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Foreign Owned Businesses in Belize are Paying Police to Arrest Local Musicians

By Nathaniel Janowitz


Ambergris Caye is the main tourism hub in Belize and recently was ranked #1 on Trip Advisor’s 2013 Traveller’s Choice Awards Top 10 Islands in the World. The largest settlement in Ambergris Caye is San Pedro, a town of roughly 14,000 people. It’s a beautiful island where palm trees dance to the breeze while golf karts and bicycles own the few streets that exist. A stone’s throw from the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world, famed for the Blue Hole of Jacque Cousteau bravado, San Pedro relies heavily on the tourism industry.

The make-up of the island, while largely comprised of locals, is also inhabited by a smaller percentage of ex-pat retirees and advantageous business owners. This influx of foreign investment and capital has made the standard of living between foreigners and locals vast. Money flows in and out of foreigners hands while the locals work in the restaurants, clean hotel rooms, and do construction on developments all for rates well under the American minimum wage. So many of the businesses are foreign owned that it’s gotten to the point that it is easy to find Belizean owned businesses, not because there are so many, but because the few that are locally owned advertise that fact largely and proudly on their signs.

Opportunity is scarce in San Pedro and many locals find themselves trying to make money from the tourists by selling jewelry or handcrafted wares, some sell cigars or sun glasses. Even less are out just selling what they love; their music. While none of these guys – usually young black men with dreadlocks and tattoos – would consider themselves dealers, they all know how to get something green if you wanted them too.




Blackhenoh, a Jamaican reggae artist who has called Belize home for the last 5 years is one of the most recognizable faces in San Pedro. On a broken down concrete pier in the center of downtown, next to the central park, is where he works. This pier, which he affectionately calls his office, he stands, day after day, year after year, selling his music on the beach.

“Being an artist in San Pedro is difficult. Can’t get a decent apartment, got to make money by determination, to survive, to eat. It ain’t about being no bad boy. It’s about spreading my music, my heart.”

In the last few months though things changed. Local foreign business interests have combined to begin bribing police to get the “beach bums” off the beach. They put a bounty, $55 a head, whenever one of these guys are picked up. They take them to jail under the guise of P.I Theft (Pending Investigation of a Theft) which of course there isn’t. Under this Pending Investigation they are able to hold them, without due process, a lawyer, nothing, for up to 48 hours. A local restaurant, Fido’s, doesn’t even try to hide their support of this initiative. The restaurant cooks and brings in meals for the citizens arrested under these trumped up charges because the police didn’t want to have to pay for the excess prisoners food out of their own budget. It was part of the arrangement between Fido’s and the cops that along with paying the police, they’d feed the new inmates. In a 2 week period Blackhenoh spent 6 days in jail for nothing more than selling his music on the beach. And if he thought the meals would be good, they were, except for the fact that the police kept the restaurant meals for themselves and still fed the prisoners the ordinary jail food; bananas and gruel.

The reasons the business owners are doing this are pretty obvious. The men on the beach, selling CD’s, wood-carvings, jewelry, approach the tourists constantly. Some of the tourists like it and support, some of them ignore them like they’re nothing but a pile of shit they’re trying not to step in. The foreign investors have money at stake, and anything that disturbs the island dream they promote is bad for business right? It is apparently the number 1 island in the world after all. I guess they figure if they can get rid of the locals, it will stay that way.

“I’m a musician. Music is what I love. I’m not a drug dealer but no one on this island can say they haven’t sold a tourist a bag of weed. If they do, they lying.”


(The Office)


In Belize, traditional Garifuna culture is alive and well, specifically, drumming. Elton, a local garifuna drummer, who also sells different wares on the beach talks about the struggle happening on San Pedro.

“Can’t be on the beach or in the street without getting locked up. Where do we go? They creating a world where it’s either me or you.”

At the age of 29, Elton has two kids, and as a local garifuna drummer he can’t get enough work to support his growing family. By selling carvings and jewelry on the beach to tourists he works to provide, but it’s becoming more difficult when he worries about being arrested at any moment. The hostilities that he and others are feeling are starting to reach a boiling point.

“(The foreign business owners) use their money as power but they’re sheep in wolves clothing. Drive around with their guns on their wastes, paying the cops. They’re pretenders.”




An OG of the Belizean hardcore reggae rap game, El Ess Dee (LSD), has been living on San Pedro for a long time. The father of 5 kids, he finds it difficult raising them in San Pedro, trying to make enough money selling CD’s as his home becomes more and more dangerous. When he first came from the main land to the island, San Pedranos were fun, partying, hardworking people. Now he says, even the locals are scared to walk their own streets.

“Back then the problems were petty theft, weed, burglaries. Maybe a murder every 5 years. Now people disappearing like crocodiles taking dogs.”

This is where one of the central problems in San Pedro arises. Belize is located between Honduras and Mexico, two countries at the forefront of the drug smuggling operations that operate on the east coast of the Americas. San Pedro is progressively getting more wrapped up into it, as not just a stopping point and smuggling location, but also a recipient of harsher and harsher drugs. El Ess Dee explains,

“Once you got money you can own the cops. They getting paid to fuck with the guys selling weed to the tourists, not the big men. Cops know who the big people are. They hang out with them, drink with them, best of friends.”

Blackhenoh agreed. “The cops don’t do nothing about the guys bringing the crack onto the island. Nothing to help the kids getting hooked.” He pointed at a boat sitting out in the water. “That’s filled with coke. Everyone knows it.”




San Pedro is facing a crisis point; as the locals are increasingly struggling, the forces that be still try to maintain this pristine island image that keeps it on the top of lists and money flowing into foreign pockets.

“I got my music but what about the other people who are just struggling. What do they got?” Blackhenoh says. “If the police keep provoking they going to make things happen they don’t want. We living a happy life for a long time, we got talent, we live on it. But if I’m in a hole I’m forced into, they see what happens. We not living a life of crime even though it happens all around us. Instead of fighting crime, they instigating. The cops are creating monsters, they’re creating bombs.”

“With every action, there’s a reaction. We’re not fighting the system, just standing up for ourselves.”

Blackhenoh, El Ess Dee and Elton have been fighting this persecution by talking to the local papers, trying to get on the radio, and contacting human rights organizations on the main land but so far nothing’s working. Blackhenoh even met with the mayor of San Pedro, who claimed he had no knowledge of the operation, before ushering him away.

Trust in the government is low in San Pedro. El Ess Dee says he only hears from them when they want him to vote. “The government don’t listen to nobody. Give you $100 on voting day, maybe some paint to paint your house. After the vote they don’t do nothing for the people out there trying to get by.”

As people get desperate, they maintain that things could get a lot worse before they get better. But as artists, they have their own tools to fight. Blackhenoh recently recorded a new track with two other artists about the cleansing on the beach

It’s tough though because in San Pedro money speaks more than music. After the constant harassment Blackhenoh went back to the mainland for a few weeks until things calmed down but it’s temporary, he knows he’ll be back.

“I need to go back to the beach. It’s my office. Have bills to pay, cd’s to sell, music to spread.”

[tube] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0r5aO4FMpw [/tube]

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