story / editorial
The Powder Keg by
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.
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.
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 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.
pile of office equipement and documents in front of ZOLITUR
The rioters pelt the ZOLITUR offices
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
speaks to the protesters in Los Fuertes.
story / editorial
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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
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.
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
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.
ZOLITUR should do:
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
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
story / editorial
/ local news
Day Parade by Thomas Tomczyk
Celebration of Workers' Rights turns into a Protest with a Litany
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.
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.
in the Forest
Plane Crashes on Utila, Three Men Found Floating near 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
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.
wreckage of the drug plane.
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
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
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
Most Powerful Earthquake in Memory Hits Bay Islands, Damage
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
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
"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.
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.
story / editorial
vs. ZOLITUR Security
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
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
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.
officer in riot gear speaks to the rioters in Los Fuertes on May 7.
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.
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."