In a list of least desired locations anywhere on the globe, Belize City was ranked fourth, behind Guatemala City (Guatemala), Caracas (Venezuela) and Basseterre (St. Kitts & Nevis) in a 2014 report in The Guardian (UK) titled, “The 10 world cities with the highest murder rates—in pictures.” The report, by Nick Van Mead and Jo Blason, relied on data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The data from Basseterre could have been uncharacteristic, a case of that city having a single extremely terrible year. The report on Basseterre said, “The total of 17 murders…in 2011, the year for which the latest data is available, was up from six the year before.” There is nothing anomalous in the report on Belize. We have been living in a nightmare for more than two decades.
For the country, which has been in the grip of horrible violence, 2023 offered a glimmer of hope. The number of murders was down more than 20% last year, compared to 2022. The government of Belize deserves to be acknowledged for the decrease in murders. But our leaders can’t boast. Just 70 years ago, Belizeans were alarmed by a single murder. Then, we weren’t dreaming when we sang about our “tranquil haven.” The number of murders in 2023 is still horrific, but murder numbers going down (85) is so much better than murder numbers being up.
Quite rightly, GoB isn’t going overboard with self-praise for our “best” year in the past two decades. They instead chose to congratulate our police officers and Police Department, and that is in order, for every pat on the back we give this group that is in the teeth of the fight in our murderous nation, is good for their morale. They, the police, are like our “soldiers” in the public health hospitals who, in our country that has lost its soul and its respect for human law, experience trauma equaled or exceeded only by health personnel working in war zones.
The police help to suppress violence by deploying officers strategically. They spring to action when something has gone terribly wrong. They investigate crimes and present their findings to the office of the DPP, which then determines if they have enough evidence to proceed to court. Other contributors recognized by GoB for the reduction in murders are the activities of the Leadership Intervention Unit (LIU), certain special government programs, an increase in the minimum wage, the increased installation of surveillance cameras, and improved forensic capacity.
The consensus is that the LIU, which had other names in previous incarnations, achieved its greatest success under the leadership of Mr. William Dawson, who, sadly, died under the strain of the immense burden. In these inflationary times, the social programs give hope to the most despondent, and the increase in the minimum wage, by over 50%, has given some breathing room to the lowest wage earners.
In respect to programs, the government gets a failing grade in two important areas. One program that has been neglected since we became an independent country is sports. It is disturbing and shocking that Belize invests so little in properly organized sports, the number one tool to harness the energies of youth, especially young men. By nature, males are warriors. Their warlike nature must be steered into activities that allow these energies to be harmlessly released. Another program that is woefully neglected is vocational education. It is unacceptable that there are so few schools for our young people to train to become electricians, plumbers, welders, mechanics, electronic engineers, so few schools that teach advanced fishing and farming techniques. But we do satisfy our need for waiters.
The placement of cameras in known hot spots, and improved forensic capacity, both played big roles in the decrease of murders in 2023. They helped greatly in bringing justice to a broken justice system that was a pushover for over three decades. Where there is no vision, the people perish; and where there is no justice, people with criminal minds are emboldened. Belize has paid a steep price for its failure to bring violent people to justice!
Until very recently, our murder clearance rate was no more than 7%. The cost to this nation for failing to solve murder cases – every failed prosecution, the cost to this nation for those more than two decades when the justice system was falling down, the grief and damage done to our economy during that age of “impunity”, are incalculable. We became one of the most murderous nations on earth. We must spare no effort to make this reduced number of murders a trend, until that scourge is crushed and we are once again a tranquil haven.
As much as we are eager to shoot, we are also reckless on the highways. At some point this year the Police Department will tell us the number of Belizeans who were tragically lost in traffic accidents in 2023. It might be our worst year ever. Our little developing country just can’t accept the carnage on our highways.
The human losses on the highways go beyond deaths. If the report is like the ones in previous years, no mention will be made of the number of individuals who survived serious injuries in traffic accidents, many who won’t fully recover. But the SSB knows, because it has to pay, and the insurance companies know, because they have to pay. We shouldn’t be puzzled when SSB has to raise more money, and insurance rates go up.
Traffic accidents can’t be eliminated. The volume of vehicles on the roads, and the fact that we don’t have the money to repair all of our roads which take a battering each rainy season, or mark them properly, increase the odds for accidents. But those shortcomings don’t justify the extent of the mayhem. We can complain and blame, but when we are behind the wheel we must respect the conditions. The main reason for so many smashups is that many drivers exceed the speed limit.
The speed limit in the best of times, when our roads were just paved and properly marked, has been 55 mph. And our engineers didn’t arrive at the 55-mph speed-limit in old, poorly maintained vehicles with worn tires, a very common type of vehicle in a country that is struggling financially. It is basic that if 55 mph is the speed limit in the best of times, and we are living in very difficult times, that we must reduce our speeds. The authorities must insist on it. Our leaders must work harder to prevent road mayhem.
We don’t know the number and percentage of accidents that occur after dusk, but without being presented with any data, we KNOW that most traffic accidents occur after the sun goes down. It is not possible to overstate failures that absolutely must be addressed. The reason we don’t have this data is because Belize doesn’t invest enough in research and education that is critical to our development and safety. We must aim to drive less at night, and if we must be on the road, we must reduce our speed.
Poverty and not enough educational institutions to sharpen the skills of Belizeans in the various fields are serious issues our country has to tackle. But our resources are tied up fighting rampant violence, fighting people who are too eager to pull the trigger, and with tackling highway mayhem because our authorities are soft, lax, when they should be stepping down hard on drivers who are speeding.