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Mayan Leaders Arrested for Protecting Sacred Site

Mayan leaders of Santa Cruz in Belize say they were arrested for removing and then arresting a man who had illegally started to build on a sacred site

Mayan leaders of Santa Cruz in Belize say they were arrested for removing and then arresting a man who had illegally started to build on a sacred site in their community and then threatened them in a public meeting; these events transpired only two months after a high court ordered the Belize government to protect indigenous land rights.

On Friday, July 3, Mayan leaders filed a petition at the Caribbean Court asserting that the government had failed to honor the lands rights ruling when previously, on June 24, armed police officers arrested 12 Mayan villagers and leaders, including the principal leader or alcalde, on charges of illegally imprisoning Rupert Myles.

The Mayan leaders of Santa Cruz assert that Myles had illegally started to build on top of a sacred site, and that after being asked to stop he appeared at Mayan Council meeting and threatened the officials with a gun. Myles was then arrested on the orders of the Santa Cruz Alcalde who according to legal sources had the right to do so.

On the day of the arrest of the Mayan leaders of Santa Cruz, Belize’ Prime Minister Dean Barrow criticized the Mayan Council actions, including the tying up and restraining of Miles, as being unacceptable. “That is indefensible,” Barrow asserted. “These people, they, I think were pretty much well-positioned in terms of public opinion. I believe they've lost that completely now with this sort of action. Well they should. I mean, it is absolutely indefensible. I want to make clear to them again that, that consent judgment merely recognizes that they are entitled to certain rights. The nature of the rights is not spelled out.

“In the meantime, for them to do something like this,” Barrow continued, “they talk about their rights, what about that man's human rights? What about his rights as a Belizean?”

In other press accounts Myles had asserted that Mayan officials had used a racial epithet when referring to him and said they would ban his Mayan wife from meetings for marrying him.

“I don't know how on earth they can ever justify this,” Barrow said. “In my view they've lost whatever moral high ground they ever had and I want to look carefully at it to see if any of them might not perhaps be criminally liable from what they did to that gentleman.”

By June 30 however, the Mayan Council’s legal team and arrested Mayan Activist Cristina Coc started to make public statements that described a very different scene.

“It’s outrageous,” said Attorney James Anaya, who represented the Mayan community before the Caribbean Court and was a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People. “First of all, the Caribbean Court kept jurisdiction over this in order to supervise the implementation of the order and we are saying the government of Belize has violated the consent judgment,” Anaya said in an interview on July 3.

“And the Alcalde,” he continued, “is a magistrate, installed by the government, and can order arrests and other actions. Myles did not buy that property; he just went to a sacred site and started building without permission. He was told not to continue. The Alcalde went to the government and Belize police for assistance in stopping Myles and they did not respond.”

“The government is just ignoring the judgment,” Anaya added.

Local Mayan attorney Monica Coc also appeared at press conferences on July 3 in Belize to further explain their position before the Caribbean Court. “The application is asking the court to make clarifications and declarations with respect to that consent order and some of the things that we're asking the court to declare include, 1) to declare that the collective property rights arising from Maya customary land tenure includes the right of the Maya villages to determine pursuant to customary law, who may enter, use and reside in customary lands. Secondly, to declare that the government of Belize has breached paragraph 2 and 4 of the consent order…The application is also asking the court to order the government of Belize to pay pecuniary and moral damages to the Maya villages of Santa Cruz, San Isidro and Golden Stream for the government's failure to honor its solemn undertaking under the CCJ order of April 22, 2015."

For activist Cristina Coc, her arrest and that of the other Mayan leaders reflects a different aspect of the situation.

“Perhaps one of the things the state and the elites have trouble accepting is that Mayan people can be land owners. That the elites can no longer use our lands for personal gain, as some of these politicians give away the land as payment for votes,” she asserted.