Just about the only good thing that can be said about the Covid-19 pandemic is that briefly, in one of the world’s most murderous nations, Belize, there was a lull, a little respite from the horrific homicides. For those who prefer to sweep things under the rug, we can’t hide the blood running through our streets, because we are the subject of studies by social scientists from all over the world.
No state of jadedness should insulate us from the absolute horror taking place on the Southside of Belize City these last couple decades. Both the 1998 -2008 PUP government and the 2008-2020 UDP government were impotent on crime, and presided over this debacle. The information presented by Dr. Adam Baird, in his 2019 research paper, Man a Kill a Man for Nutin’: Gang Transnationalism, Masculinities, and Violence in Belize City, is staggering.
Baird’s report, published on the internet at https://www.lse.ac.uk/lacc/publications, says that the murder rate in Belize rose from 9 per 100,000 in 1995 “to 17 in 2002, 30 in 2006, and 45 in 2017”, and in “2017 Belize City’s murder rate reached 99 per 100,000, placing it amongst the top 10 most violent cities in the world, with an estimated rate on Southside at 128 per 100,000.”
The pandemic-induced calm (we have to call it that in the context of what was happening before) is over. Like another Covid-19 wave, the tragic homicides have increased; once again our young men are being shot down in the streets and disappearing at sea. The anguish in the hearts of their devastated parents and other loved ones is terrible, and the loss of potential is tremendous.
Experts on crime have predicted that the woeful present state of our economy will exacerbate the violence. We were in a state of economic desperation prior to the pandemic, research from the Statistical Institute of Belize showing that poverty had increased by more than ten percent in the most recent decade, and now the pandemic has further increased our suffering.
We have other huge crime problems to address, but on a matter of scale it is the murder of our youth in urban areas, particularly in Southside Belize City, and Dangriga too, that we must make an all-out effort to bring to an end.
We know all that conspires against our young people to cause them to be in this grip of death, and these include the failed justice system, the drug trade, the poverty caused by a lack of marketable skills, and the failure of our governments to create opportunities.
The justice system is as woeful at being a deterrent to corruption in high places as it is at solving homicide cases. It can’t hurt for the lawyer fraternity to come together to seriously give input on this crisis. They more than anybody else know the machinery of our justice system, and the high cost of its failure. Few get convicted, so there’s little rehabilitation, and there is revenge in the streets for those who spent a few years awaiting trial and are released before wounds have had a chance to heal.
Few persons in Southside Belize City and Dangriga are getting rich off involvement in the drug trade, but with little employment available outside of fishing within the highly competed-for grounds readily accessible near to shore, the only business in that city and in that town for far too many of our young men is the dead end of peddling drugs.
The government is pinning high hopes on the potential of a new marijuana industry, and those hopes wouldn’t be too ambitious if that venture didn’t have to navigate through some rocky waters. There are many kinks to be ironed out, among them issues with banking the proceeds of the industry, and the concerns of the vigilant US government that producers of marijuana grown here will try to export the drug to their country.
As we suggested in a previous editorial, it might be best at this time for the government to grow all the marijuana for use in our country under the supervision of “respected” Belizeans, and for us to invite the American government to participate in overseeing it, to protect their interests. Our governments have effectively stamped out the growing of marijuana in Belize, so it isn’t that government would be taking away revenues from local farmers if it took over production of the crop.
It is doubtful that government control of marijuana will reduce the poverty in Belize City and Dangriga; indeed, the effect might actually be to take much of the money out of the business from the small players who are presently engaged in an illegal fight over it. What then — will our young people, in their desperation, start fighting over some other illegal substance or activity to gain their daily sustenance?
To apply the tourniquet, the government needs to immediately inject some funds, targeted at our most at-risk youth. We must get them into work programs where they earn a little cash, and learn computer science and doing business on the internet, and learn arts and crafts so they can produce items for sale to tourists and for export. If the lending agencies won’t help, float a bond in the US and the UK to raise the funds from Belizeans living abroad. Believe in Belize, believe that in the near future all of us will win, and so invest in our marginalized youth now.
The pandemic doesn’t allow full sports participation at this time, but community leaders, with the assistance of government, must start preparing for the day when things return to normal. Following the lead of G Mike Reid and City Councilor Micah Goodin, purchase or rent all those empty lots in Belize City and turn them into mini sports fields/courts, and vegetable/flower gardens. Following the lead of former GG, Sir Colville Young, government minister Sedi Elrington, and City Councilor Albert Vaughan, get all the musically inclined youth into brass bands.
The return of cruise tourism, hopefully soon, will improve the situation, but it’s hard to envisage Belize City with another cruise terminal, with such tourists being limited to visiting the few destinations close to port – Belize City, Jaguar Paw, Altun Ha, the Belize Zoo, and Goff’s Cay. As former tourism minister, Henry Young pointed out, Commerce Bight has great potential. If the government stops bowing and gets on with the recital, that port will be refurbished and jobs will be created as one-day tourists disembark to enjoy and explore Dangriga, Hopkins, Sittee, Malanti, and Tobacco Cay.
The time to save our marginalized youth is before they are shot down in the streets or ambushed at sea. We must end this violence now.