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Apr 28, 2005

Owners seek return of suspicious vehicles

Story PictureAfter almost three months of having their vehicles gathering dust in the Customs yard in Belize City, a number of owners had hoped to drive their late model S.U.V.’s and pickups home today. But although the appropriate documents were finally ready, the petitioners were told yet again: come back tomorrow, as no officer wanted to take responsibility for signing the releases. At least twenty vehicles were impounded by customs officials in February. The owners, most of whom had acquired their vehicles from a third party, were told there was no record of duties being paid and the vehicles may have been stolen. Most expected customs to go after the original importers or dealers, identified as Yasser Safa, Marlon Espat, and Roger Zaldivar among others. But this never happened. Instead, the owners were given weeks of run-around, which culminated in reports on Monday that members of the Police Department and B.D.F. had driven their vehicles off the lot, commandeering them for use by law enforcement authorities. Incensed, a number of owners descended on the Customs Department demanding to know what was going on. Neither the Comptroller of Customs, Gregory Gibson, nor the Commissioner of Inland Revenue, Geraldine Davis, would comment, but sources in the Customs Department told News Five the Ministry of Finance instructed police to bring the vehicles back immediately and told Customs to release the vehicles to the owners immediately. That solution was supposed entail the paying of duties, plus having owners post a bond for three times the amount of the assessed value and sign a letter indemnifying the government from any possible legal claim. But only one owner was able to have his paperwork processed today and take his pickup home; the rest remain in limbo.

While the letter does not say so, News Five understands as many as two hundred and fifty vehicles may have entered Belize through unofficial points of entry, primarily from Guatemala. There has been no indication so far that any of the original importers will be prosecuted; in fact, one owner told News Five this evening that there is talk of an amnesty for anyone who cannot prove duties were paid on their vehicle, as long as he or she is willing to post the bond and pay the duty. Reports are that Customs has been unable to obtain any records from the Transport Department to help them sort out the whole mess. One of the vehicles netted in the customs sweep was reported stolen in the United States and is being returned to the United States under a treaty agreement. However, since Belize has no treaty with Guatemala, the only way the Guatemalan insurance companies could retrieve the cars and trucks is to sue the individual Belizean owners. Under Belizean law, the onus is on the person in possession of any imported item to produce proof that duty has been paid. If they cannot do so, those goods can be seized and failure to pay the duty can result in the property being forfeited. When asked why the Police Department had taken the trucks, police press officer G. Michael Reid told News Five that any vehicle impounded for wrong-doing can be commandeered for police use and that in fact, any private vehicle can be taken by police “if they need it to carry out their duty to serve the community.”

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