The senseless murders of young black males in Belize City, have once again gripped our attention; but for how long this time? Certainly this is not the first time that we have been outraged by the spate of random killings. Not all of us have forgotten that gruesome front-page image in 1994 of a dead youth lying at the foot of the Bel China Bridge in a pool of his own blood. In other words, we have been here before. The fact is, we are seeing a cyclical drama being played out; the same core problems remain, and the current murder statistics are only symptoms of a deeper set of problems.
But why do we continue to pass this way, each time missing the opportunity to use the crisis as a catalyst to tackle these problems once and for all? Clearly we have numerous reports, dating as far back as the Crime Commissions of 1990 and 2000, to verify that the core problems remain the same. We know what those problems are, and we also know what works in dealing with them. We have had several models of successful interventions by both GoB and NGOs in addressing this problem, so why are we back at this same space?
There has been a cyclical pattern of crime in Belize that goes back 20 years. In 1987 we were looking at the beginnings of gang activity in Belize. This was a first for Belize, which before had only seen youths (’base boys’), hanging out at the bases. That was a time when the most serious crimes confronting the police were petty theft, burglary, possession of weed and the occasional murder. That climate began to change drastically in the late eighties with the influence of the international drug and arms trades, with spillover in Belize that transformed our country in more ways than one, most notably the section of society we called street youths. The international drug trade has changed the climate of crime in the whole Caribbean, and this tidal wave of drugs, money, guns, violence and its influence in high places has changed the region forever.
Issues ranging from money laundering to common street crimes and the so-called gang warfare between rival groups are all influenced by this movement of drugs through our region heading for the North American market. This alluring trade brings quick cash to an underclass of unskilled, untrained, high-risk youths who become tools in a trade that requires violence to control one’s turf. Many of our youths die purposelessly in this ongoing war of brother killing brother.
What we face today is more problematic than the gang activities of a decade ago. Today’s crime is defined by increased random acts of violence by youths, primarily males against males, who have no defined gang affiliation. These acts of violence are motivated by an increasingly prevalent attitude of bravado and hostility among our youth and the availability of guns and the fast dollar made from drugs. These random acts of violence are not defined as organized crime, as is the case with the gang warfare currently taking place in Los Angeles and El Salvador. While these youths may individually express gang affiliations, their criminal patterns are not consistent with gang war between rival gangs.
What we are faced with today is a cadre of youths whose propensity for violence has increased to alarming proportions. The climate of anarchy and disregard for established authority at all levels creates the prototype of a criminal that can best be described as a ‘sociopath’, i.e. a person having no understanding of, or concern about, established social order. These are not easily rehabilitated youths, since they were never given a basic framework of civility in their upbringing. Unlike the Prodigal Son, they have no home to return to. Many are the children of children. This is a dilemma for those involved in the rehabilitation process; the question is: how can a youth be rehabilitated (returned) when he has nothing structured to return to in the first place?
The road ahead requires a multi-pronged approach to dealing with youths, crime and violence, and a major aspect of that approach must continue to be the national security perspective. Clearly these youths are only pawns in a sophisticated, organized criminal network and are in no way real players in the criminal equation; however, by their criminal activities they have created a disequilibrium in the social order that threatens citizen security. It is essential to break this network’s habit of using these youths to facilitate the drug trade. This can only be done by arresting those involved in the network at the highest levels and breaking up their operations. Therefore, decisive interdiction operations must continue to disrupt this network and to detain all those found to be a part of the operation of distributing drugs in and though Belize.
The greater challenge in approaching this problem, however, will require greater vision as well as deep financial commitment to pay for it. As said before, we know what is required to address this problem; we have seen what works, but are we committed to bringing about real change? Do we have the political will? Unfortunately, we as a country have not been decisive about this problem; we continue to react to the public clamor about murders in the streets instead of becoming proactive and chartering a twenty-year plan of action for the social, economic and spiritual transformation of our youth. Successive governments have not been decisive about using every resource at their disposal to root out this problem. While there have been many attempts or programs, including CYDP, YEA, Cadet Corps and YFF, they have remained short-term projects, or the necessary resources have not been provided to make them sustainable, or they were subjected to political interference.
We will know how committed a government is when we hear a commitment of $50 million over a five-year period for youth development with special emphasis on the most marginalized. Such can be realized through cooperation with such entities as the World Bank, IDB, CDB, OPEC Fund and other bilateral lending agencies which have provided similar funding for youth development in other countries. Just as we commit to pay back loans that are used to improve our infrastructure and enhance our tourist product, so too must we create a comprehensive plan for youth transformation.
Only such an announcement will signal that GoB understands the scope of the transformational issues facing our youth population, especially those at risk for crime and violence. However, because of the urgency of the crisis, any immediate intervention, despite short-term results, must be welcomed and encouraged.