I went to a funeral on Thursday afternoon. This newspaper’s chief printer was burying his oldest son, a teenager. He had been killed in their Southside neighborhood. The violence, said the police, appeared to be gang-related.
Gang violence in Belize City is tied in with neighborhood loyalties. Once a baby child is born and grows up on certain streets in certain areas of this town, then he is almost automatically gang-affiliated, as we would say.
There were two aspects of the funeral which jumped out at me. One was that my printer is the son of a lady, now 88, whom I grew up next to on Church Street, between Albert and East Canal. Her family, a roots black family, was one house down from where I spent the first seven years of my life. During the more than six decades which have passed since I moved from that ‘hood to West Canal and Regent Street West, I lost direct contact with Bunsie and Lester and Alma, and so on, but I always remembered we had a connection from the old Church Street years.
Thursday’s funeral, then, was for Bunsie’s grandson, the second grandson she has lost to Southside violence, in addition to a grandnephew. She broke down in tears during the service at All Saints. It was very sad.
The second notable aspect of the funeral for me was that near the end of the service, a notorious, much-hunted gang figure from a different and hostile neighborhood on the Southside, greeted me as he flashed by out of the church. What was he doing at this funeral, and on the Northside of town? Anywhere outside of his immediate ‘hood was instant danger to his life. The fact of the matter, I learned later, was that he was my printer’s first cousin, through their mothers.
Belize is too small, the Southside is too small. So many of us are blood relatives, and neighborhood relatives. How come our young men are killing each other so often and for so many years, more than a quarter century? What happened to the Southside? What can be done about it?
The young men are killing each other on the Southside because they do not have gainful employment, and because they have no relevant education or job skills. They drift inevitably into crime in their neighborhoods, and the violence comes with the battles for turf control between and among neighborhood leaders and gangs.
If it were possible to remove all the high-powered weapons off the streets of the Southside, this would immediately reduce the violence and murder. If it were possible to remove all the guns, the young men would have to fight with fists and sticks and knives, as in the days before gangs. The key to the escalation of the violence and murder is the availability of these automatic hand guns, which are really like small machine guns. All you have to do is aim in the general direction and pull the trigger. A child becomes a soldier, because of the firepower.
But, my brothers and sisters, it is impossible to remove these small machine guns from the Southside streets, because all the borders of Belize are porous, and because there are people who are making money supplying guns to the Southside combatants. In addition, and to begin with, there are gun manufacturers who need as many markets as possible to distribute their deadly products in order to maintain and increase their profits.
The PUDP politicians are not the cause of the Southside violence, but they are not a part of the solution. The financial stakes are so high in the battle for political power between the UDP and the PUP that the gang war casualties don’t have a lot of significance for our politicos. The Southside area representatives take the blood and gore in stride. The ruling UDP made it their business to find jobs last year for the neighborhood youth, because it was a general election year, a “third term” year. There will be no elections for a while, so another youth man killed from day to day is not a big deal on BelChina.
There is a way to reduce our Southside casualties. It would require the formation of a commission of elders completely outside of the party politics. This is in itself a difficult proposition, because Belize is so small and politicized that almost everyone is linked, directly or indirectly, to the party politics. It’s like trying to find referees and umpires for our sports. It’s not easy to find someone in Belize who is totally impartial.
If we had a commission of maybe twelve elders or so, dedicated to reducing the violence and murder, they would need an intelligence network to identify and defuse specific micro conflicts before they became violent engagements. There are some conflicts (“old beefs”) which are decades old, but, as Senior Superintendent (or Assistant Commissioner of Police) Chester Williams has said recently, sometimes new beefs are escalating into violence and murder so quickly nowadays that the police are caught off guard.
Personally, for what it’s worth, I think Chester has done a good job on the Southside, and I hope we don’t lose him. But he functions within a government framework which, ultimately, is controlled by the ruling politicians. In addition, Chester is not supposed to be taken up with as many social development projects as he currently is.
I believe there is a need and a role for a commission of elders. Such a commission should have already been in place, under the guidance of an ecumenical group of churches. The violence on the Southside of Belize is an emergency situation. It has been an emergency and a crisis for more than two decades.
The churches have failed us. The politicians have failed us. Our community needs to take charge. On the Southside, we are so small and related to each other the homicides are actually suicides. In killing each other, we are killing ourselves.
Power to the people! Remember Danny Conorquie.