maya having special rights. This is a right that doesn’t necessarily “scare the powerful” as Cristina Coc suggest at the meeting of Mayan leaders in the village of Golden Stream but it certainly is of great concern for many Belizeans.

Christopher Nesbitt’s thoughts on the Santa Cruz Incident in Belize

            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:
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.
Christopher Nesbitt
Maya Mountain Research Farm
San Pedro Columbia, Toledo
PO 153 Punta Gorda Town, Toledo
Central America
Country code 501-630-4386