The issue of crime prevention is suddenly in vogue, as residents of Belize City continue to search for alternatives to arrest the continued violence that so far has claimed over 50 lives this year and 10 times that number since 1993.
Two weeks ago today a Crime Prevention Summit was hosted by the Central Emergency Management Organization (CEMO) under the auspices of the Belize City Council and Mayor Zenaida Moya-Flowers. That discussion was mainly academic and cause-oriented.
But since then, there have been several unusually brutal murders, including that of teacher and basketball superstar, Aubrey Lopez, last Wednesday, and the Belize Grassroots Youth Empowerment Association (BGYEA, pronounced “big-yeh,”) held a demonstration at the foot of the National Assembly in Belmopan last Friday in response to that incident.
President of the Association, Nigel Petillo, who first gained national prominence earlier this year in the matter of the “Harmonyville” land dispute at Miles 41 and 42 on the Western Highway, told Tuesday night’s gathering at the compound of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) on St. Thomas Street that his organization, in that time span between the demonstration last Friday and Tuesday night’s meeting, had drafted a proposal to crack down on crime. The proposal consists mainly of a specially-enforced curfew and emphasis on community activities.
But the main point of Tuesday’s meeting, stressed repeatedly by Petillo and members of the organization at the head table, was that this was only a proposal – albeit one that would be presented to the political directorate, including Prime Minister Dean Barrow – and that those who had their own ideas and solutions were free to, in fact encouraged, to draft their own plans and suggestions in addition to, or as alternatives to, the BGYEA plan.
“Stop talk, act now. …We are not here to point fingers, but we all have to realize that we are all part of the problem, and that being here means we are ready to give our input. …Let’s fix Belize,” Petillo stated.
In Petillo’s view, with the Government’s recent admission that crime in Belize has reached a situation “of crisis proportions,” there is a cry for help from the populace, and Belizeans have to stand ready to offer their assistance instead of waiting on the Government to do something.
Member of the BGYEA board, Karim Bennett, warned the gathering that the contents of the “Aubrey Lopez Anti-Murder Action Plan” (ALAMAP), code-named in honor of BGYEA associate Lopez but not in any way related to his murder, would shock, surprise and bite hard economically, socially and otherwise, but maintained that we had to re-value the value of life.
“We are fighting for our lives. …What is your life worth? What are you willing to give up to ensure that Belize can solve this problem?” Bennett asked the gathering.
According to the rationale of ALAMAP, which would have to be implemented via statutory instrument and agreed to by the affected community, crime is expensive.
As Bennett puts it, “Crime costs the criminal as well as the victim – it costs money to do the funeral, build the box, bury the body, but it also costs money to buy the gun, buy the bullets, and the criminal will go to the gas station to stock up, or the restaurant to get something to eat because it is open 24 hours, and to the ATM to withdraw money, and that is opportunity.”
In BGYEA’s view, the commission of crime is for the most part bankrolled by what Bennett called “intelligent business masterminds,” and depends, at least indirectly, on social and economic activities in a given community.
And if you, the reader believe you are not affected by crime or are contributing to crime, BGYEA wants you to think again. The ALAMAP plan would “force the good to suffer with the bad, to force them into action. We can no longer party, socialize and do business as usual while people continue to die in the streets. Do you think that the value of life decreases when people are killed 3 a day, 5 a day? At the end of the day, a life is a life, whether of someone of good standing, or a young gangbanger,” Bennett stated.
ALAMAP would be implemented by social groups, not necessarily from within the community, at the agreement of the community, but only after a murder occurs in the area. At a designated public meeting, signatures would be collected and depending on the number of signatures – 100 to 300 and more – ALAMAP would be implemented for up to three months, by statutory instrument and gazetted by the Minister of National Security, or in his absence, the Prime Minister.
The terms of the plan specify that under ALAMAP, all trade in the affected community would cease by 8:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m., covering everything from businesses and schools to taxi stands, restaurants/fast food outlets, sale of boledo and lottery, and even gas stations and ATM’s. Law enforcement (police, BDF, etc.) would be on the streets, empowered to randomly search any individual found on the street between these times and have them justify why they are on the streets.
Any person not in law enforcement uniform found with a gun would be arrested and have their license, if any, permanently revoked. Liquor licenses for shops, restaurants and bars in the affected community would be suspended for the duration of the period. If a murder occurs in the affected area, the plan would immediately, without gazetting, be renewed and continue until lifted by S.I. The person(s) charged with any murder must be denied bail and remanded until the lifting of the plan.
Sounds like a veritable state of emergency, and Amandala asked if these conditions, should they be implemented, would not provoke resistance. Petillo responded that Belizeans are being challenged to adjust their lifestyles to prevent crime, and that the group sought out the harshest alternatives as a way to get the community to be more serious.
BGYEA also proposed additional suggestions in support of ALAMAP, including the return of hard labor for convicted violent criminals, and skills training and Bible studies for first-time offenders; enforcing zero tolerance on public drinking; installing more cameras in public areas; bolstering youth groups, sports and religious activities; committing to a confidential witness protection program and DNA and forensic studies to combat crime, as well as suggesting the use of cameras and recording devices by police officers at stop-and-searches and when approaching suspicious characters.
Petillo had some sharp words for certain sectors frequently said to be contributing to the crime problem. The media, he said, were not doing enough to get out an alternative, positive message by banning explicit musical lyrics and objectionable television shows.
To the Youth Department, he asked, “Do you know the youths? Do you know the communities you visit? What inspires your activities – is it your salary, or a genuine need to help?”
Parents, athletes and churches all came in for similar criticism, and Petillo also called on the public to analyze the ongoing “Operation Jaguar,” which is being implemented by the same personnel, i.e., the Police Department, that people have lost trust in.
“I would rather die for something than live for nothing,” Petillo boldly stated.
The gathering heard from other speakers, including Pastor Eugene Crawford, president of the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches, who reminded the gathering of the power of prayer and announced a gun amnesty to be conducted next week; Yolanda Schakron of Belizeans for Justice, aunt of murder victim Chris Galvez, who demanded that the society act now in stopping those who think they have the right to cut someone’s life short and in cleaning up the Police Department; Glenford “Easy Glen” Adolphus, who reminded those present of the sacrifice of his father, the late Captain Charles Good, and challenged the justice system; and star basketballer Darwin “Puppy” Leslie, who spoke of his shock at the passing of Aubrey Lopez, and of another of his friends, as well as fellow basketballer, Rennick Reneau, and of the power of sports in healing the society. Leslie hosts a basketball camp for at-risk youths alternating between the Birds’ Isle floor and the SJC Gymnasium.
Speakers from the floor primarily emphasized that Belize needed a turnaround, not just socially, but morally.
Columnist Rhenae Nunez raised eyebrows when she condemned Belize as “a liad society” and challenged fellow members of the press to stop holding back in their stories in an attempt to placate, rather than to inform.
Mark Usher, unionist, wanted to know how the police could be trusted to implement ALAMAP in light of their published struggles, and Paul Casanova inveighed against those who condoned the “handout” system and turned a blind eye to corruption in the belief that it would benefit them.
The night closed with Senior Superintendent of Police, Chester Williams, a former head of Belize City CIB, reiterating to the gathering the police’s acknowledgement of their problems and shortcomings, and reassuring that the Department would be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Also making an appearance was consultant in the office of the Prime Minister, Mary Vasquez, who, along with CEO Audrey Wallace, leads a working group doing consultations for a comprehensive crime plan to be unveiled on June 2.
In a brief address, Vasquez told the gathering that at this juncture GOB was meeting with all stakeholders to listen to their concerns. She stated that it was not the Government’s intention to solve crime by itself. She pointed out that a knee-jerk reaction would not solve anything.
Vasquez, in addressing Mark Usher’s concerns about the police, later stated that police reform is a recognized part of any plan to combating crime long-term.
CEO in the Ministry of Tourism, Michael Singh, who identified himself as a member of the working group, warned the audience that while suggestions like ALAMAP would be “easy to implement tomorrow,” they nonetheless carried serious repercussions and would have to be carefully looked at.
It is not clear what BGYEA’s next move is, apart from going to the P.M., but Belizeans are anxiously awaiting the Government’s June 2 planned unveiling.