I know for a fact that no knee-jerk response or reaction to our current crime problem will bring resolution to the situation. I say this not because I want those taking these decision to fail, but because I want to warn them not to take steps that will fail on its own and to instead get other sectors to step in and help.
Over 25 years ago, that is in 1994, the then minister of National Security Dean Oliver Barrow decided to tackle crimes with force rather than social infrastructure to help the disenfranchised and marginalized. By Amendment No. 28 of 1994 he amended the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act CAP 102, Laws of Belize, to give himself the power to declare certain areas as hot spots. The law specifically stated:
12.-(1) Where the Minister has reasonable grounds to believe that in the interest of public safety or public order, or for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime, it is requisite so to do, he may, by Order published in the Gazette, with the concurrence of the Crime Control Council, declare that the provisions of this Part shall, during the continuance in force of the Order, have effect in relation to any area of Belize not exceeding one square mile specified in the Order.
A “special area” means any area of Belize not exceeding one square mile in Belize City. That same law further stated that any such order done by the Minister of National Security “subject to revocation or amendment by the Minister, remain in force for a period of thirty days or such longer period as may be sanctioned for the time being by resolution of the House of Representatives.” Well, while all the legalities were not complied with, that order stayed in effect for some 20 years, until the other day when they finally removed the BDF off the streets. Those streets during that time, never saw less crime, and instead saw the escalation of crime to where we are today! That is a FACT!
Ironically one of the first areas declared a “hot-spot,” as it was then referred to, was the George Street area — and Barrow’s division in Queen’s Square. While they rolled out the guns, NOT ONE new social initiative program was put in place to raise the new generation of children differently, so they participated in society differently, in a positive way. No new sporting complex was built in this area, no vocational school was built in said areas, no community centres that offer computer classes or skills training, not even a public gym was created, much less a new well-equipped park! Nothing was done to prevent the upcoming generation from falling in the same steps that the new trend of violence was charting. Instead they woke up each day and saw military men with big guns as they stepped out their front door. They became desensitized to guns, and for them they lived in a war zone, for where else would the military be ever so present, so they acted as people seeking to survive in a war-zone. Thus we are here today, in a highly evolved social and criminal war zone!
Crime got WORSE
As a matter of fact today, 25 years later, some of those same kids, who witnessed street violence then, became immune to seeing big military guns in their faces as soon as they woke up and went to school, and are the same men now in control of the streets! Had we built social services, structure, systems or the likes, we could have saved them from then, but today they reign their terror on our streets. Those who do not do the shooting themselves, men, women and children, nonetheless glorify this lifestyle in music, dress-code and vocabulary. We created that!
Sadly the vision then was myopic, as it is today!
It is a fact that since 1994 to now, crimes got worse. As a matter of fact the statistics for murders in 1994 show only NINE murders for the year. Compare that to last year, where the murders for 2018 was a GRAND TOTAL of 143 murders. To date as I write the body count stands at 73 murders, with June being one of the most gruesome months thus far, in my view! Those numbers do not include the dozens of missing persons whose bodies we have never found but whom we are sure are dead!
In 1994, I was a journalist, and followed every murder, most of which were really “gang-related”, as the order of the day was ride-by. Yes, you got that right! Kids would ride on a bicycle and shoot their target and ride off. Of course, since then we now even have boats-by, and some still use the traditional bicycle.
However, what is even more frightening to me is the gruesomeness of the crimes. From 1994 to now, we have seen grenades used in commission of crimes, we know weapons stolen from the BDF reached our streets, and we know that we have moved from single murders to double, triple, quadruple, quintuple murders. And it’s like we have just become so desensitized to crime, that there is no mass protest, no public outcry, no vote of no-confidence, not even a petition to demand better investigations so we have higher conviction rates. The beheading of Pastor Lucas was a first of its kind, but as part of the usual knee-jerk reaction, some held a vigil and that was it!
It’s either we are paralyzed by the level of violence and abuse in our country, or we are so traumatized that we cannot even respond, or worse yet, we have become so desensitized, that we now see it as the norm and look forward to the next breaking news to type “RIP”, “Sad”, “Shocked” etc!
The abuse of authority
I maintain my position that force will not solve the problem. I know we need some level of show of presence and ability to exert force by all our security forces, but that alone CAN NEVER ever even put a dent in crime, unless backed up with the needed social interventions, programs, services, and the like.
If I seem critical of the constant decisions to pass curfew, preventative detention, or some draconian measure, it’s because I am old enough to remember, when we tried military boots on the ground, declaration of hot spots, declaration of curfew, declaration of preventative-detention, declaration of gang-truce and the like, and NONE HAS EVER GIVEN US RESULTS! We even had cameras installed in crime-ridden areas, and passed the Electronic Evidence Act and other laws to make it easier to gather evidence or get witnesses’ statements in evidence if they were afraid, dead, or not found, or living outside Belize, but, these were not accompanied by social interventions… so they never worked.
One of the three most recent steps was the 30-day preventative detention which saw over 100 men of two specific gang areas locked up and to date NOT one of them has been convicted for any serious or major crime. They calmed down very briefly then came back with a vengeance, as if to make up for the 30 days’ income they lost. Then there was the decision to stop street vendors from selling after hours – thus in effect placing a curfew on them. This met such public outcry and outrage, because we all know the street vendors providing food for all of us at night are NOT the criminals. On the contrary, they often are the victims of crimes as they are robbed of their sales money.
Then came the great idea of a curfew for persons 18 and younger. A “hurry come-up” plan that seeks to arrest and charge the parent for the violation done by the child. This, in my view, has so many more stumbling blocks, but suffice to say it was done without seeking any form of buy-in from the community. Even more tragic, it was done without having the support services that would show that the curfew was meant to solve the ongoing crime crisis. As a matter of fact, as I write this a group of children after curfew hours came knocking on my door asking for food and water! The police station is right across the street, but that is no deterrence, when they must find food before going to bed!
You see, in my view, it is one thing to have the power, and it is another to know when to use it. Also, to know when not to over-use it and abuse it until it has no effect. From my vantage point, the military on the streets had no effect because we did not know how to sparingly use it to instil the fear and will to comply in the citizenry. Once it became everyday way of life, it no longer had any return, thus crime spiralled out of control and the criminals actually sought to keep up with the level of armoury of the military! Serious outcome! Curfews have had the same effect. This is only our most recent try at this failed method!
So I ask several questions which I hope to still get answered:
1. If the child is out on the street in violation of the curfew, when the parent is picked up, what crime will he/she be charged with?
2. When the mother is removed from the house and there are other children, what steps are in place to secure those other children?
3. Will the parent and child be housed together at the police station lockup? And if so, for how long?
4. After the parent is picked up, will a social worker be on call to visit the home and help determine the social issues affecting them that resulted in the child being on the street beyond 6:00 p.m.?
5. Will the parents be given mandatory parenting classes so they know how best to manage and discipline their child?
6. Will the child be given any special attention to determine his propensities — such as towards education or crime?
7. Will the parents or/and child be given counselling and therapy, if we even have enough qualified therapists and counsellors in the country?
8. Will the parent get any financial aid to improve the living conditions of the child and her/his family?
9. Will the child be enrolled in some school, albeit even if only to learn a trade? Especially if he is over 14 years of age, which is the age limit for mandatory school enrolment?
10. Will the families be given much needed financial aid and land where needed so they create better housing and thus a better liveable environment for the family?
11. If the parent is in need of rehabilitation, counselling, therapy or the like, will the state provide said services to them free of cost?
If the answer to any of them is NO, then we are wasting our time, because what we need right now is some serious interventions into the lives of so many families, as children are manifesting learned behaviours. Their conduct reflects some very basic needs in their home and community environment. Children learn their behaviours from the adults around them, and they are a reflection of their home and immediate surroundings. However, those same adults, who are their parents, likewise are reflecting their very own upbringing!
I ask these questions and expect answers, because if we are having a curfew, to ease and appease the minds of those Belizeans who are satisfied with Band-Aid solutions, then I know we are on the wrong path. However, if the curfew has the support of the Human Development Department, Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Health and personnel are on standby to give prompt assistance to these parents and children so as to remedy their plight, then that is a start in the right direction.
Otherwise, we are all fooling ourselves with a false sense of safety. This visionless action is yet just another attempt at public pleasing, with no consideration of how it really aggravates the situation and creates a national psyche of failure and hopelessness.