Negotiating our way out of corrupt Belize

Normally, when a taxi pulled up to our condo building we were either welcoming new friends or saying goodbye to them. This time was different. The taxi was for us and we were leaving Belize. A bittersweet moment as we looked forward to our next adventure, but still wanted to keep this one for a little while.

We were heading to Chetemal, Mexico via water taxi from San Pedro. Our plan is to slowly make our way to Cancun, where we are flying out of. We’ll be spending some time in the states to sell the rest of our stuff and then flying off to Bali.

We drove to the Water Jets water taxi station on the lagoon side of the island, dropped off our bags and then went to our favorite chicken taco joint on the island, Nery’s. They make the BESTEST chicken tacos and watermelon juice and we devoured several dollars worth, using up our small change from Belize.

Sharing a Horchata at Nery's

Sharing a Horchata at Nery's

Negotiation 1: Port and Mexican Holiday Fee Scam

Back to the water taxi station, the office had opened and we went inside to purchase tickets. One way tickets to Chetamal are $30 US. We were prepared to pay our $60 fare, when the gentlemen behind the counter added an additional $60 US Mexican Holiday Fee on to the bill. I did notice a computer printed sign that stated every ticket would have to pay an additional Port/Mexican Holiday fee of $15 US, but I didn’t expect it.

My initial reaction was – “No way, no one told me about this, this is a junk fee”. So that is what I told the gentleman behind the counter. Here’s how our conversation went:

Him: “Because it’s Mother’s Day in Mexico (and Belize), you have to pay the fee”

Me: “I’m not paying the fee because of a holiday, that’s not a reason to have a fee, it doesn’t make sense.”

Him: “Well, you could leave tomorrow when it’s not a holiday”

Me: “That is not an option. This is a junk fee, I bet Mexico never sees the money”

Him: “I assure you they do.”

Me: “Then I’ll pay the Mexican government the fee when I get to Mexico, but I’m not paying you now”

He turns to the older lady sitting with him behind the counter and they have a discussion. Meanwhile, a line of people wanting to purchase their tickets has formed behind me that stretches out the door.

Him: “She (meaning the lady he just spoke with) said you can pay only one fee and it will be for all four of you – $15 US instead of $60.”

Me: “I’m not paying the junk fee.”

Mr. King (speaking to me): “How long do you want to stand here and argue with the man?”

Me: “Long enough to not pay this junk fee.”

In the end, I paid the extra $15 for all four of us only to save my husband the embarrassment of me waiting it out. I would have won, mind you. Unless someone can convince me otherwise, this is a completely bogus fee. Any thoughts? Why would a water taxi company in Belize be collecting fees for the Mexican government?

Note: after doing some Google research, I have found this to be a scam.

Upon entering Mexico at the water terminal, no immigration officer checked to see if we had paid the ‘Mexican holiday’ fee, further confirmation that this was a junk fee. But, as a bonus since it was Mother’s Day, I was able to go to the head of the immigration line and got a free taxi ride to the bus station.

Negotiation 2: Belize Immigration

After paying the ticket and junk fee, our next stop outside the office door was Belize immigration. A simple podium desk awaited us with one of the most non-happy immigration officers. We’ve seen this lady every month for six months and never once have we seen her smile.

Our lovely immigration checkpoint.

Our lovely immigration checkpoint.

Luckily, most of the time we dealt with a very gregarious, young immigration officer during our monthly visa extensions. But this time, we have her. Mr. King goes up with all of our passports and, without looking at him, she says “$30 bz”.

The departure fee for leaving Belize via water is $7.50 bz each (a steal compared to leaving by land or air, which has a departure fee of $37.50 each). 
Mr. King tells her that we don’t have to pay for the small children and, again, without looking at him, she says “Okay, $15”. Mr. King gives her $20 bz and of course she does not have change and then waits on the next few people until she gets change. Mr. King gets his change, we get stamped and, just like that, we change our emotions from missing Belize to waiting to get the heck out.

Belize, why are you so corrupt?

It’s one thing to negotiate with a street vendor, but a government official representing Belize is another story. The above two incidences bring up lots of conversation of the open embezzlement and corruption that we have witnessed in our short time here. Why did we have to remind the immigration officer that small children do not pay the Belize exit fee? She knew this, yet withheld the information.

Everything in Belize has a price that can be paid as a bribe to the appropriate government official. Want residency quick? A $15,000-$30,000 payment will do the trick. Need a permit for a vehicle on the island? $3,000 and it’s done. And on, and on. This is open knowledge, this isn’t even a secret! What a shame, I say.

Although this type of system has made several government officials rich, it depletes the citizens of Belize. Instead of money going to government programs, schools, roads or medical care it goes into the pockets of already well-off government officials. Sorry citizens of Belize – you lose. There are many uneducated children and adults (who can’t read) in Belize, simply because they cannot afford to go to the public schools, which charge $150/month for each child, yet government officials steal thousands of dollars per month and put it on their own pockets. Fair? I don’t think so. Who would elect these people?

During our 6 month stay we had the opportunity to witness a full election process. There was a lot of yelling and screaming and riling up of citizens for particular political parties, that is just the norm everywhere. But what we witnessed on election day was insidious. Voters being paid directly by political parties $100 bz for their vote, a gentleman that was paid $400 bz to fly from Placencia to San Pedro by a political party to cast his vote for that party and on and on. When stories of vote tampering came on the news, there was no surprise.

And how about all the money collected for the bridge tolls on Ambergris Caye for the last 8 years? It was never used to maintain the bridge and now it is falling apart and needs $300,000 worth of repairs, but there is no money. What happened to 8 years worth of $10 tolls?

Oh, Belize

Oh, Belize. You are so beautiful on the outside and so ugly and decaying on the inside. Unless your government can provide its citizens with a positive example, you will be doomed to being rats grappling at each other for the left overs. What a shame to a country full of rich diversity and beauty.

As we pulled away from the dock and headed toward Mexico waters, there was a movie that was playing on the boat about the overfishing of Belize waters that summed up what I was feeling at the moment perfectly:

“I love my people, I detest the government” – Local Belize fisherman

Goodbye Belize. We still love you (despite what I wrote above).

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