The Santa Cruz 13 Freed!

Land Of The Free
8 min readJun 27, 2016

On Monday, June 27th at 10:00am, the Director of Public Prosecutions discontinued criminal proceedings against the Santa Cruz 13, saying “we have no intention to bring charges against them in the future either”.

Today’s dismissal marks the end of a tumultuous year for the Santa Cruz 13, during which they suffered civil rights violations, destruction of their sacred lands, and a political prosecution that uprooted the lives of 13 famillies.

Haven’t heard about the case?

Well, last year a Belizean man entered the village of Santa Cruz— without the permission of the village and therefore, in violation of Maya customary law. The man then commandeered a plot of land in the village and began to build a home of his own, once again without permission. The land itself is the site of a Maya temple. The man built his home atop the temple, which he bulldozed over. Village leaders intervened repeatedly, but the man refused to leave. The village Alcalde called Punta Gorda police, but they refused to assist. In June of 2015, a decision was made by vote of the village, to dissemble the structure atop the ruin and evict the man from the community. On the morning of the demolition, the man stormed into a community meeting, physically assaulted the Alcalde and threatened to shoot several villagers if they did not let him have the land.

That’s why the real question isn’t ‘was Rupert Myles discriminated against?’ The real question is how could such a thing have happened to the Santa Cruz 13?

Here’s How It All Went Down:

June 20th, 2015:

After assaulting villagers while destroying the Uxbenka site and trespassing on Maya property, Mr. Myles was detained by the Santa Cruz alcalde. The next day, photos of Mr. Myles in handcuffs were posted on Facebook. In the photos, which were taken immediately after ‘5 hours of torture’ allegedly took place, Myles is smiling and posing for cameras.

In the accompanying video interview which took place while he was handcuffed, Myles argues that he has a constitutional right to live where ever he wants but does not dispute bulldozing over a sacred temple, or that the temple is a protected site.

At no time do any villagers attack or harm him.

Finally, both sides have made statements acknowledging that Myles was detained during a fajina, which is an event that occurs when Maya villages get together to cut weeds in the village. That’s why machetes are seen in the background.

June 23rd, 2015:

On Tuesday, June 23rd, Prime Minister Dean Barrow made the following statement during a television interview,

In my view they’ve lost whatever moral high ground they ever had… Tying up this man, falsely imprison him, physically assaulting him — that is absolutely intolerable and I am telling you, I mean to find out from the appropriate authorities what if anything they mean to do about it.

June 24th, 2015:

Militarized police storm the village of Santa Cruz in a pre-dawn raid. Later that day, 12 villagers were charged with the crime of “false imprisonment” — an offence that does not exist in the Belizean criminal code (seven months later, another villager was charged, despite the limitation period for summary offences having expired). Among those charged is internationally renowned human rights defender Cristina Coc, who did not participate in Mr. Myles’ detention. Cristina is the public spokesperson for the MLA — the leading litigant in the majority of land rights cases, and a member of the Maya steering committee currently in consultations with the Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission.

According to an officer who wishes to remain anonymous, the SC13 were brought to the police station in the cover of darkness, without shoes or shirts, and notice of arrest. They were also denied access to legal counsel for the first few hours after their detention. If true, these are all constitutional violations.

Mothers and wives of the Santa Cruz 13 wear slings in protest of the injuries their sons and husbands sustained when arrested on June 24th, despite not resisting arrest.

One month later, on July 24th, 2015…

Amidst mounting international pressure to respect the rights of the Maya, the Director for the Institute of Archaeology, John Morris, confirmed that Mr. Myles had destroyed the temple, in contravention of Belize law, and that criminal charges, as well as civil damage claims, would be pursued.

Six Months Later …

On February 20th, 2016, when asked why charges had still not been laid, Mr. Morris explained that the Director of Public Prosecutions requested he settle the matter out of court, by negotiating with Mr. Myles to leave the site. On April 1st, 2016, Mr. Morris declared that Mr. Myles had left the village, there would be no criminal charges or civil claims, and that the damage to the Uxbencha site had not been caused by Mr. Myles after all, but by a Maya villager. On April 14th, the Santa Cruz village issued a press release through the MLA, affirming that Mr. Myles was still living atop the temple. In May 2016, the GOB claimed they could not prosecute Mr. Myles because they had no evidence he had committed any crimes.

Something Tragic Is Happening In Toledo…

Discrimination against indigenous communities and persons usually takes the shape of laws that are openly discriminatory, or laws that apply equally to everyone but have adverse consequences for indigenous peoples. In Belize, there is a third source of discrimination: the explicit and systemic refusal on the part of public officials to respect, apply, and uphold the rule of law, as it pertains to the Maya people.

Maya mothers from Santa Cruz village standing up for the SC13.

A State That Refuses to Respect the Rule of Law Is Dangerous for All Belizeans

In order for the alleged “assault” of Mr. Myles to have occurred, he needed to remain in active commission of the following crimes: threats to destroy property, possession of equipment with intent to destroy property, and destruction of property under the Criminal Code; willful destruction of an ancient monument and willful removal of materials from a designated archeological site under the Ancient Monuments and Antiquities Act; trespass on Maya lands under the Inferior Courts Act; violating Maya customary land tenure rules that have been constitutionally protected through the common law; and a range of additional harms under Maya customary law (see the 2011 Alcalde’s Bill for of crimes under Maya law).

Heavy police presence at the trial of the Santa Cruz 13, on the morning of March 30th, 2015.

But Aren’t Maya Land Rights Constitutionally Protected?

What is perhaps most appalling is that the incident and related arrests occurred seven years after Maya communities won a title declaration in the Supreme Court, which extended the constitutional protections afforded property to Maya lands. The arrests also occurred just eight weeks after the Government of Belize was ordered by the Caribbean Court of Justice, to protect Maya property rights and to cease any acts — whether by the government itself or third parties acting with its tolerance — that might adversely affect Maya lands. For this reason, the charges against the SC13 are a direct attack on the CCJ orders, the Alcalde system, human rights defenders, and the rule of law in Belize.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, spoke out against political interference in the trial of the SC13, by the Prime Minister, whose public accusations of guilt were levied before the Santa Cruz 13 were even arrested — nevermind convicted.

No Disciplinary Action Has Been Taken Against State Officials Who Failed To Protect The Constitutional Rights of the Maya

Prior to June 20th, the village of Santa Cruz, with support from the Toledo Alcaldes Association, Maya Leaders Alliance, and their legal counsel, sent multiple letters to the Punta Gorda Police, Belizean Defense Force, and Institute of Archeology (“IOA”), requesting the removal of Mr. Myles from the village. Neither the officers, who are tasked with protecting property, nor the IOA which is tasked with protecting the specific archeological site, responded to the request.

A few months later, the Punta Gorda Police and IOA were notified in writing that the structure erected by Myles was to be disassembled on June 20th. They did not respond. On the day of the incident, the Alcalde called three different police stations, all of whom refused to aid the village. In other words, state officials knew of Mr. Myles’ crimes and made a conscious choice not to investigate, lay charges, or otherwise intervene in an escalating dispute, despite a legal duty to do so. Thus far, they have been immune from any sanction — save for the pending civil suit against the Government for failing to protect the property of Santa Cruz village.

That’s why this case isn’t about a clash between Belizean and Mayan law. This case is about a state that has abdicated its duty to uphold the laws of Belize, as they apply to indigenous citizens.

Punta Gorda Police searching family members of the Santa Cruz 13, as they enter a public court. Searches like these are unheard of at any court level in Belize. It is unclear who made the order to search family members but the purpose appears to be intimidation.

The Santa Cruz 13 Committed No Crime.

So, how can the state justify these charges? They couldn’t. That’s why criminal investigations were allowed to continue even after a trial date was set — resulting in multiple adjournments and compromising the right of the defendants to a fair and speedy trial. Before today, the case had been adjourned 9 different times. Here’s a list of reasons why:

A History of Unreasonable Delay…

July 2015: No disclosure of the evidence in time for trial — even though the police would have had to be in possession of such evidence before arresting the SC13. The judge also swaps the non-existence “false imprisonment” offence for the charges of common and aggravated assault.

September 2015: Still no disclosure of the evidence to be presented in time for trial, from the police or prosecutor.

October 2015: Still no disclosure of the evidence to be presented in time for trial, from the police or prosecutor.

November 2015: Still no disclosure of the evidence to be presented in time for trial, from the police or prosecutor.

December 2015: Still no disclosure of the evidence to be presented in time for trial, from the police or prosecutor.

February 2016: The police-prosecutor (yes, you read that right) informs the court that an adjournment is needed because he is being replaced by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP is the highest ranking prosecutor in Belize — it is unprecedented for her office to prosecute assault charges.

March 2016: The original Magistrate was asked to recuse himself after evidence of bias emerged. A new Magistrate could not be found in time for trial.

March 2016: An attorney for the SC13 fell ill with food poisoning and asked that the trial be rescheduled.

*Note: At the 8th adjournment, defense counsel requested that charges against two of the Santa Cruz 13 be dropped, since the two men were not named in a single witness statement and had been rounded up without cause or care by police. No apology or explanation from the DPP, whose only reply was “fine.” The judge agreed and the charges were dropped.*

May 2016: The DPP’s office requested trial be rescheduled because they wanted additional time to translate a video/audio recording of Mr. Myles’ detention, which police were aware of since June 2015, but neglected to translate. The DPP promised she would provide a copy of the video to the defence, as required by law, within 7 days.

June 27th, 2016: All charges dismissed against the Santa Cruz 13.