Much of Belize City’s crime problem is blamed on poverty, as well as the lack of jobs and educational opportunities—problems which Albert Division area representative Mark Espat told Amandala Wednesday cannot merely be solved with beefed-up policing or the introduction of more draconian laws. There must be a concerted community effort, led by the government, to ensure that the socioeconomic problems at the heart of this bourgeoning crisis are weeded out, he indicated.
As the country map accompanying this article indicates, the number of 2010 homicides in the entire Belize District area is nearly 5 times that of any other district. Zoom in to Belize City, and we see that the homicide rate in this metropolis is nearly 4 times that of any other district.
Zoom in to the eastern part of Belize City—the area bounded by Magazine Road and Dolphin Street to the west and Southern Foreshore on the east; Haulover Creek to the north and Kut Avenue to the south—and we see that this even smaller subsection of the City had more homicides than any other district in Belize during 2010.
Our newspaper’s count indicates that during the past year, there were 23 homicides in this part of the City spanning about 10 small blocks—an area where three electoral divisions intersect: that of Prime Minister Dean Barrow (Queen’s Square), that of Minister of Housing Michael Finnegan (Mesopotamia) and that of People’s United Party representative in Parliament Mark Espat (Albert). We also included inside the radius a murder in Lake I and another in Fort George that were very near to the cluster. The area of East Canal and West Canal, in particular, is a red zone.
The count of 23 homicides in eastern Belize City surpasses even the count for all of the Cayo District, the district with the second highest number of homicides in the country, totaling 19.
In an article Amandala had published in July 2010, we pointed to police information which indicated a similar trend in City shootings. There had, at the time, been over 100 shootings in the Old Capital, 90% of which were on the Southside. We noted that the area just west of downtown Belize City, which we had been told is home to at least four gang bases, had jumped out as the area with the most shootings. The pattern of homicides for 2010 mirrors this very observation.
In 2010, Espat lost his brother, Carlos Espat, tragically in this part of the City, but not in a gang-related incident. The area representative told us that as far as he is aware, 5 or 6 of his voters were murder victims in 2010.
He concurs with our observation that the downtown area of Belize City is seriously impacted by crime, and business owners, as well as shoppers, are concerned about their safety. The crime situation, said Espat, also affects retail sales and the customer’s willingness to go downtown.
“Robbery statistics are also very alarming,” Espat added.
He said that he has not sensed that there has been the community collaboration that is necessary to stem the tide of violence raging through City streets. He does not think that any number of policemen or police vehicles, or even draconian changes to the laws would, in and of themselves, stem the tide.
“In most cases, it is a question of opportunity—offering potential wrongdoers a chance to earn an honest living, as well as improving the quality and conditions of life on the Southside,” Espat commented.
He also emphasized the need to target places where there are pockets of poverty even inside what may appear to be affluent communities.
“Dr. [Herbert] Gayle’s study [on Male Social Participation in Urban Belize, released in 2010] showed that if we will turn this around, we have to do so using socio-economic [strategies],” Espat indicated.
Amandala asked: Is it the government’s responsibility?
“It has to be the government’s responsibility to lead the way, but not the government alone,” Espat replied.
He said that everyone who has a stake in this—the business community as well—has to do their share.
“Personal responsibility is seldom discussed,” he added, pointing to the need for parents to assume the greatest responsibility for raising their children.
He also added that the policing ministry cannot be left to battle on its own, but it has to be a government-wide effort—a concept which Espat said is recognized in what he has read on the RESTORE Belize program. However, said Espat, “The efforts don’t match the emergency that we face.”
We asked Espat if he has ever been invited to participate in any proposed solution, as the man voters had chosen to represent the Albert Division from 2008-2013. He told us that he has not been asked to be involved since the change in administration 3 years ago.
“I think the most important thing that can happen,” said Espat, “is a more comprehensive, more aggressive program of jobs. The major complaint I hear from constituents is the lack of opportunity.”
Families have a hard time keeping their children in school, he noted. Even those who have graduated—not to mention those who have dropped out of school—have a hard time getting jobs, he explained.
There should be a more comprehensive approach to job creation, the area representative emphasized.
He also recommended that Belize should set clear benchmarks for increasing employment, as well as regular statistical updates, about every six months or so, to judge if the country is meeting those goals set to bring more jobs to the community.
The monthly constituency budget for Albert is $4,000 to $5,000, which is a subsidy for running the office, and the Ministry of Education has provided funds ($75,000) for scholarships for constituents, said Espat. Also, the government has channeled through the office $70,000 out of the Venezuela Housing Grant to assist area residents. Espat said that while the monthly subsidy is about $2,000 more than was granted during the PUP administration, it is still not enough to meet the constant inflow of requests for aid from constituents.
“I get 10 to 15 requests [for assistance] every day,” said Espat. Those requests are for financial assistance for health, sports, education, culture, and community events.
According to Espat, there is no allowance for area reps to access any of the recurrent budget or capital budget, and there is no collaboration with government ministries.
“There is not that respect and regard for area reps,” said Espat, pointing to examples such as the recent closure of the Belama Police Station, without the knowledge of the area representative, Opposition member of Parliament, Francis Fonseca.
In a statement released on Wednesday, Fonseca said that with the closure of the police station in that community over the last 8 to 10 weeks, there has been a spike in incidences of crime.
“To date, no adequate explanation has been offered to the residents of that community or to me as their area representative regarding the purpose or length of this closure,” said Fonseca.
“The permanent police presence at the Belama Sub-Station along with their regular patrols of the area has served that community well over the past few years.
“Their absence over the past few weeks has been marked by a visible spike in criminal activity in the area,” he stated.
The area of Cinderella Plaza and Castle Street—located in the eastern block of Fonseca’s electoral division—saw a cluster of 6 chilling homicides over just a couple blocks in 2010.
There were four double murders in the City—a pair on the Southside and a pair on the Northside: the killings of Kevin Lino and Kevin Cassanova on Waight Street on April 13; the killings of Marquis Mahler and Calvin Grant on Fabers Road on July 29, 2010; the killings of Maria and Richard Stewart on Graduate Crescent on October 16; and the killings of David Longsworth ad Edgar Ayala on the Northern Highway on November 30.
Between January 9 and January 12—a span of 4 days—three homicides have already been reported. Two of the killings were on Southside Belize City: one on Baghdad Street, where Frederick Flowers was gunned down last March, and the other in the vicinity of Baracat Street and Kraal Road, a stone’s throw from the April 13, 2010, double murder.