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The things that made a tranquil haven become a violent place

EditorialThe things that made a tranquil haven become a violent place

The latest report from the Belize Crime Observatory shows that the total number of murders in 2022 was 113, down from 125 in 2021, and while those of us who weren’t directly impacted by this horrendous crime are grateful for the improvement, everyone recognizes that we are still in a very terrible state. We are one of the most violent countries in the world, and that has been our lot since the new millennium began.

Beginning around the time of independence, the crime of murder started increasing, and the victims were and continue to be mostly young men. In 2012, our worst year, there were 145 murders in Belize. In only one year since 2010 have we had fewer than 100 murders in our little country. That was 2013, and the murder total for that year was 99.

We can put some of the blame for the increased murders on the drug trade. On its way to North America, the USA, cocaine from South America has to pass through Central America, through our air space, over our land, and on our sea. The price of cocaine is extremely high, and facilitating its traffic through our space on its journey to the US has enriched many daring Belizeans. The traffic has also caused extreme violence as various parties fight to get a share of the cocaine bricks and cash.

Some blame falls on a culture in which strong talk, violent talk, is entrenched. That culture isn’t unique to us. There is also our seemingly endemic poverty. Numerous studies have shown that people living in an impoverished state are more prone to committing violent acts, particularly when there is very uneven distribution of the little available wealth. Recently the Covid-19 pandemic, citrus and farmed shrimp diseases, and climate extremes, have come along to reduce our standard of living even further.

High on the list of culprits is our justice system that doesn’t deliver for us anymore. ONE murder was recorded in our country in 1957, and for that crime a man went to the gallows. In 1957 Belize (then British Honduras) had a population of 85,000. With a population of about 440,000 today, if we had continued on that trend we would have had FIVE murders in 2022. It is incredible how uncaring about human life we have become.

Our justice department takes blame for losses in fights it cannot win

If you commit murder in Belize today, the odds are high that you will not be found out. It wasn’t always so. In times past, somebody in Belize would swing at the end of a rope or be locked behind bars for a very long time if it was determined that someone’s death was caused by their violent action. In the ten years from 2010 to 2019, almost 1,300 persons were murdered in Belize. According to Jennifer Peirce and Alexandre Veyrat-Pontet, in the paper “Citizen Security in Belize”, the US State Department put our conviction rate in homicide cases between 1999 and 2007 at 10%. Ruling out serial killers and reduced charges (manslaughter), a 10% conviction rate between 2010 and 2019 means over 1,100 individuals got away with murder. That is the definition of impunity.

It is critical that the state solves crimes and punishes criminals. When the state fails in its duty, people lose their fear of being found out, and the loved ones of murder victims are tempted to resort to street justice. Many cases collapse because key witnesses dodge giving testimony in court, or die violently before the cases are called. Our rudimentary forensic capacity is also cited as a fault in our justice system.

Much of the blame for our dismal record in solving murder cases is placed on the shoulders of the police and the Prosecution Branch. The charge is that our police officers are undertrained, incompetent, or corrupt; and our Prosecution Branch is no match for lawyers in private practice. Our justice department can improve, must improve. The officers in that department must work harder and smarter, and they must root out corrupt members from their ranks. But we must not unfairly put too much of the blame on them. It is a fact that Belize is not the only country where murderers have been escaping justice in numbers far higher than in earlier days.

In the storied USA, a country with the most sophisticated tools to fight crime, they have also experienced a significant drop in murder convictions, though people who kill don’t walk free at the same rate there that they do here.

Derek Thompson, in a 2022 article, “Six Reasons the Murder Clearance Rate Is at an All-Time Low,” that can be found in the magazine, The Atlantic, said that police departments across the US were “struggling more than ever to bring the perpetrators [of murder] to justice.” Thompson said that in “the 1960s, more than 90 percent of all homicides [in the US] were ‘cleared’ by police, with an arrest or the identification of a dead suspect” but that the latest data from the FBI in that country show “the clearance rate hit an all-time low of just over 50 percent.”

Both Thompson and Jeff Asher, a crime analyst he interviewed, agreed that data from the 1960s was suspect, for various reasons. However, both agreed that the drop from 90% to 50% couldn’t be explained away as faulty crime reporting, or people being found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit.

The paper discussed the impact “Miranda rights” had on the outcome of cases in the US. In the 1966 case of Miranda vs Arizona, the US Supreme Court ruled that their constitution’s Fifth Amendment “guarantees citizens certain rights when they’re being questioned by police”, the most important one being “the right to remain silent.” Asher said that there was a 20% drop in the murder clearance rate after Miranda, though it wasn’t solely Miranda that led to that.

Another factor discussed in the paper was the increased use of guns in violent crimes. Asher said that in the 1960s guns were involved in 50% of the murders committed in the US, while today “80 percent of murders are committed with guns.” Asher said “firearm murders are much harder to solve” because “they take place from farther away…you often have fewer witnesses [and] there’s less physical evidence.” The article also cited higher standards being demanded of state attorneys and juries, and racism, as factors that helped cause the reduced murder clearance rate in their country.

In many ways, our system is not that different from the US. Even with a level of resources and sophistication far exceeding ours, their capacity to solve murders has greatly diminished. 90% for them has become 50%, which is unacceptable in any country, and near 100% for us has become 10%, or less, which is a catastrophe.

Our country is a miserable failure at solving murder cases, but we shouldn’t place so much of the blame for that on our police and Prosecution Branch. As the situation in the US shows, solving murder cases is a lot harder than it was before. This is a complex problem that DEMANDS a fundamental change in our approach, our way of thinking.

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