I humbly request an opportunity through this medium to add to the ongoing discourse on the issue of crime and violence and its impact on the country, particularly the Southside of Belize City. I am a resident of Freedom Street. Like many others, I long to see a curbing of the murder rate that is affecting the Old Capital.
Consequently, I welcome any crime fighting or law enforcement initiative by the Police Department to stem the haemorrhaging of our Southside youths. This includes the current intervention efforts being made by the police. While I join many residents in support of this endeavour, I sincerely believe that a meaningful intervention program should not solely be police-led or driven. It must also involve upstanding members of our community who truly understand the plight of the marginalized and are able to earn their trust.
Over the past few years, we have seen a number of intervention initiatives aimed at addressing crime and violence. I participated in the Be Loving And Cease Killing (BLACK) March in Belize City and saw it as a very good first step by the Belize Police Department. With the greatest of respect, however, I believe that it was nothing more than a “wakeup call” because it certainly did not bring about an end to the bloodshed.
A little over two years ago, on the heels of a triple murder in Belize City, we witnessed the restructuring of Eastern Division. This change saw the return of new attorney Chester Williams taking over as Commander of Eastern Division South. ACP Williams introduced a new approach to addressing the issue of violence. He engaged young men through their participation in a number of sporting and community activities targeting at-risk youths.
One such event was the Peace March held on April 12, 2017. In an interview with Channel 7’s Jules Vasquez, Williams was asked whether the Peace March was just another initiative, like the BLACK March, that basically failed.
Williams’ response was: “Yes Jules, many things that we are doing have been done before. They are good initiatives, the BLACK marches are good initiatives as well, but what we like about this one is that the participants are only those persons who are affected by the different shootings in the city and it was their idea, they decided that they’ll have it. And again, we have representation from every block in Belize City, including those from Northside.”
I think Jules was right in the point he was making, because, despite a months-long ceasefire following that Peace March and other subsequent interventions, the carnage resumed. On April 28, 2017, News 5’s headline read, “Has the gang truce in the city fallen apart? This month alone, there have been as many as eight murders in the Old Capital.”
Following Williams’ transfer to the Professional Standards Branch, there has been a sharp, unabated spike in crime and violence on the Southside. This has sparked an open debate on whether Williams’ relocation to a desk job in Belmopan was indeed the right move. While some will agree, many on the Southside will disagree.
Williams’ method of intervention inadvertently made targets of persons who were not involved in gang activities. Whenever there was a flare up between the gangs, the police would wantonly detain persons from both sides and bring them to the table to discuss. The problem is that innocent persons from various neighbourhoods who are also detained in the dragnet could then be singled out by those who believe that they are connected with their rivals, when in fact, they may not be involved at all.
While mediation under Williams had its flaws and did not adequately address the violence, I believe that the militarized styled of policing is equally ineffective. Crime statistics indicate that October was one of the bloodiest months on the Southside this year. The police, in an effort to address the problem, initiated Operation Addressing Crime Together (ACT).
This operation, which seeks to put more “boots on the ground,” also has a mediation/intervention component, as Williams returns to the city to head this area.
However, the bloodshed continues. In fact, from all media accounts, on the day the operation was launched, we saw a murder on Southside Belize City. This situation needs to be arrested post haste. We all can attest to the fact that current police initiatives are not yielding much fruit.
While I agree that there is need for serious intervention, I do not think that these initiatives should be led by, or have any real police involvement. With no disrespect to Mr. Williams and the trust that the youths have in him, he is still seen by some as an authority figure and this perhaps inhibits meaningful dialogue.
Mediation must therefore be led by community leaders and social workers who can gain the trust and confidence of those youths.
In addition to mediation, there is a need for adequate social programs aimed at providing young men and women with alternatives to crime and violence. On behalf of my fellow Southside residents, I call on our leaders (spiritual, political and social) to ACT NOW and let’s address these issues together.