A picture is worth a thousand words, and it was the picture of a Garifuna man, 34 -year-old Rupert Myles, shown handcuffed, tied with a rope and led around like a mule in the Mayan Village of Santa Cruz that infuriated so many Belizeans.
The days of slavery ended for Belize with the Abolition Act of 1833, but seeing a black man handcuffed, bound with a rope, being led about for the amusement of Maya village bystanders was so reminiscent of bondage that it triggered a viral reaction throughout much of Belize.
The upshot of that incident was that eleven of the men who took part in the adventure were arrested, and one member of the Maya Leaders Alliance, 34-year-old Cristina Coc was also arrested.
The treatment meted out to Rupert Myles has led to some of the worst race tensions in Belize’s history, with the Mayas of Santa Cruz claiming “political persecution” and the rest of the country “racial discrimination.”
For a country like Belize, which has never had a race incident of this kind in its 200 year history, it was a wrenching moment.
The Alcalde of Santa Cruz Village, Pablo Mai, claimed that Myles was a trouble-maker who had shown no respect for Maya tradition and Maya laws. Myles, he said, had threatened the peace by saying he was going for his gun. He built a house on a Maya archeological site without permission and refused to remove it. Alcalde Mai said he ordered a citizen’s arrest of the prisoner, but that Myles was not abused.
But the photographic evidence showed Myles handcuffed and bound with a rope, surrounded by what appeared to be hostile Indians. The rope around Myles’ wrists was powerful evidence of prisoner abuse, as defined by Chapter 2, section 7 of the Belize Constitution which states that “No person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment”.
Maya Leaders, including alcaldes, should also be aware of Section 10 (1) of the Constitution, which states that “A person shall not be deprived of his freedom of movement, that is to say, the right to move freely throughout Belize, the right to reside in any part of Belize, the right to enter Belize, the right to leave Belize and immunity of expulsion from Belize.”
It is important to point out here that the man who caused the uproar, Rupert Myles, is not blameless in this incident.
Santa Cruz lands are held in community. That is to say there is no personal land ownership. That means that Rupert Myles did not have the right to build a house on community land, in the same sense that a squatter in Belize City does not have the right to occupy government land.
The argument that he was living with a Ketchi woman, or married to a Ketchi woman does not give him any special status or privilege.
Under the Belize Housing Act, even if you are a landowner, you still need an official permit to build a house.
The Court Order of April 2015, which gives the Ketchi Maya control over their ancestral lands is not absolute in its application. The judgement of the Court makes it clear that the Maya villages which come under its purview are not sovereign entities.
They are, like all of us Belizeans, bound by the Constitution with regard to individual rights and liberties. The court ruling does not give Santa Cruz Village the right to expel a Belizean who has come to dwell in its community, so long as that person has a place to stay.