Like many places in the world, Belize is a developing country; and like most developing countries, the development isn’t even or consistent, there are some areas in the country which are more developed than others – the concrete condos and seaside cabanas of San Pedro or Placencia are a completely different world from the thatched wooden huts of the Mayan villages. Even in one town there are enough variations in living standards to make you think you’re in a different country – the private security-patrolled, air-conditioned houses of the leafy northern suburbs of Belize City are a universe away from the wooden-walled, tin-roofed shacks and open sewers of the Southside. Some parts of Belize City aren’t so much ‘developing’ as just plain poor. And poverty (as well as being bad enough in and of itself) also breeds other problems, like alcoholism, drug addiction, and crime.
And Belize City does have its fair share of crime, mostly gang- and drug-related, and mainly located in the Southside. A few years ago, it was the murder capital of the world (in terms of having the world’s highest per capita homicide rate), although it’s now fallen to fifth place (thank you Bogotá, Ciudad Juárez, Grozny and Mogadishu!). Living in the Northside I don’t directly see most of the social problems that befall some Belizeans (although, like most locals, I do get to hear about them on the TV – so far this year there have been 37 murders in Belize City alone, and the news programmes gleefully report every blood-soaked, bullet-riddled death). But there’s still plenty of reasons to be careful, wherever you live and whoever you’re with, as I found out recently…
The first incident would’ve been shocking enough, except that it involved a colleague of mine, which is what spurred me on to blog about it. Now, we may have our problems with the police in the UK (just ask the families of Jean Charles de Menezes or Ian Tomlinson), but we’re still a good way off seeing the kind of lawless brutality that’s been happening here.
A few weeks ago, a young black guy was shot and killed in broad daylight while playing dominoes with his friends outside a fire station in Belize City. Shocking as that is, it’s also disturbingly common, with murders like this happening on the Southside all the time, almost exclusively involving young black men (as both victims and killers). The typical scenario is a guy outside a store or walking the street being approached by an assailant (on foot or on a bike), who repeatedly shoots him at close range and then disappears. Despite often being on foot or bike, the killers never seem to be apprehended; despite multiple witnesses, they never seem to be identified; and despite arrests and trials, few people are actually
convicted – ineffectual police work, lack of hard evidence and witness intimidation are all par for the course here. And, just like many of these killings, the assailant seemed to know exactly who he was after, as he ignored all the firemen and aimed straight at the one guy. The murdered man had been previously charged, and then acquitted, of a murder in 2009, which police suspect was drug-related.
Anyway, whatever the reasons for the recent killing, after the man’s funeral on the Friday, my colleague Dana (the finance officer here at the BCVI) and her husband were hosting the wake, as they were friends with the deceased. By all accounts it was a typically Belizean affair – friends and family, old people, little kids, a barbecue outside in the yard, and a few bottles of rum. Then the GSU turned up.
The GSU are the Gang Suppression Unit, a special regiment of the Belize Police Force modelled on the FBI’s Anti-Gang Task Force. They’re responsible directly to the Police Minister (so their chain of command is far simpler and less bureaucratic than the regular police – ie, they don’t have to ask permission from many people before they do something), and, since their operations began in October 2010, they’ve gained a reputation for heavy-handedness and a somewhat cavalier attitude to human rights – people have reported being tasered, pepper-sprayed
and beaten by these masked, submachine gun-carrying ‘officers’. In May a Belmopan businessman had his house raided in what resembled a scene from The Godfather, the GSU kicking down the door and spraying the place in bullets (the GSU maintains that the suspect shot at them from the house first, the suspect and witnesses say the GSU rolled up in unmarked vehicles and stormed in. What is known as a fact is that the GSU acted on one anonymous tip-off. So imagine what they do when they’ve got real evidence!).
While I applaud the GSU’s aim of dismantling Belize’s gang structure, and their presence on the streets carrying out stops and searches and arresting gang members is part of that mission, from the very beginning of their operations there seems to have been a realisation (and an acceptance) that there’s not much chance of catching and convicting gang members (especially not the high-level ones). So instead, they’re fighting fire with fire and basically acting like a new gang, harassing anyone they consider a target, arresting people on the flimsiest of charges, and intimidating anyone else who’s unfortunate enough to get in their way.
Hence, on the night of the wake, the GSU came by Dana’s house, probably to let the occupants know that they were around – the deceased was allegedly an associate of the infamous George Street Gang, and there may have been other associates or members at the wake (and also because the house is on George Street itself, which to the GSU is ground zero for gang crime [as far as they’re concerned, anyone who lives on that road is guilty]).
Shortly afterwards (in what may or may not have been a gang murder), a young man was shot and killed a few blocks away.
Within minutes the GSU was back at Dana’s house, twenty-seven officers in three mobile units. After ordering everyone in the yard to lie down they proceeded to storm the house like Navy SEALs going after Osama Bin Laden – people were beaten with truncheons, shot with rubber bullets, squirted with pepper spray and zapped with tasers. People were left battered, bruised and bleeding, and several men had to be hospitalised with broken and fractured bones. Even women and children weren’t immune – Dana was tasered and beaten on the leg, and a neighbour’s house (which was occupied only the members of a children’s marching band) was tear-gassed. By all accounts it was like something out of a war zone.
In the end the GSU confiscated all the mobile phones and took away forty men, where they were held without being charged for the entire weekend, over sixty hours (here’s another worrying thing about Belize – the whole country’s up in arms about the Prime Minister’s attempts to change the country’s constitution to allow trial without jury and extend preventative detention past forty-eight hours, and the police are already holding suspects without charge for longer than that. It’s all over the news so everyone knows it’s happening. Basically, the PM’s making a huge effort to change the law when it’s obvious he’s already getting away with breaking it!).
After all that, all of the men bar two were released without charges on the Monday. The remaining two (including Dana’s husband) were charged with obscene language and property damage, and bailed.
So after all that, after storming an innocent woman’s house, breaking up a funeral, and attacking old people and children, all the police have to show for themselves are two minor charges on two guys (who couldn’t have had anything to do with any illegal activities that night, as they were too busy being beaten up!).
Unfortunately, that’s not really all the police have to show for themselves – what they also have now is a mass of people (both gang members and innocent bystanders) who they’ve alienated, gangs gunning for them even more than normal, less support from innocent locals, and a public security situation spiralling out of control. And sadly, it’s partly due to their own behaviour – by taking on the gangs in their own heavy-handed way, by ignoring the law they’re supposed to be upholding, and by acting with anonymity and impunity, the GSU has given the gangs a reason to retaliate. They’ve actually made the situation worse instead of better – instead of making the streets safer, they’ve probably made them more dangerous. And they’re behaving no better than the criminals they’re supposed to be fighting.
When you piss off a normal, law-abiding person, you expect them to respond in some way – by having a go at you in return, or by making a formal complaint, or possibly even by taking you to court. Whether or not they respond, and how they respond, is based on how reasonable they are normally, the nature of what you did to them, and how pissed off they are by it. When you piss off a gangster, it’s a little different – they’re not normal, law-abiding people, and while they may have their own peculiar morality and code of ethics, they’re generally not known for being reasonable, or for pursuing their grievances through the courts! And when you upset and annoy innocent people to the point that they’re cursing your name and suing you, you can bet gangsters are planning a somewhat more dramatic response.
Examples of this have happened in the past – earlier in the year, the police broke up the funeral of a George Street Gang member (cars were stopped and searched, mourners had to get out and lie on the ground, etc.). The following weekend, two female Chinese store-keepers were brutally shot to death in their shops – they didn’t have anything to do with the police action, the perpetrators simply reasoned that higher-profile targets would produce more of an effect than just another young black guy being killed would. And they were right – the killings were all over the news, Chinese diplomats in Belize got involved, and the Chinese community staged a protest rally and then shut down all their stores for several days (and the Chinese own virtually all the stores in Belize – every store in the city seemed closed, there was nowhere to buy anything, and I nearly starved to death!).
So it’s not like the gangs don’t have a reputation for this kind of thing. Add to that the following facts – 1) in addition to the various weapons and ammunition the gangs possess, someone also has a box of hand grenades that was stolen from the British Army base in 2004(!), the theft of which was only revealed in 2008 after one of them was detonated in public (others have subsequently been detonated in public a further four times, killing two teenagers); and 2) September is festival month in Belize, with plenty of carnivals, street parades, public speeches and outdoor festivities – in other words, the perfect environment for any miscreants to cause trouble by lobbing the odd exploding pineapple about (in fact, one of the stolen grenades was thrown into a parade during one of the carnivals in September 2008, luckily it didn’t explode). And, true to form, George Street Gang members have already gone on TV to express their grievances against the police and make some worrying threats regarding what they might do in retaliation. So the next few weeks are going to be a troubling time in Belize City, maybe we’ll be overtaking Bogotá, Ciudad Juárez, Grozny and Mogadishu again…
Footnote – last week, after I’d already written the majority of this post, the PM had a heavily-policed meeting with representatives of the city’s gangs (in the amusingly-mundane environment of a training college on the high street). And the gangs agreed to a ceasefire until after September’s celebrations. How fragile this temporary peace turns out to be, and what’s going to happen next, is anyone’s guess.