The Powder Keg
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.

June 1st, 2009
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] 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 rioters pelt the ZOLITUR offices

The rioters pelt the ZOLITUR offices

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

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.

Galvan speaks to the protesters in Los Fuertes.

Galvan speaks to the protesters in Los Fuertes.

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. [/private]

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