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Apr 8, 2019

Who Ordered the Release of 12 Guatemalan Men? FIU Speaks!

Twelve Guatemalan nationals were released last weekend, soon after they were detained with a huge amount of U.S. dollars. The group was in a vessel near Moho Caye in the southern waters when they were intercepted by the coastguard and handed over to the Belize Police Department. Their release has come under scrutiny for various factors and an investigation is being held. Today, we heard from the Financial Intelligence Unit, who responded to concerns about the expeditious release of the men. News Five’s Hipolito Novelo reports.

 

Hipolito Novelo, Reporting

The detention of twelve Guatemalan men in southern Belize and their subsequent and questionable release has raised eyebrows and left many government officials tight-lipped. The men were detained on March twenty-ninth, on board a Guatemalan vessel which was traveling to the Moho River. The men were detained with forty thousand dollars in US currency, two thousand five hundred Quetzales, eleven mobile phones, and one GPS device. Coast Guard officials made the arrest. The men were handed over to Punta Gorda Police. They, however, were later released.

 

Felix Enriquez

Felix Enriquez, C.E.O., Ministry of National Security [File: April 3rd, 2019]

“I am told later on that indeed it was a legitimate transaction and that’s why they were released. I afraid that’s all I know at this time; I am still awaiting police.”

 

Reports reaching News Five are that the men were in breach of customs, port and immigration offenses. So what exactly was the “legitimate transaction’? Why were the men carrying thousands of US dollars on them? On Wednesday last, Commissioner of Police Chester Williams was asked about the matter.

 

Chester Williams

Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police [File: April 3rd, 2019]

“The matter is still being looked at, at this time.”

 

Reporter

“Was the F.I.U., the Financial Intelligence Unit, consulted in terms of releasing the cash?”

 

Chester Williams

“As I said, the matter is still being looked at, at this time. I won’t comment any further on it right now.”

 

Kent Clare

By law, a person is only allowed to carry ten thousand dollars in cash on his or her person. Any amount higher needs to be declared to the Financial Intelligent Unit.

We got in contact with the FIU and according to Director Kent Clare, the FIU was ‘alerted about this event’. The FIU, Clare says, “deployed a team of investigators for the purpose of interviewing these persons” to understand the men’s business purpose in Belize, source of funds among other issues in order to remove all doubt of any financial crime being committed.

But according to Clare, by the time FIU officers reached the destination the individuals had already been released.”

In April 2016, a decision was made to have Customs take control of the process in regards to making cash declarations when exiting and entering Belize. This process was previously managed by the FIU but later handed over to Customs because of its twenty-four hour presence at the ports of entry.

 

After the Guatemalan men were detained, Clare says that a “question then arose about due process and whether the individuals were presented an opportunity to make the proper declarations (to Customs).” Clare says that “though this may have been a legitimate concern, it nevertheless would have been prudent to allow investigators to interview the subjects.”

For answers, a source directed us to the Punta Gorda Town Customs office. On Friday, we contacted the office and the call was answered by Elmer Torres who we are told is the head of the Customs Department there.  I identified myself but before I was able to pose any question Torres, in an authoritative voice, said that they are not offering any comments; they were not involved in the matter and told me to have a nice day before disconnecting the call.

The Guatemalan men, we are told, are highly connected in Belize are allegedly said to be involved in the illegal trade of cigarettes.  So the question still stands:

 

Duane Moody

“Who made the decision to release the men?”

 

Felix Enriquez [File: April 3rd, 2019]

“Again, I am not certain why they were released or who made the decision for them to be released. I could find out. After I heard that the coastguard had handed them over, I was really not too much concerned afterward. I became concerned when I heard that they were indeed released and they were questions surrounding that. But I was told that it was because it was a legitimate transaction.”

 

We reached out to C.E.O. Enriquez on Friday evening via WhatsApp for an update but he left us on ‘seen’.  We reached out again today and still no response.  The FIU says that it is still looking into this matter through conversations with both Police and Customs. Hipolito Novelo, News Five.


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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