The new generations we have living amongst us seem more sensitized to accepting violence around them. While growing up our parents protected us from viewing violence and allowed us to enjoy our years of innocence. We were so shielded that if we were looking at a movie and some scene of the slightest violence like a fight was shown they would either change the channel or have us cover our eyes until that portion passed. I remember when the movie “Carrie” was showing, they said it was X-rated because of the violence and contents and refused to allow us to see it. Of course when I got older and saw the movie, I really could understand that it contained “violence” because of violence. In analysing the plot, it could have been seen that there was an element of psychological abuse on the girl Carrie, who eventually ended up using her powers to burn down the school with those classmates who bullied her. The ending was violent, I must agree. This is how much they guarded us from becoming desensitised to the violence. I did not get to see that movie until I was mature enough to deal with it.
Maybe I am really old in the scheme of things, because I can still remember the days when reporting one murder for the year in Belize was a novelty… it was literally the BIGGEST news then! Today it is everyday news; it would seem we have at least one murder or attempted murder per day.
I remember when the big everyday crime was the snatching of your gold chain from your neck, which was germane to Belize City. Then the police already knew who the regular culprits were and for sure, if the items had not yet been sold, they were almost likely to recover it.
In 1988, I was the victim of such a chain snatching in broad daylight while I walked on Lizarraga Avenue, Belize City, on my way to school at SJC Sixth Form. I pursued my attacker and when he pulled out a kitchen knife, I backed down, but went directly to the police station and by night the police had nabbed the culprit, whose back was visibly scarred from the scratches I inflicted on him. I recall his name was some Gamboa and his alias was “Jail-eye”. I testified, he got convicted and served his time. Shortly after his release, police gunned him down during an alleged robbery.
I tell this story, because of the stark differences we can see thirty years later. I have lived to see street violence increase at a rapid rate for such a small population and now it is at crisis proportions! In 1988, it was the kitchen knife, bread knife, carving knife that the “criminals” used…. And their crime was generally robbery, they almost never killed anyone during said petty robberies. However, by 1993-1994, when I was a young journalist, I saw a marked shift in the types of crimes and the weapons of choice. The criminals began doing “ride-by-shootings”, which were their spin-off of the drive-by shootings being carried out by the now infamous Crips and Blood gangs so glorified in the movie “Colors”.
I recall the many evenings or nights I would visit a crime scene to see the bullet-riddled body of some young black youth. I recall one peaceful Sunday going to such scene on the BelChina Bridge, which was fairly new then. He was lying next to his bicycle, blood streaming from his head and chest… he was barely 16 years and was so callously gunned down. This was only one of many. I recall going to like scenes on various portions of Vernon Street, Central American Boulevard, various streets in the Martin De Porres area, but not beyond the Passport office (that was all mangrove then), East Collet Canal, West Collet Canal, Iguana Street area, Cemetery Road, Fabers Road, Neal Pen Road, and several others. Basically it was almost every street in the Queen’s Square Division, Lake Independence Division, Mesopotamia Division and Port Loyola Division. These became the “war zones” so much so that they were officially declared “crime-ridden” areas.
Then Minister of National Security, Dean Barrow, by his 1994 amendment to the Crime Control Act 1990, ensured that it became lawful for the Minister to declare within a mile radius the crime-ridden areas as “special area”, by the stroke of a pen, no consultation, by publishing it in the Gazette. Then once so declared, in said areas per Section 13.-(1) of the now Crime Control and Justice Act Chapter 102 [ previously named the Crime Control Act] “ … any member of the Security Forces may, without warrant, and using such force (if any) as may be reasonably justified in the circumstances:…” This was the genesis of the gradual sanctioning of excessive force by the members of the Police Department, all in the name of crime control.
Fast forward to 2017 and one can trace where from 1994 to now, some 23 years later, the use of more force by the police and even the militarizing of the Police Department has not in any way helped to deter crime! The Crime Control and Justice Act has not curbed crime and has NOT made the streets less violent. Rather, I opine it has made the streets even more violent and now not only the alleged “criminals” are displaying their arsenal and force, but the Police Department, through units such as (GSU) Gang Suppression Unit; (SPU) Special Patrol Unit and (QRT) Quick Response Task Force are now showing their violence and aggression towards the citizenry.
Abuse leads to violence
I opine that successive governments have failed miserably to address the issue of crime and the violence it displays because they have failed to identify the root cause of it. With all due respect to the many pundits who say that poverty and lack of equitable distribution of resources are at the heart of these violent crimes, I say you got it only partially correct. Rather, I opine that we have been programmed to view crime as only the street crimes and we turn a rather dismissive glance at white collar crimes, which are equally or maybe even more harmful to society and committed with little or no direct physical violence, yet have a more damaging impact on the entire population, as it usually involves the ingrained corruption in our system being used to marginalize the masses and enrich a few, while creating a level of authoritarianism where the very marginalized, for the crumbs of the corrupt, fight to keep the status quo… they have become their worst enemy but the mental enslavement prevents them from seeing it.
You see the Minister, politician or cronies who swindle the public coffers out of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars selling passports, brokering deals and bloated contracts, doing illegal land transactions, etc. are no less criminal than the man who stabs or shoots the other. The only difference is that in the latter, there is an immediate display of violence, the outcome of the crime is instant, and the victim and his immediate people are easily known. However, in the white collar crime scenario, there is no visible violence, although it is this very corrupt behaviour that leads to the poverty of the masses, who then participate in the violent crimes. Also, there is no immediate known outcome, said outcome is only discoverable when people like the Auditor General do an investigation and could report about the corruption with the sale of passports and issuance of visas… all illegally done; or if she is allowed to do an audit of the Lands Department… and follow the money trail. Until so compiled we cannot appreciate the magnitude of the crimes against us, the citizens, and the devastating blow it is to us all, because it is not physical violence, but rather intellectual, psychological violence. Then, unlike a murder, these white collar crimes of corruption do not only impact one family… but an entire nation, as it has a negative impact on the nation’s economy, its governance structure, its judiciary, its access to resources and opportunity of the citizen! It is worse, yet the perpetrators are never arrested, charged or imprisoned. Thus, my belief that it is these very types of crimes that lead to the poverty that leads to the street crimes, which are only the symptom of the root cause of violence.
I opine that another contributing factor to the violent nature of the street crimes is the fact that we are an abused society. The abuse, I propose, comes in two forms. Firstly, there is the abuse we suffer at the hands of our political leaders, whose modus operandi of leadership is to do as they please and enrich themselves. They have no regard for the political promises made to the masses, no need to be transparent and accountable and worse yet, would utilize state resources to quell any dissent or opposition! They demand silence as they pilfer the nation’s coffers and enrich themselves, and when necessary, they even bribe their way back into office each election cycle!
We are also an abused society because we have somehow over the years developed a style of child-rearing that leaves much to be desired. Our children are physically abused, sexually abused, mentally abused, emotionally abused and psychologically abused! But this culture of abuse stems from the homes we are raised in and the society that has a national psyche of abuse which the citizenry comes to accept as the norm! Thus an abused person is most likely to become an abuser. So these abused children grow up and are suddenly expected to act “normal” without displaying their propensity to violence caused by the abuse suffered in childhood and reinforced by the social norms. We are insane to think that a child who grows up in an abusive home and is further stricken by poverty, could possibly be a “normal” contributing citizen. It is more likely that they will become involved in crime to get their basic necessities met. However, unlike the corrupt politician who walks into a Ministry and abuses his power, or writes a note giving instructions for “favours”, the “street criminal” does not have such privilege and resources at his disposal. Thus he uses violence to gain access to the material resources he needs or wants to control, like a drug distribution turf. Thus he is prepared to kill to get the access to needed resources, but he is really relegated to that conduct due to the lack of equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth.
With the white collar criminal and the street criminal pulling at the two proverbial ends, that leaves the masses of the society caught in the middle and screaming for justice, but their numbers too are decreasing. They cannot get higher conviction rates against those who commit the violent crimes and they surely cannot get the thieving, corrupt politicians to return the stolen national resources and serve prison time for such crime! They neither have the resources and wherewithal of the state, nor are prepared to take the drastic actions of the street criminals to gain access to such resources.
(To be continued in the next issue of the Amandala)