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Mar 29, 2004

Business targeted by rivals?

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The nation’s capital is perhaps the most laid back municipality in Belize. That is why an attack on one of the city’s business establishments, PAPI’s Home Centre, and its owners, has stirred up so much anxiety in the Garden City. The attempt on the life of businessman Omar Espejo Jr. over the weekend has shaken him and his family, and left the community and authorities scratching their heads. Who would want to kill the young entrepreneur? And more importantly, why? News 5 was in Belmopan today to try and find out.

Patrick Jones, Reporting

“The store has been operating from this location on Constitution Drive since it opened for business last December. Espejo says the problem started about a month ago, and has grown increasingly more daring and dangerous with each incident, the latest of which happened on Saturday evening.”

Omar Espejo Jr., Proprietor, PAPI’s Hardware

“The minute I opened the door, the shot blast was heard and the sound of shots hitting the vehicle. Immediately, my reaction was a shot had been fired. And it’s only after assessing it with the police there that we actually identified where the blast hit and what could have been the gravity of the situation should I have stepped out the vehicle in any different position or come out even quicker than I had, I would have definitely been hit.”

But he wasn’t. And the holes in the inside of the driver side door and this bullet still lodged in the steering wheel are a stark reminder of how close Espejo came to being killed. Belmopan police believe that the shooter lay in wait in an area about twenty-five yards from his front door, in a bushy area near the Mount Pleasant Creek. The attempt on Espejo’s life is the latest in a series of incidents targeting Espejo and his business.

Omar Espejo Jr.

“The first of the incidences was the sabotage of our delivery truck. It’s a truck that I use to go back and forth between home and business and the early morning of February twenty-seventh I believe it had to have happened between the twelve and the early morning of the twenty-seventh, they cut the brake and clutch hoses of the vehicle, basically cut all to pieces of the hoses away.”

Patrick Jones

“So it couldn’t have been an accident?”

Omar Espejo Jr.

“No, it couldn’t have been. It had to have been somebody who knew what they are doing as well, because five hoses were cut and if you’re not familiar with the mechanics of a truck of that nature you wouldn’t have know where these hoses would have been.”

That incident disabled the truck for a couple of days. Two weeks later, on the night of March tenth, someone fire bombed the PAPI’s home centre. Fortunately, the high cement fence prevented the device from reaching its target. Four days later, the attackers were back at work again.

Omar Espejo Jr.

“Not too late in the night of the fourteenth of March an attempt was made to burn my personal vehicle at my residence on Doyle’s Delight in East Piccini area. And why I say an attempt, because there was signs that the intent was to break the glass and throw the bomb in the vehicle. The act of trying to break the glass woke us up, the glass didn’t break, fortunately, and because of the alarm that was created, we probably only gave them time to throw it in the back of the pickup.”

The fire destroyed the truck’s bed line and cost three thousand dollars in repairs. But Espejo was able to identify twenty-seven year old Manolo Romero Junior the person who tried to burn his vehicle. Romero, who is a sales representative for Builders Hardware in Belmopan, has subsequently been arrested and charged with attempted arson and is out on bail awaiting trial.

Simeon Alvarez is the Officer in Charge of Belmopan Police.

A.S.P. Simeon Alvarez, O.I.C., Belmopan Police

“We are trying to locate a suspect, a person that is responsible for the shooting. So far, the investigation is ongoing and at this time we are trying to identify who is the person responsible.”

Alvarez believes that Saturday’s shooting was not the work of one person acting alone. A motive for the assault has not been determined, but Belmopan is buzzing with speculation that one of Espejo’s business rivals, wants him out of the picture.

Simeon Alvarez

“It could be more than one, it could be more than one, definite it’s a clique. I wouldn’t say its just one person. It could be more than one.”

Belmopan Mayor Anthony Chanona is hoping it is not a case of business sabotage.

Anthony Chanona, Belmopan Mayor

“We hope not, and that is why the police department must act diligently, expeditiously, because we want to remove any perception that that is what exists in Belmopan. And I would want to believe it is not so. And that’s why this case must be solved. This is so dramatic, so important to our city. It is not one that we can just sit back and allow it to just unravel; we cannot.”

Omar Espejo Jr.

“There is I guess a heightened concern for security both for the safety of myself and my family and for my employees. I wouldn’t deny that we just taking it like another day, but certainly it has given us motivation to push our business. Because I think the ambience of competition is very healthy for Belmopan. It saddens me that these things are happening.”

The Mayor of Belmopan feels the same way and has urged residents to come together to end this escalating problem before there is bloodshed.

Anthony Chanona

“If that young man was shot, and he came very close to being shot, the bullet was intended for harm. You can only call it attempted murder. This young man has a young family, we say we live in a good country, that child that they have has a future to Belize. How can we stand by and say it is not important? Every crime that happens in Belmopan, every issue is important, it must be important. And for evil to prosper, all it takes is a few good people to stand by and do nothing.”

And while the attacks have grown more personal and dangerous, Espejo says he is concerned, but does not intend to give in.

Omar Espejo Jr.

“No definitely not. As I said, I have a right as everyone else to set up shop, to promote healthy business competition, to provide employment. And this time, I think to do something like that is not doing any justice to the situation. Again, I can’t put aside the concerns for safety to my family and we’re taking all precautions necessary to ensure that safety, but at no point in time are we actually thinking of packing up, shutting shop, and moving out.”

Patrick Jones, for News 5.

Late this evening police informed News 5 that two people are currently being questioned in connection with Saturday’s attempted murder of Omar Espejo. Anyone with information can call the police hotline at 922 or City Hall at 802-3679. Mayor Chanona says people can talk to him personally if they desire to give information and are under no obligation to give their names.

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