Last week, we ran an in-depth article that reviewed the present murder rate, in comparison with previous years? data. In the article, we pointed out that June registered an unusually high number of murders and the highest since 2001, totaling 15. Even though gun violence continues to be a problem, most of the murders were stabbings.
?Guns are very accessible to criminals,? said the Commissioner. ?Something happens right now, they take about 10 minutes to go a fetch a firearm or weapon [to retaliate].?
A mid-year review using official data, which Amandala did independently of, but concurrently with, the Police Department, revealed that the half-year murder rate is up a shocking 59%, while rape reports are up by 39%.
?I believe that if you go back to ?the old days??I really believe that that will be very effective?when you commit rape and they flog you in public?public whipping, I really believe we should go back,? Commissioner Zetina said.
He recalled the prison whippings that happened a few years ago, and despite the public outcry in some quarters against it, he asserted, ?Eh work!?
As for the death penalty for murders, the Compol said that he supports that too: ?I go for that?an eye for an eye!? he told us, adding that he lobbies for the death penalty when the opportunity arises. ?I always support it.?
He said that there should really be no fear of punishing the wrong person for the crime, as the justice system is nearly foolproof and 99% of the times, the police have the right people arrested.
?We do not convict the wrong person,? he claimed.
But there?s that one percent, we reminded. ?I don?t think so?People are properly convicted??
Additionally, he said, Government?s emphasis is now on the rehabilitation of convicts, to quell repeat offenses.
?I can tell you that there is no truth that major crimes have increased, but, yes, when you?re looking at murders, when you look at an increase of 17?it?s very alarming. But again, these are crimes that you know that we cannot avoid, because many of these cases ?occurring of late are crimes of passion; sometimes you?re looking at old beef,? the Commissioner explained.
Indeed, the official data indicate that there was no overall increase in the incidences of what the police characterize as ?major crimes,? as the total reported incidences of murder, rape, robbery, burglary and theft incidentally numbered 4,513 for the first 6 months of 2003, as well as for the first half of this year, 2004.
However, robberies increased 6% and burglaries increased 3%, while thefts decreased 8% over the period under review.
Drug seizures were also significantly lower, with both processed cannabis, and cocaine hydro or powdered cocaine seizures 45% lower than Jan. to Jun. 2003, and cannabis seed seizures down almost 80% compared to the same time last year.
Total arrests were down 4% for the first half of 2004, but arrests for illegal ammunition were up 28%. In August last year, the Police Department introduced a ?money for information? program, whereby the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry teamed up with police to provide cash incentives to citizens to call in information via the ?922? hotline to solve crimes. At the same time, the police also re-introduced a program to offer cash incentives for persons who wanted to turn in their firearms.
The ?922? program started out very effectively but it has slowed, Mr. Zetina claimed. ?We don?t have much calls coming through the system,? he confessed, but quickly added that the public still gives individual officers ?credible information? leading to arrests or the retrieval of illegal firearms on the streets. If civilians use the ?922? line to give anonymous tips, they may still get cash awards, he explained.
In spite of the program, which will dovetail shortly into a more permanent ?Crime Stoppers? program, firearm seizures are down 26% while ammunition seizures have fared worse, showing a 55% decline. Firearm arrests have also waned, at 83 in 2004, compared to 134 in 2003?a decline of 38%.
Despite the grim picture, Commissioner Zetina said that he has taken a proactive approach in policing.
?Special ops,? which include community-based operations like the Zone Beat Liaison program, the Neighborhood Watch Program, a recent program to form citizens? committees nationally to help combat crime, are among some of the initiatives that have sprung from the community-policing desk.
?You hear on the streets about the fear of cooperating with the police. Alright, it?s true,? the Commissioner acknowledged: ?You have some people that fear, but you have others that are bold enough that come forward and help us solve crime.?
The aim, said the Commissioner, is to bridge the gap between the community and the police, to improve the community?s participation in crime fighting. Some witnesses are hesitant to cooperate with police, especially at the outset of a case, but the police rely heavily upon information from the public to solve their cases, the Commissioner explained. ?In the absence of forensics, a police investigation in our case depends solely on what people can tell us.?
Currently, witnesses are not assured of special protection, as there is no official witness protection program in place. ?You have to look at Belize being very small. How effective can it be to protect a witness? You have to consider that. You know that crime is not causing such great alarm, that I think at this time, we need to consider it. Yes, there are isolated cases that need to be looked at, and given that sort of protection?? the Commissioner said.
?There was a case where I personally had to intervene for the protection of a very important witness, and it paid dividends at the end, in the sense that a person was convicted,? he added.
Commissioner said that in order to entirely prevent incidences of crime, ?You need police officers at each home in Belize City.?
Information on the police?s website, www.polive.gov.bz, reveals that there are currently 944 members in the Police Department and 898 police officers enlisted: one officer to 278 civilians.
The officers include: one Commissioner, three Assistant Commissioners, four Senior Superintendents, 13 Superintendents, 7 Assistant Superintendents, 26 Inspectors, 78 Sergeants, 135 Corporals and 621 Constables; 797 males and 101 females.
Other agencies need to help the police, he also said, pointing to an ongoing program with the Youth for the Future?Operation Positive Reinforcement?aimed at helping young people finding positive alternatives to a criminal lifestyle.
Social agencies, he said, can help to educate citizens, so we can win the war against crime. It is increased awareness, though, that he has attributed to the reason for increased rape reports: ?This is something that has been existing a long time ago; for example, the father playing with the daughter. You could have found that many, many years ago, when I was a child, and you continue seeing it,? said Zetina.
Others believe, however, that a flood of drug on the streets?including Valium, Ecstasy and Viagra?has hiked the incidences of sex offenses. Recently, female murder victims had also been raped by their offenders.
Commissioner Zetina denies assertions that there is Ecstasy being distributed in Belize. Despite the discovery and destruction of an Ecstasy lab in Corozal in November 2001, he insisted: ?We haven?t seen Ecstasy?it?s not here? It?s not available on the streets? Viagra! Everybody knows we have that here, but is it illegal here?? he inquired.
Currently, the police are hot on the trail of certain export processing zone operations that are suspected to be nests for what the Commissioner describes as ?mass production of ?suspect? illegal drugs.? Police have raided certain establishments and questioned people, and the United States DEA and FDA are collaborating with the Belize Police on the matter.
However, the Commissioner said that there is ?no evidence yet that illegal drugs are being manufactured, but they have what we believe are precursor chemicals to it.?
In an unprecedented move, PC Eulalio Cantun, who is also an attorney at law, has been recalled from leave to assist with the case, Commissioner Zetina informed, adding that Cantun would serve as his legal advisor.
He commented on two other high profile cases: the case of the sea pirates who have robbed Sarteneja fishermen out over $20,000 in cash, produce and personal belongings, saying the escape of one of the suspects was ?because of a little miscommunication between two of our units.?
He said, however, that the police have solved two out of the three reported cases. ?No doubt that third will be solved and we have the right people,? he told the newspaper.
With regards to the broad daylight shooting of Phillip Gallaty that took place in Ladyville late April: ?Soon we will be arresting people for Phil Gallaty?s attempted murder, and other crimes are being solved as we speak, because people are coming forward and assisting us,? the Commissioner informed. ?Sometimes the crimes cannot be solved ?now,? because sometimes it is the very same people that can help us solve them at the time, who are reluctant to do it.?
The reluctance of witnesses to come forward is among the reasons Opposition Leader, Hon. Dean Barrow, has identified as responsible for a low conviction rate.
Previously, Hon. Barrow had submitted a formal request to Government to resurrect the death penalty.
It appears that this would be good reason for Barrow to support the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the replacement of the London-based Privy Council as the final appellate court. Historically, the court has stayed many executions in the region, and some CCJ proponents have claimed the CCJ would put the power to execute criminals back into the hands of the region?s governments.
For his part, Barrow said that the problem, currently, is that we seem to be unable to convict murderers. The reasons are mixed, he said, but include ?to some degree, incompetence; the reluctance of witnesses to testify, to some degree; and trials take long to come to court.
?It?s never been this bad, particularly where murders are concerned, both with respect to the number of murders? [and] Government seems to lose pretty much every murder case that it seems to prosecute?? he opined.
Giving the CCJ appellate jurisdiction on murder cases, he said, won?t change much. ?You can?t sentence without convictions.?