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Sep 24, 2014

Welcome to San Mateo…San Pedro Subdivision Turned Slum…

San Pedro on Ambergris Caye is a renowned tourism destination, the favourite of foreign visitors from every corner of the globe. Nestled alongside the world’s second largest barrier reef, and the largest in the hemisphere, the island offers tourists their choice of five star resorts, every amenity known to man and world class snorkelling, fishing and diving. But the old cliché holds true on this beautiful paradise – progress beings problems. The growth spurt in tourism has resulted in a massive influx of Belizeans who seek to take advantage of the industry – and they all need somewhere to live. So on this island, unparalleled luxury and wealth share space with undeveloped slums and unbelievable poverty. Our News Five team travelled to San Pedro last week, to a small subdivision known as San Mateo. What we found there was shocking. Mike Rudon has that story. 


Mike Rudon, Reporting

La Isla Bonita, caressed by tropical island breezes and nature wild and free, has been immortalized in song by Madonna. It is a playground of the rich, a thriving tourism mecca. There seems no end to the island’s potential as one of the world’s premiere destinations. Just north of San Pedro Town, five star resorts and condominiums are popping up just about as fast as construction materials can be brought in by barge.


This bridge, where a toll of ten dollars is charged for crossing, provides access to all that unbridled luxury. And it also provides access to San Mateo – a subdivision where the stench of garbage is a rude wake-up call.


For approximately one thousand residents, San Mateo IS home – the only home they know. Many of them have been here since 1997, when this area was just lagoon and swampland.


Daisy Cacho

Daisy Cacho, San Mateo Resident

“I da the first person back ya. When we mi first come live back ya, whole a ya da mi lagoon. Whole a dis area da mi lagoon. Dem time we have to walk inna deep water…swamp. We go way down to ya fu try to get right ya weh part we deh. We used to go through alligator, big snake…all kinda thing fu get back ya.”


The subdivision is covered with garbage. Many of the homes are little better than listing shacks built on mounds of rotting trash or swamp. In places where the lagoon has not been beaten back, the homes are connected with networks of London Bridges. It is incredible to imagine people raising their families here. Even more incredible is the knowledge that things used to be much worse. Just a couple years back, there were no streets in San Mateo, only these precariously perched wooden bridges.


Glenda Rancharan, Community Health Worker

“The conditions back here have really improved as to health-wise because we used to have a lot of outbreaks back here. From the time I’ve been here I’ve noticed tremendous improvements. We had bridges and now we have roads that we can walk.”


Glenda Rancharan

Daisy Cacho

“Ih really rough fu we Sir…ih really rough. But as how the people deh tell we..the Minister and Mayor…they tell we ihwah be better because they seh whole a back ya wah be street…dis da just fu now fu full up di lagoon because whole ah ya da mi lagoon…dis whole place da mi lagoon by itself. So as far as now dis plenty better, because we neva mi believe dat dis mi wah full but they did it.”


As hard as it may be to accept, for residents of San Mateo the garbage is a good thing. It is trucked in by the Town Council and used as land-fill. As evil and overbearing as the stench of rotten garbage becomes, it is a necessary evil – and an unhealthy one.


Daisy Cacho

“Lee bit a da water woulda get pon fu we foot…yu see how I deh walk pon dey stick and everything…da water get pon fu we foot an ih itch…ih itch and if yu continue scratch it when yu see something come pon yu foot. I wah yu see my bwoy foot right now. He no deh ya mek yu see it. He gawn out deh. I wah yu see fu he foot. Ih badly off because a dis water right ya. And da noh only adults…da kids.”


Very few of the homes in San Mateo have running water, electricity and septic tanks. Very few of the residents can afford it. Pastor Everett Palacio has been in San Mateo for sixteen years. He is one of the fortunate few, relatively speaking.


Everett Palacio

Everett Palacio, San Mateo Resident 

“Most of the people here are developers of the island. They work either in the hotels, in the restaurants, in construction. People of this area are really hard working people. Most of the days you won’t find a lot of people at home because they are working. One of the issues that I have taken up with our Area Representative Mr. Heredia is mein, how much harder do they want the residents of San Mateo to work, or to put in. We have been putting in so much into our property. We pay the most in utility bills.”


Daisy Cacho, and many other residents of San Mateo, can’t afford it.


Daisy Cacho

“That da the roughest part a fu we life back ya, especially some ah we…or I coulda seh majority cause nearly majority…only a few people back ya gat water and light and soh but they noh really gat the light pon fu dem personal part…they deh get light from people way yonder. If yu notice dey long wire deh…da light weh they deh get from people wah front deh.”


Glenda Rancharan

“Number one, we need light. There are a lot of children going to school. If you can look at the wiring it is very, very dangerous because if we have a storm and we get one strike of lightning on one of those wires and fire starts…remember most of these houses are plywood…they will burn. I would like to see light, and I would like to see everybody in this area get proper septics and proper filling. And I think a lot of it has to do with our government helping.”


It is help these residents need…assistance with the things many of us take for granted.


Daisy Cacho

“I woulda really wah walk, and walk safe and proud that I know dat nothing noh wah bite me and nothing noh wah juke me. Yu know. And mek I could stay home and noh deh smell no kinda funkiness and they thing, because people weh deh back ya and no gat sewerage…they stool inna bucket and dash they inna di lagoon. From me…mek a put een myself…from me dat da weh I have to do.”


Everett Palacio

“San Mateo truly needs the proper infrastructure. Lands need to be filled. So they need to pay more attention to us in San Mateo.”


Glenda Rancharan

“We need help. It’s just like any rural community. The people of this community need government help. We really do. We really do need government help back here.”


The terrible reality is that it is unlikely that the requested assistance will arrive anytime soon. Literally minutes away from broken down shacks, garbage, swamp, the stench of faeces and poverty…a seven million dollar road project is underway to service the resorts of Northern Ambergris because that, simply, is the priority of the authorities.


Daniel Guerrero

Daniel Guerrero, Mayor, San Pedro Town

“I am a great believer that we supposed to first nurture the industry, because it is the industry that brings the money in. Without the industry, San Mateo, and not only San Mateo but San Pablo and none of the other subdivisions would exist. Maybe all this influx of people coming onto the island would have to vacate, because if we cripple the industry we are a total mess, because this island totally depends on tourism. Tourism is the bread and butter of the island so we have to nurture the tourism industry. I was the one that decided let’s go north, together with the Area Rep. We decided let’s go north and make sure we service all the hotels because these are the big hotels bringing all the money. They pay all the bills. They are the ones paying the bills.”


For the wealthy tourists who will visit those resorts, Ambergris Caye is La Isla Bonita. It is unlikely that they will ever visit San Mateo….a forgotten slum on that beautiful island. Mike Rudon for News Five.


Many of the roads in San Mateo were constructed by students of the University of Mississippi who fundraised for the road project. 

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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6 Responses for “Welcome to San Mateo…San Pedro Subdivision Turned Slum…”

  1. Eric says:

    “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”― George Orwell, Animal Farm. So what the Mayor is saying is just because these animals are Belizeans they are less equal than the animals that come to visit and leave their money. There is nothing wrong with nurturing the tourism industry for the greater good of the masses but when you as a leader appointed to office for the people and by the people and you cannot strike a balance between generating funds and looking after the basic needs of people then you sir are just another in a long line of worthless politicians that we seem to have such an abundant ”influx” of in Belize. Your suggestion that Belizeans cannot live where they please and have no right to move around freely in Belize in order to seek opportunity is just ”mentally sick” and I shudder to think that it may be a shared bigoted mentality akin to his colleague and fellow San Pedrano the dishonorable minister of tourism who wanted to stop and check all the Belizeans of color coming on to the island. The last time I came saw an example of such a mentality was from watching the movie 12 Years a Slave.
    You have to realize when there is a slow season in the tourism industry it’s these same people that are stuck in the slums (that you help to create) that stay and pay taxes (yes they do, they pay the crippling GST on everything except the air they breathe) and clean and maintain your precious San Pedro. I just hope these poor people remember on election day when you are begging like a little mangy pot-licker for their votes that you wanted them to ”vacate”; but isn’t it funny that election time is the only time every animal seems equal to these low life politicians???

  2. islandresident says:

    If this reporter would have done his research properly he would have found out that “San Mateo” started when several island residents who had no housing and were tired of paying rent…went across the river and started to squat on the land that is now San Mateo. Authorities back then did not have the balls to tell the squatters to get out…they instead subdivided the whole area and the result is what we have today. Every person who lives in San Mateo knew ahead of time that the “land” they were given was submerged in water, but when you are poor, your choices are limited. PUP and UDP are both to blame for this… The PUP started this by not clearing the first few families out and the UDP also did nothing to stop this…they just blame the PUP…..

  3. Dave says:

    Here’s a video from 2012 about the efforts of one group from abroad and their project to assist the community of San Mateo. The video was produced through the University of Mississippi’s Division of Outreach and Narated by Morgan Freeman.

  4. Phillipa says:

    You could not have said it better Eric

  5. History Minded says:

    Guerrero u are being ridiculous. Economic development to what end ….if it isn’t for the people

    Right on Eric

  6. ELMER says:


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