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The Powder Keg by Thomas Tomczyk

One, Two, now Three riots… In Seven Months Frustrated & Alienated Demonstrators Paralyze the Island and endanger Roatan's tourism future. This Time they also Burn Governmental offices.

Roatan is only a small piece played in the game on the larger Honduran political stage. The country's left-leaning president has a plan to receive carte blanche to rewrite the constitution in a June 22 ballot. The May events on Roatan are connected to the even larger geopolitical game of Latin America where many leaders are moving left, closer to where Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia already are. It should come as no surprise that a portion of Roatan population moved to the ideological left and became radicalized as well. The task of controlling security pales in comparison to the challenge of bringing together a polarized Bay Islands society.

THE BACKGROUND
In last October and November's protests the demonstrators grew more confident in their actions. When previous riots took place, few people were brazen enough to openly pick up and carry stones or clubs. Now it seemed that everyone was armed and ready; dozens of people openly walked around with rocks and sticks in their hand. Your Bay Islands Voice reporter was physically attacked by the mob.
Following November's riots many islanders made statements that they would not suffer the risk of losing their tourism-based livelihood due to more riots and would take up arms to protect it. This, probably best for everyone, did not happen.
Ironically, both the rioting and riot control were in the hands of non-islanders. Cobra police, sent from Tegucigalpa, faced off Los Fuertes crowds that hail in large part from Olanchito and were discontented about other mainland Hondurans getting Roatan jobs. The security force hired to protect the ZOLITUR building was led by a Frenchman who came from mainland Honduras as well.
Islanders have been marginalized during the riots. Even leaders like Dale Jackson (seen by many to have pandered to last fall's demonstrators) and the President's liaison to the Bay Islands department, Arlie Thompson, did not speak to the protesters.

THE RIOTS
The timing of the protests was related to the president's visit, scheduled to open a desalination plant in Spring Garden. One of the protest's organizers was Carlos Galvan, a construction worker and grass roots leader of unemployed construction workers. On May 6, the first day of protests led by Galvan, the demonstrators took over a portion of the road in Los Fuertes. On the second day at 6am the roads ware taken in various key places around the island from the international airport to Cruise ship terminal. Two cruise ships were turned away from their scheduled dockings.
By 9 am however, it seemed that police had everything under control and the last road block was being dismantled. Then, a fight broke out between police and some demonstrators, and Los Fuertes exploded like a powder keg. Demonstrators pelted the police with stones and chased the police into a jail in Los Fuertes where several jailed rioters were freed with no protest or opposition on the part of the police.
The protests were back on. Tires were rolled into street bonfires and a group of maybe 10-12 protesters shouted "lets go to ZOLITUR" - whose offices are located on property around 300 meters from the heart of Los Fuertes.
The ZOLITUR offices were guarded by six security men dressed in black uniforms. The fear in the young men's eyes grew as around a dozen demonstrators picked up stones and took positions across the road. What became quickly and painfully obvious was that while the mainland-contracted ZOLITUR security carried zappers and handcuffs and two had automatic pistols, they were no match for a growing mob.
The demonstrators tested the waters by engaging in a "conversation" with the guards and within minutes they began scaling the building's entrance and kicking down the signage of the government office. They began hurling stones at the ZOLITUR office windows. The tension was palpable and when one of the ZOLITUR security officers was accidentally hit in a hand by a stone projectile, he picked up the stone and threw it back. Immediately, the two older ZOLITUR security police began firing at the protestors. There were no warnings, no firing in the air, the security men just shot at the demonstrators from about 15 meters away wounding one of them in the leg.
"We will get you. Just wait when our guys will come from Los Fuertes," the demonstrators shouted back and indeed within 20 minutes security guards disappeared into the bushes behind the building and 50 or so additional protesters begun breaking the doors and windows and dragging out furniture, documents and computers into a giant bonfire. ZOLITUR documents were scattered across the street and flew in the smoke and wind. "This reflects what the people really think about ZOLITUR," says Jose Lopez, a spectator at the scene.

The pile of office equipement and documents in front of ZOLITUR building.
ABOVE: The rioters pelt the ZOLITUR offices

Smoke also began to come out of ZOLITUR, which is located in a concrete building also housing a furniture store. No police, or fire authorities arrived in Los Fuertes for the entire day and night. The population was left to fend for themselves.
One of the rioters in front of the ZOLITUR was living in La Ceiba only six months ago. The fact was that some protesters were protesting against themselves.
Galvan came to Coxen Hole police station to discuss the release of the 37 arrested rioters and found himself arrested. This was the beginning of the end. At 6am on May 8 police shot gas canisters at the barricade in Los Fuertes and chased people into their homes and arrested 21 more people.

THE REBUILDING
By 8am the following morning around 200 people stood in front of the burned and looted ZOLITUR offices ready to make a statement and rebuild the offices.
Jose Luis Torriel, a manager at the Pristine Bay construction project and soon-to-be opened 18-hole golf course, brought around 200 of its workers to help with the clean up of the gutted ZOLITUR offices. One of them was Jose Luis Vardales, who six months ago moved here from La Ceiba and now works for Northshore, constructor of the Pristine Bay's golf course project. "I came here for the best opportunities," said Valladares who worked in US and speaks excellent English.
According to Torriel, of the 300 people employed currently at the project, 286 are Honduran and 14 are foreign consultants. "There aren't Hondurans who know about golf course construction," said Torriel, who is Guatemalan. "If the cruise ships leave, then the tourists leave and our investors will pull out," said Torriel.
According to Cynthia Solomon, ZOLITUR's director, the most valuable items lost in the offices were the PMAIB environmental studies. Solomon said that the Bay Islands census date created as the base of the creation of ZOLITUR had been backed up. "The security did what they could do, but what could six people do against a mob," said Solomon. The majority of the loss is not material, it is in the work lost in documentation and files. With ZOLITUR not insuring the building, the bill for rebuilding the offices comes out from the organization's budget.
Also at a loss were small businesses. "We probably lost around $300" said Ella Jackson who is in business transporting cruise ship tourists to different attractions around the island, and one of around 100 taxis, 112 minibuses and 180 busses that make their living off the cruise ship tourists.
While ZOLITUR employees were sifting through wet papers looking for documents worth salvaging, across the street a less enthusiastic crowd was watching the parade of officials, politicians and police. They were silent, sitting on the curb and their faces had no expression. When we asked what one of them thought about the scene a Coxen Hole worker responded: "Nothing."

THE AFTERMATH
While the Mayors, congressman, and governor made the rounds between the Fiscalia and jail to put pressure on the authorities to prosecute the arrested and keep arresting, the jail was filled to the brim with arrested protesters and looters standing in corridors. There was no more room in the jails three overcrowded cells.
But the task of producing particular charges against the detained was too much for the Honduran legal system. Within first 24 hours the majority of the arrested were released from jail. Within the next two days the rest were as well. When the dust settled, the only person against whom charges were not dropped was Galvan. Protesters made TV statements that they received direct help from President Mel Zelaya.
One of the arrested protesters, Angel Zuniga, was transferred to a hospital and died on May 20. According to Galvan, Zuniga's existing condition worsened once he found himself in police custody.
Two cruise ships were cancelled on May 6 and one on May 7 while Roatan was looking at extra cash from cruise ships diverted from Mexico because of the H1N1 flu virus. Cruisecritic.com, tripadvisor.com and US State Department websites all gave warnings and abbreviated, often inaccurate descriptions of what took place on Roatan.
The Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA), a representative of the majority of cruise ship companies coming to Roatan, met with President Zelaya and received a promise of concrete action.
The Ministry of Tourism, which is charge of promoting tourism to Bay Islands, now has to come up with a plan how to stabilize the security situation on Roatan. While a plan for the controlling situation could work short-term, the much more important requirement of mending the polarized Roatan society is a far harder and more complex challenge.
"The people are dying of hunger while the rich are getting richer," said a Rev. Freddy Cabreras, a Roatan priest who supported the protesters. While things are not great, Roatan has no children with bloated bellies and flies around their faces.
The reality is that for the past 500 years inequality in Honduras has been endemic. But, opportunities for getting out of poverty on Roatan are more abundant that just about anywhere else in Honduras. While the island has a billionaire, probably around 60 plus millionaires, it also has around 40,000 people living at or below poverty line. The contrasts, proportions and proximity of living of these groups are staggering.

Galvan speaks to the protesters in Los Fuertes.
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The Fractured Society

The tension between different groups has spilled onto the street
What Can be Done?


What should be understood is that protesters are not a monolithic group. They are in fact composed of several groups who share only some temporary goals and frustrations. While these groups might share the same tactics of building barricades and disturbing the peace, their long term goals are different.
The protests are led by about a dozen or so leaders, mostly schoolteachers, who are left leaning, with Marxist tendencies and strategies. The other group involved in this process is the unemployed or the economically desperate who see little to lose in the cruise ships pulling out or tourists disappearing. A third group is the restless youth. A few dozen ex-cons and ex-gang members form another group that provides a volatile element and can be seen taking drugs, drinking alcohol and generally abusing their power at the barricades. All these groups have at least the passive support of their families who venture out with helping arms when they need food, or are in jail.
Many countries in Latin American have made a shift to the left in the last decade. Honduras is bringing up the rear and might join Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba as a place where the poor rule, and the leaders of the protests see themselves as the vanguard of just such developments on Roatan.
The one organization that should be and still has the potential of bringing Bay Islanders together has failed abysmally. ZOLITUR has alienated the poor and many small business owners frustrated by the organization's lack of transparency, slowness of action and efficiency at capturing of funds. Over the course of the last two years, ZOLITUR became perceived as a bureaucratic and hypocritical monstrosity that produced censuses that no one heard about, took in money that no one later saw - unless in their paycheck, and hired foreigners to do its security.
Accusations of political and personal bias in ZOLITUR abound and the only tangible improvement that ZOLITUR has passed on is a garbage truck in Guanaja… an island on which most people move on boats, not trucks.

A simple, yet often forgotten fact is: "an excuse given by someone isn't always the reason why they did something." The posters and speeches of the protesters of May 6 and 7 are not the reasons for their discontent, they are just excuses. Political leaders in the department as well as the business community have failed to realize that, and continue to think that the solution to civil unrest can be done through economics.
While the signs on the protesters' posters might say one thing, the true objectives are different. The leaders have been fooled into thinking that the true reasons for the unrests were high energy costs, foreign workers taking jobs, etc. In fact these were just excuses, a made-up list produced with no intent of scrutiny or a legal challenge.
While rioters gave their reasons for discontent as RECO, ZOLITUR, Galaxy ticket prices, foreign workers, minimum salary, corrupt politicians… None of these charges were ever brought to Fiscal's office, no companies were named, much less shut down, for hiring more than 10% foreign workers, not paying minimum wage, etc. The protesters have plenty of access to legal channels, lawyers and Tegucigalpa power players, yet they have never followed a legal procedure to protect the worker rights.
Both sides in the riots accuse each other of conspiracies: rioters accuse RECO of conspiring in making their electric bills escalate higher and that ZOLITUR is a conspiracy of the rich. The other side has theories of conspiracy that "Tegucigalpa and Punta Cana (an unsuccessful bidder from Dominican Republic for RECO) are behind this."
Unfortunately neither side of the conflict is either sophisticated or competent enough to launch and disguise a conspiracy of any sort. The actions of both sides are not results of conspiracies, but of incompetence of just about everyone involved.
The continually erupting civil unrest and polarization of the Bay Islands' society has finally surpassed the intellectual capacity of Bay Islands leaders, most of whom have barely high school education and found themselves overwhelmed by what they can not fully understand, much less control.
The challenge of damage control is particularly complex: there is the weakness of the Honduran police and legal system, the political game played by Tegucigalpa in anticipation of the constitutional referendum scheduled for June 28, the finite capacity to understand ideological, cultural, and even religious polarization that has deeply divided people living on Roatan.

What ZOLITUR should do:

1. Empowerment: Begin training local people to replace the mainland born ZOLITUR security officers.
2. Investment: Spend the bulk of its security money on improving existing municipal police forces and tourist police.
3. Protection: Purchase insurance and equip ZOLITUR offices with fire extinguishers. Back up all computer files and hold the information off site.
4. Transparency: Disclose fully the entire ZOLITUR employee salary structure.
5. Openness: Open all ZOLITUR meetings to the press
6. Compassion: Create a fund to subsidize travel and electric bills of poor, ID holding Bay Islanders in emergencies.
7. Preservation of Culture: Immediately contract PHD and MA candidates to gather 'oral history' records of the old Bay Islanders.

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May Day Parade by Thomas Tomczyk

A Celebration of Workers' Rights turns into a Protest with a Litany of Complaints

One of the signs as carried by the protesters referred to "companies who do not pay the minimum wage. And who hire foreign workers." Bay Islands Voice asked protesters and protest organizers to point out to me the companies that hire more than the legal 10% of foreign staff and companies that fail to pay the minimum salaries, but they didn't know who they were. "We know that there are companies out there. But we don't know who they are," said Mejilla, one of march's organizers.
The parade began around 8:15AM in front of the ZOLITUR offices in French Harbour. The ZOLITUR security guards who are in front of the building 24/7 had been withdrawn and replaced by police. About 400 of the demonstrators carried signs and red banners the width of the street.
The streets between French Harbour and Los Fuertes remained blocked for over an hour slowing down tourist minibuses with cruise shippers heading to attractions on the east of the island. "We are not sure if this is a celebration or manifestation," commented an American tourist watching the parade, from outside his bus headed for Iguana Farm.
The November 2008 Roatan street riots introduced the element of burning a dummy and May Day parade gave an opportunity to repeat the feat. On May 1 three stuffed mannequins: of Rosa Danelia Hendrix, ZOLITUR dummy and Jean Pierre Sourd - chief of ZOLITUR's security force were hanging from a post in Los Fuertes next to the Catholic Church. The protesters didn't know Sourd's name so they wrote: "Chief of ZOLITUR security that threatens to kill the people."
"Get out foreigners and prisoners of Dollar and Euro," shouted the marchers. "With a lying mayor - the people are strong. With a dictator congressman - the people are crushed," the crowd chanted from handed-out leaflets. The rally in front of the Catholic Church in Los Fuertes had comical and farcical elements to it. There was the singing of anthems, speeches, prayers and finally the three stuffed effigies were unceremoniously burned.

A red banner with the Defense Committee of the Island Peoples' Rights (CDDPI) led the May Day parade.
While May Day parades took place all over the world, few involved the burning of life-size effigies of political candidates and leaders. The 2009 Roatan May Day Parade did.
The Defense Committee of the Island Peoples' Rights (CDDPI) was in charge of the event and the May Day parade was led by a mock coffin with inscriptions against RECO, ZOLITUR, Galaxy Wave, foreigners, corrupt politicians and low wages. The wood coffin was painted in silver metallic color and a glass window allowed people to see the 'deceased person' which was one's reflection in a mirror placed inside.
Minutes before the parade Andy Amaya, one of the Committee to Protect People members, was sitting on the podium writing posters. "How do you spell 'submarine'? With a 'b' or a 'v'?" asked Amaya, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.
While Amaya may not be a great speller, neither is he fazed by details. Amaya was writing about breaking a "promise to bring a submarine power cable from the mainland" - a promise that authority has never made. In fact, the majority of the posters prepared for the May 1 parade were done by Amaya.
Landing in the Forest
Drug Plane Crashes on Utila, Three Men Found Floating near the Island

The plane eventually crashed in the brush near the Utila landing strip. The plane was ripped apart by the brush and trees during the landing creating a large clearing in its path. All three crewmembers were Columbian: pilot Jeison Fernando, co-pilot Luis Garcia, and Bejarana Hernandez who died during the crash.
In a likely related incident, a few hours before the plane crash, at 2:30 PM, Kader Urbina, 27, a Utila police agent was found by the Utila Princess ferry boat floating several miles off the coast of Utila holding on to a plastic drum. The police officer said he was coming from Roatan with two other men when their boat overturned.
The following day a search boat found two other men holding onto a barely floating overturned boat. The men stated that they were coming from La Ceiba with a crew of five when their boat capsized. Tegucigalpa police authorities suspect that the boat was on route to supply the drug plane with fuel and coordinate its landing on the Utila landing strip. When the plane found no one to coordinate the landing, it circled the populated area of the island and eventually crashed.
Utila residents report suspicious planes circling and landing on the island several times a week. The landing strip area is virtually off-limits to the island residents who don't want to run the risk of being caught in a middle of a drug deal.
Utila residents are now used to night and even daytime operations by the drug traffickers transferring cocaine bundles from planes to boats. The Honduran Navy base due to open next to Guanaja airport is likely to make Guanaja airport off-limits to drug traffickers and put Utila as an even more desirable place for drug transfer operations.

The wreckage of the drug plane.
It seems like the only way police can catch a drug trafficker on Utila is if he ends up with a broken leg and hanging off a tree, or floating helplessly at sea. In fact on May 10 at least two, or possibly five drug traffickers were picked up in just such circumstances.
On January 26, a plane with 1,500 kilos of cocaine and a boat were found at Utila's landing strip, but not a single arrest was made. The May 10 drug bust and crash created a new record on Utila, with 1,680 kilos of cocaine found and later destroyed by police.
On May 10, around 9:30 pm a two-prop drug plane begun circling Utila for three-and-a-half hours. "Many people were scared. We thought the plane would crash in the Camponado [a working class neighborhood on Utila]," said Julia Keller, Utila resident. All this flying activity brought attention of the US Air Force, who dispatched a plane to investigate the low flying aircraft.
Shaking & Breaking
A Most Powerful Earthquake in Memory Hits Bay Islands, Damage Minimal

Around 2:24 AM on May 28, a powerful 7.1 earthquake hit the Bay Islands for 45 seconds. The most powerful quake in decades shook houses, breaking glasses and dislodging roof tiles. Several aftershocks followed in the night hours causing concern and uncoordinated evacuation efforts by individuals and authorities.
"I felt I was on an airplane in a major turbulence. All the cans and coolers were smashed, my water heater was broken," George Crimmin, owner of a West End hotel, said describing the quake.
Tourists from West Bay were evacuated in buses to the Cahoon Ridge around two kilometers from the popular beach destination. In anticipation of a tsunami, residents on West End and Sandy Bay were asked to leave their home as long as two hours after the quake.
"Right after the quake everything went dead silent and I could hear the roaring sound in the valley," said Janine Goben, a Brazil Hill resident. Goben says that at the 150 meter above sea level ridge, about an hour-and-a-half later, busses and trucks begun arriving with people living close to the sea.

"The biggest impact of the entire earthquake is that 80% of our employees didn't show up for work 'because they were afraid'," said Gary Chamer, owner of Palmetto Bay Plantation.
According to Luis Feldman, a Guanaja resident, around 60 Bonacca cay residents evacuated their boats in anticipation of a tsunami and went to the nearby airport and Armadores community. On Utila, many people left their homes and wandered into the streets. "This is the strongest quake I ever felt," said Julia Keller, owner of Jade Seahorse cabins, that suffered damage to glass art displayed in its unique garden. The majority of the damage took place on the Honduran mainland where a major bridge collapsed and several people died.
The United States Geological Survey recorded the earthquake about 27 miles north east of Roatan, on the Cayman Islands trench that that forms a tectonic boundary between the North American Plate and the Caribbean Plate. The trench runs east to west, around 30 miles north of the Bay Islands and while earthquake caused by the two Caribbean plates moving are not infrequent they rarely go beyond 3.0 or 4.0 magnitude. According to USGS, the last major earthquake to hit Honduras was a 6.7 magnitude quake in July 1999.

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Police vs. ZOLITUR Security

Who is really responsible for securing the Bay Islands?


So when the May 6-7 riots took place the ZOLITUR officers found themselves far outnumbered by protesters wanting to prove to ZOLITUR security the point that ZOLITUR security wasn't even in a position to ask for help from French Harbour Border Police and Preventiva police just 800 meters away.
The burning and looting of ZOLITUR offices brought out the reality of just how inexperienced and untrained the ZOLITUR security force really is. When security man Jorge, 21, from Tegucigalpa was wounded in the hand by a rock thrown across the street by a rioter, Jorge threw the rock back and two ZOLITUR security officers began firing directly at the demonstrators. There were no warning shots, no firing in the air, the entire street turned into a gun battle. ZOLITUR security proved that they could compete with Honduran police for who has less training, and who cannot follow procedures in a confrontational situation.
When, about an hour after the ZOLITUR building was attacked, Sourd finally arrived on the scene of the gutted and smoldering building with a dozen armed men, he didn't even attempt to put out the fire that was spreading inside the ZOLITUR building, ready to engulf an adjacent furniture store. Sourd declined to comment to Bay Islands Voice.
Roatan already has nine different police forces: four municipal police teams, tourist police, traffic police, border police, investigation police and preventive police. Some wonder if another "policing force" is the answer to security issues on the archipelago.
The hiring of the ZOLITUR security has managed to alienate the national police stationed on Roatan. "Some islanders told me that they want their own 'Cayman Islands' here and their own security force," said Roger Madarriaga, chief of Roatan Tourist Police while several other Tourist police officers nodded in approval. Madarriaga says that a bill is being introduced in Honduras' Congress that would allow the ZOLITUR security to do patrols. "That would really create competing security forces on the island," said Madarriaga. According to Madarriaga, one of the ZOLITUR security men was already arrested while on the job in West End in March after he was drunk on the job, got into a fight and lost his firearm.
Adding to police resentment is the fact that ZOLITUR security men are paid much more then their equivalents at the police. The starting salary at the Municipal Police is Lps. 6,000, Tourist Police officers start at Lps. 7,000, while the salaries announced for ZOLITUR security are around Lps. 12,000 plus a Lps. 6,000 housing and food allowance. "They all have very high salaries," says Alejandro Pacheco, one of Roatan Municipality's council members.

Police officer in riot gear speaks to the rioters in Los Fuertes on May 7.

In December 2008, a new security force, ZOLITUR Security, was brought in from mainland Honduras. Some of the security men are as young as 20 and all unable to speak English. The ZOLITUR security force began patrolling on foot in Spring Garden, Flowers Bay, Punta of Coxen Hole and West End and causing tensions with the police who felt that the patrols were an encroachment on their turf.
Cynthia Solomon, ZOLITUR director, says that during the escalating crime wave of October, November and December of 2008, local community leaders approached ZOLITUR asking for help. "All the thieves knew that the last police left West End at 1:30am and that's when all the break-ins began," says Bill Etches, owner of a West End bar. "By no means they will replace the police. Ideally we would support the Tourist or Municipal police," says Cynthia Solomon. "But, we had just so many complaints. The people just don't trust the police." The fact is that police were sometimes perpetrators of crime. In one instance three La Ceiba police officers organized the robbery of an islander in West End.
Solomon claims that ZOLITUR Security has the right to do patrols within a one mile radius of the property they guard. "It's in the 'Ley Organica de la Policia.' The police don't know their own laws," says Solomon. "When you have a problem, you cannot get people that are not trained." However, over the last five months, ZOLITUR has done no training, nor hiring of locals to integrate them into the security force.
The paradox is that ZOLITUR, an organization that is supposed to encourage hiring locals, has brought in two-thirds of its paid employees from the mainland. If that wasn't alienating enough, its French chief of security, Jean Pierre Sourd, has managed to singlehandedly alienate both the Roatan police chief and the protesters. According to Rev. Freddy Cabreras, at an April meeting with the protesters, Sourd said that "They better leave their women and children at home and not hide behind them."

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