BELIZE CITY, Wed. Sept. 5, 2018– In the early hours of this morning, heavily armed elements of the Belize Police Department and Belize Defence Force (BDF) swarmed into the neighborhoods of the Ghost Town (Banak Street) and George Street gangs.
By the time the Ministry of National Security decided to call a midmorning press briefing to explain what was happening in the areas (which they had declared to be areas where a “public emergency” exists as defined in a proclamation that was signed by the Governor General and published in the Government Gazette yesterday, Tuesday, September 4), the early morning police and BDF operation had picked up and detained about 100 persons, most of whom police believe have gang affiliations.
The proclamation conferred special powers to the security forces to operate without being challenged on constitutional grounds by the residents in the declared areas, where some of the constitutional rights of citizens are being suspended under the emergency measures.
The declaration of the state of public emergency in these two neighborhoods is the state’s response to a spike in violent crimes that began last Friday morning with the execution of the George Street Gaza Gang affiliate Shakeedi Baizar and by Saturday night had claimed the lives of six persons and sent others to the hospital’s emergency room for gunshot injury treatment.
At the Ministry of National Security press briefing on Wednesday morning, the Minister of National Security, John Saldivar; Chief Executive Officer, retired colonel, George Lovell; and Acting Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams, addressed the country on the emergency measures which began with the operation of the early morning security forces in the declared areas.
CEO Lovell began the press briefing by stressing that this is the period of national celebrations for Belize and explained, “We believe that with us going into our festive season — 10th and 21st — and the fact that the type of the incidents that we have seen over the last week or so, it is absolutely necessary for us to arrest the situation and to do so before it gets out of control and we have to go back to that state where we were in March of this year.”
In mid-March 2018, Prime Minister Dean Barrow called an unprecedented Sunday press conference after a meeting with some members of his Cabinet and the National Security Council, to address a spike in violent crimes on the southside of Belize City which had resulted in the death of five persons, including two women, as a consequence of gun violence.
Next to speak was Acting Police Commissioner, Williams, who confirmed that some of last weekend murders were committed by gang affiliates from the two neighborhoods which have been declared as public emergency areas.
Williams told the media that they had discussions with the gangs over the weekend and as soon as those gangs were back on the streets, the killing continued. In what could only be described as police tough talk, Williams declared that “the time for talking is over and those who don’t want to listen will now feel. We cannot continue to dialogue with people who don’t want to listen.”
Williams added, “Banak area and the George Street area are the two areas of concern at this time [Ghost Town consists of the area bordering Lake View Street, Banak Street near Central American Boulevard and Vernon and Mayflower Street, while the George Street Gang is primarily located in the area of George Street and Plues Street].
And so, those are the two areas that are captured in the proclamation of a state of emergency on Southside. While yes, the proclamation does give the police and other law enforcement agencies additional powers to be able to go in and arrest the situation, we do not intend to abuse those powers bestowed upon us by the proclamation. We do not want the public to believe that, oh, because we have a state of emergency, the ordinary lives of people will be disrupted by the state of emergencies in those areas; it will not.”
Williams explained that it is necessary for the state to move to another level “where we can let those persons who are adamant about creating havoc in our society understand that the police is here to do a job and that job will be done at any cost to ensure the safety and security of our law-abiding citizens.”
Despite the security forces having special powers under the Statutory Instrument empowering them, Williams stressed that life should continue as normal in the areas, where the stores will continue to remain open and people will go about their business as per normal. He said that life will be “anything but normal” for people affiliated with criminal gangs, especially in the two designated areas of the city. He explained that under Statutory Instrument 49 of 2018 which gives legal effect to the “state of public emergency” for one month, gang members, many of whom are now in police custody, will remain locked down for a period of one month. He said that a person who is detained can be in custody for up to one week before being told why they are in custody.
Williams explained, “We intend to incarcerate these individuals for one month. If at the expiration of that one-month period they have shown no signs of improvement, that they want to behave themselves, then we intend to take it further…if the other groups decided that they want to create problems, then they will find themselves in the same situation as George Street and the Banak area.”
As it now stands, the state of public emergency in the two designated areas will be in effect for one month, but it can be extended. “If we should wish to have an extension of this 30-day period, we will have to take the matter to the House of Representatives. And I, as minister, do intend to do so if the circumstances do so warrant,” National Security Minister Saldivar said.
Saldivar also explained that the state of public emergency that was declared today has been in the pipeline from as early as March this year, when there was a weekend of murders and mayhem. He then explained why it took approximately six months to be implemented.
“One of the announcements that were made was in fact the intent to impose this public emergency in certain areas on the south side of Belize City. So that approval was given from then. It was the decision of the Ministry of National Security to put it in abeyance and to keep it unimplemented until we thought that the time warranted it. We now are at that juncture and so in conjunction with the acting Prime Minister, we decided that this was the time to impose this state of emergency in these two specific areas and you will have to ask the Prime Minister when he gets back if he would have approved it, but I believe so because we believe we have the justification to do so at this time,” Saldivar said.
At last Friday’s sitting of the House of Representatives; Saldivar tabled a bill to amend the Criminal Justice Act, which would impose stiffer penalties for belonging to criminal gangs.
“With the amendment that was tabled in the House on Friday, that will add restrictions to the ability of magistrates and the court to give bail, we believe that we will then be in position to further incarcerate these gang leaders who insist in creating havoc in our society using the gang legislation,” Saldivar explained.