Those of us who came on the scene after World War II know that Southside Belize City, and indeed the entire city, was an area of heavy, heavy discipline. In those days, men ruled boys. Men ruled with a hard hand, as did single mothers. Wayward boys were beaten into submission, at home.
Some things went wrong between then and now, and today the Southside is ruled by gangs, headed by young men and featuring teenaged boys, with young women and teenaged girls supporting them. After Hurricane Hattie, a couple generations of adult men went looking for better jobs in the United States, and into Belize, along with the marijuana of the 1970s and the cocaine of the 1980s, there came guns. Boys started to rule men.
Our newspaper competitor last weekend editorialized in an authoritative, confident manner. “It is time to dismantle the gangs!” This is an impossibility, unless you also physically destroy Southside Belize City, and parts of the Northside. The socio-economic conditions in specific parts of the old capital are such that you could wipe out the present gang leaders and their followers, and in a matter of months, new, similar organizations would emerge, with younger leadership.
Our competitor’s editorial is a declaration of war on the gangs, on behalf of the elected government. Theoretically, the elected government has the power to crush the gangs, wipe them out, but they would be destroying children and grandchildren of the same families which went to the polls and elected UDP area representatives in every single constituency of the Southside in March 2012.
There is a history here which the power structure does not want to discuss, because it would mean, in the first instance, recognizing that it is human beings who become gangsters, not animals. These human beings become gangsters basically because their living conditions condemn them to a fate similar to that of animals. Gangsters become gangsters in order to become human beings. It is contradictory, but it is real.
Belizeans “of dark complexion” originally came here after being enslaved in West Africa and shipped across the Atlantic to work in the woodcutting industry of the settlement. The ancestors of today’s gangsters worked hard, were legally freed in 1838, and submitted to British colonial discipline all the way into the first half of the twentieth century. The capital city was a disciplined place when the peaceful nationalist revolution began in 1950.
Jump high, jump low, there were losers in that revolution, and it now appears that prominent in that number were/are the families which now produce the gangsters and child soldiers. So then, who were the winners of the peaceful, constructive, Belizean revolution? That is a conversation the power structure here does not want to enter, because the post-colonial story in Belize is a story of greed, elitism, colorism, injustice, corruption, and cruelty.
Our competitor’s editorial said: “We need to create new legislation making it a crime for any person in the society to join a gang, or to be a member of a gang or any organization which operates for criminal or subversive purpose.” The masses of the Southside Belizeans have reason to believe that the PUP and the UDP operate for criminal purposes, which is to say, the accumulation of public funds and assets for personal, private purposes. Many Southside Belizeans, then, believe that the PUP and the UDP are gangs, legal gangs.
The Southside gangs kill each other for the crumbs which fall off the table around which the legal gangs sit. The Belizean society can declare war on the gangs, as our newspaper competitor just did, but the violence has always ended up becoming worse, in the long run, when the authorities become brutal for short-term political purposes.
The saying goes that it is better to light a single candle rather than to curse the dark. In that sense, our competitor is proposing what they think is best. We submit, however, that they are ignoring the historical processes which brought us to this point, and they are saying, implicitly, that those “of dark complexion” deserve no reparation, no special consideration. Fair enough, but we have seen recently where the Southside gangs have produced “Attila The Hun” type leaders. The stakes are going up and up. Eventually, no one will be safe.