In considering the sensational news story of last Friday night in which Mark King, Minister of State with responsibility for the Gang Truce, announced that his ministry was releasing 200 of the over 800 workers it employs, we have to go back exactly one year ago.
A year ago Friday, August 26, 2011, the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) went “berserk” on George Street, which one of the most notorious gangs on Belize City’s Southside calls home. It appeared that GSU had brutally beaten practically every man and woman on the block. The television images were absolutely stunning. The George Street members promised payback.
It was just days before the start of our traditional September celebrations; this one was marking our country’s 30th Independence anniversary, and the air was tense, filled with retaliatory talks of grenade droppings. Our September celebrations appeared on life support.
The Prime Minister, away on a trip to St. Kitts to see the new president of the Caribbean Court of Justice officially installed, cut his travels short to attend hastily convened meetings with practically all the major Belize City gangs on Friday and Sunday, September 2 and 4. Social anthropologist Herbert Gayle, who had just recently done a study on crime in Belize, was flown in for the mediation sessions.
Three meetings lasted almost 7 hours, and on Sunday evening, September 4, Barrow guardedly announced that a truce had been hammered out between the warring sides. There would be a short testing period, and once the truce held, the government would make jobs available for the gangs “to do a little infrastructure” in the various neighborhoods.
Our September had been saved. In fact the celebrations brought back memories of happier days.
That so-called gang truce, and those jobs, starting in September, triggered a string of 8 straight months of single-digit murders. The peace had seemingly held. But then April of this year came, and all hell broke loose. We had a spike to 21 murders, at one point 14 murders in 15 days. The last 3 months have averaged 15 murders per month. We are on target to surpass the 2010 record of 130 murders.
And so, for those who saw the news Friday night, Mark King’s bold announcement made them very nervous. Some felt the City would run amok, on this the eve of our September celebrations. It was like déjà vu, here we go again. Only this time, the government was playing the villain, and not the super hero.
But King appeared to know something we didn’t. Even as he repeatedly stated in the Channel 7 news story that funding for the entire program had “dried up,” suggesting that the remaining 600-plus workers might also have to be dismissed, he was optimistic that there would be “little repercussions or backlash” in the streets.
A closer look at the television news story revealed why. It was the Southside Rejuvenation Project that was trimmed, not the Gang Truce Program. The former employs 584 persons, the latter 240. As we understand it, the men and women in the Southside Rejuvenation Project are not exactly gang affiliated. Plus the 200 terminated workers each received a severance package that is expected to last a good portion of September, if not until October when King promised that they “will be rehired in other projects.”
Again, he appears here to know something we don’t. Nova Shrimp Farms and Williamson Sewing Factory have been gone for some time now. Unemployment is at the highest it’s been in 15 years, and jobs have not been falling from the sky.
But that is not what this essay is about. We are sure the Opposition will go to town here, as they should. This essay is really about the Gang Truce Program proper.
Some people believe the government shouldn’t “negotiate with gangsters.” But how else are we going to solve this burgeoning problem? We can’t arrest our way out of this mess. We’ve been trying that for donkey’s years, and it has not worked. It has not worked in a single state or country where street gangs predominate. GSU can’t suppress the problem; they only heat up the temperature, make a hot situation hotter. Uniformed persons with guns have been “suppressing” these youths for years. The result: more crime, not less.
Until someone shows us otherwise, we will continue to believe that the answer lies in jobs – but not the kind where you sign in once a day, go back home, and collect a salary at week’s end. That’s not a job. A job is supposed to keep you busy all day, tire you out, make you want to sleep at night, while you make a little progress in life, gain some respect while you tend your family. That is not what is happening under this program. In that regard, the program has been an utter failure.
In fact, in some ways the Gang Truce Program has made the problem worse. The program, as presently organized, has unwittingly validated gang identity, increased gang activity and fueled gang recruitment. There has been none of the promised infrastructural works in the neighborhoods to speak of, but the reputed gang members are getting paid, sort of like extortion money, to keep the peace – the ultimate validation. And in order to be employed under the program, you must be a known gang affiliate. Go figure.
Now you see why a good number are virulently opposed to the program. These jobs have to be about breaking the gang members out of the prison of poverty, of allowing them to be men in their homes, about giving them an alternative to the gang lifestyle they’ve adopted. It can’t be that the so-called salaries are about paying them to “hold it down.”
All the major studies on gangs have revealed that poverty and unemployment are significant contributing factors to the existence of a gang culture. But there are only so many jobs to go around, and the number of jobs available can’t keep up with the growth in the working age population. So you see where the problem is only going to get bigger. You can’t “kill ‘em all,” Jack. The breeding grounds aren’t going away. The government has very little choice but to engage.
But they have an opportunity here to push the reset button and set up a program for success. There is a huge chasm between what we need to do, and what we are doing. There are no easy answers, folks. We have to be daring. We have to believe we can keep our children from this deadly endemic.
There are success stories in other places whose blueprints we can modify for our purposes. But we need to have the will, the political will – not the kind we employ only when an election campaign is looming.
Hours after Friday’s newscast, a 20-year-old young man, Miraldo Alvarez, was shot and killed in Lake Independence. The victim, accompanied by his friend, was surprised by three young men armed with handguns rushing towards them from the pitched-blackness of an abandoned basketball court. That court has been without lights and rims for several months now.
It’s a full court press we need. We need the jobs, but we also need the lights on at the basketball courts and the football fields, and the programs, food to tame the hunger, the mediation to end the disputes, and the resources to make it happen. The Gang Truce Program can work; right now it’s wired to fail. It is written.