At press time Roatan’s West End has been without a police station for more than a month because of a disagreement over who should pay its electric bill.
The Tourist Police station was locked up and abandoned in April after it ran up more than $7,000 in unpaid bills to the Roatan Electric Company (RECO). Police and municipal officials said the bills were the responsibility of the tourism chamber (Cámara de Turismo).
The station, located in a private house up the hill from Woody’s grocery store across from Half Moon Bay, had previously been garrisoned by seven police officers, providing a permanent presence and rapid response to incidents in West End, one of the island’s prime tourist areas. Since its closure, the National Police have maintained coverage of West End by dispatching two-officer patrols out of the station in Coxen Hole, 11 km away and about a 20-minute drive in normal traffic.
Accounts vary, but sources said when the station was established more than two years ago it was understood that the municipality, the Patronato (village council) and local business owners would share the overhead expenses, including the electric bill. But according to Matthew Harper, RECO’s director of operations, “They could never get their heads together and pay it (the electric bill).”
“It’s not a municipal obligation,” said Roatan Mayor Julio Galindo.
Galindo said that the municipality had been paying Lps. 150,000 a month to rent the building for the station and to provide food, fuel and a patrol car, but that the Cámara had agreed to pay the electric bill. For their part, West End business owners said they had recently collected Lps. 54,000 to feed the officers for three months, and small shop owners said they regularly provided free food and beverages to patroling policemen.
National Police Commander Manuel Calderon also said the Cámara had agreed to cover the electric bill, but Kevin Braun, who owns Cannibal Café in West End and has been active on this and other civic matters, disputed that.
Harper said that when RECO employees tried to cut off service to the building for unpaid bills they were chased off with guns, or the police simply reconnected the cables off the meter. Finally, he said, the deputy commander of the Tourist Police visited him and said he wanted the service cut off to put pressure on the business owners to pay the bill. By that point the station had been operating off the meter for about a year, said Harper.
“If it was a government building, we wouldn’t have a problem,” said Harper. “But it’s a private house.”
At a town meeting at Cannibal Café May 16, concerned business owners debated proposals to bring the police back, including possibly acquiring a new parcel of land to construct a new station, with the Municipality purchasing the land and business owners contributing the building. It was also proposed that the Water Board, which has $38,000 on hand, or the Marine Park could cover the unpaid RECO bills.
However, Esmeralda Mann, a long-time West End resident and president of the Water Board, expressed strong opposition to using Water Board funds to “bail out the police.” Mann said having a police station in West End, a priority for businesses that depend on tourism, was “not the most important thing for us.”
“The community needs to decide what’s most important,” said Braun, who hosted the May 16 meeting.
Meanwhile, although police say they are doing their best to maintain near-continuous coverage of West End through the roving patrols, officers on the beat admitted that the patrols were no substitute for a permanent garrison and that criminals could exploit the situation, betting on a 20-30 minute operating window. In fact, customers at the parrillada stand outside the Booty Bar on West End Road were robbed late Sunday night, May 13, according to the stand’s operator. As of noon Monday no report of the incident had been filed with police, and the crime was not being investigated.