The Gang Suppression Unit came to national attention in January when residents of the Southside started coming forward with reports that they had been tasered by this new unit, the GSU.
Indeed, the GSU started operation in mid-October, and since then their stunners which are mistaken for Tasers, their masks, their 9 millimeter machine guns, and their hard charging techniques have made news. And recently, word from the streets suggesting that three weekend murders were perpetrated by George Street as a response to the GSU's actions in a funeral procession - has put the unit's work at the center of a whole new debate.
But before we argue about what the GSU did at the funeral or what it does generally, we figured we first have to know what the elite police unit is all about. So a few weeks ago, we asked for access to the unit's training, its headquarters and its operation.
We got it, and Jules Vasquez starts the series tonight with a look at the GSU's genesis:
Jules Vasquez Reporting:
"Make weapons ready"
This is the MT-9, a weapon designed strictly for law enforcement
It uses 9 millimeter rounds but works like a machine gun. The GSU is the only police unit using it and yes, they are also the only unit authorized to wear masks.
These are only two of the aspects of specialization afforded this elite unit.
We caught up with them during training for a scenario the capture of what they call a high value target:
Officer in Training
"This person has no regard for human dignity, and the information is that this person will shoot it out - will fight his way out if the police come to apprehend."
The simulation was carried out with absolute precision.
The spotting, the coordinated approach and the smashing entrance; the exercise is run with precision and regularity because this is policing for a new level of engagement with the criminal element.
ASP Mark Vidal, Officer Commanding GSU
"My policy is that we must train and continue to train so that our officers perform at the highest level when we are dealing with this problem, because it is only so that we will be able to make the level of success that we want to achieve at the end of the day."
That kind of performance based assessment is espoused by ASP Mark Vidal, who conceived of the gang unit after getting training with FBI Anti-Gang Task Force and got ministry support to implement it:
"I submitted a proposal; eventually it was considered at the highest level - National Security Council. Eventually it was approved."
Not only approved but fast-tracked, funded and outfitted - by mid-October it was launched and operational. As Vidal Explained when he took us on a tour of the GSU Headquarters, it is a specialized unit within the police department, but the most distinctive one, it has its own intelligence, investigative, analytical and operational arms, and its own base at a private property in Belize City - which is a home on the northside. Where every space and every wall has been converted for some kind of police work - the master bedroom is covered with maps of the city - broken down into zones and areas of color coded gang concentration - denoting which gang controls which turf.
And while that's the bedroom, in the kitchen, instead of washing dishes, they are cleaning guns
And while this completely self-contained unit is in Belize city, it answers directly to the Commissioner of Police, not the head of Eastern Division:
"It does not operate under the command of Eastern Division, but it's still - for administrative purposes- there is some requirements to get certain things from Eastern Division's budget, so to speak."
But while that distinction is administrative - what makes the GSU stand out is its mission statement and objectives plastered all across the walls of its headquarters:
"The general objective the unit is to dismantle the gang structure and to bring individual gang members, who have committed crimes to justice."
But dismantling gangs - if it can be done - is not for the faint of heart - and that's why the GSU earns its specialized title with personnel, equipment and training.
Its ranks are numbered by standouts cops handpicked by Vidal and department and continuing training in intelligence, analysis, and operations:
"There is training in terms of intelligence. There's training in terms of analysis. There is the investigative training. I mentioned earlier about the criminal investigation training, and then there is also the operational training, what the public sees out there eventually."
And that's what we got to witness first hand - their weekly training in firearms and operations.
Which is where we started our story…the unit trains weekly in basic operations such as stop and search:
Officer in Training
"Mr. Pandi, we have reason to believe that you have illegal firearms and drugs in this vehicle. Do you have anything to declare to the police?
"I have nothing to declare - that's not even my vehicle - I don't know who it belongs to."
And in use of the MT-9 rifle
Thousands of rounds buried in clay to achieve precision if not perfection.
"We know that these gangs have a cadre of weapons that are not limited to 38 and 9mm's. We know that they have high-powered rifles, much more powerful rifles and firearms than we have. We know - and experience has shown - they have been incidents where they have used grenades. We can't just be going into an area with just a little pistol. We need to have additional fire-power to go into these areas."
And while they train almost obsessively -nothing can simulate the chaos that plays out in the field - where the GSU has become known for its masks, and this innocuous looking device - that fit on my pants pocket like an ultra-small cell phone.
It's actually a simple battery o tool - available over the counter in developed countries - that doubles as a flashlight and a stunner - the sound alone can inspire fear and I can tell you, it's very unpleasant to get stunned, but that short burst left me with no injury, all I knew is that I wouldn't want to get it again…
Administering it, mind you, isn't that band - even if this officer played it up for me:
"What we use is a stunner - that is a device that none-lethal. And it is basically a replacement of what would be the baton. And it will cause a temporary discomfort, but it will not cause any permanent damage or injury to anyone. It is enough to subdue to the person."
And while the stunner is an effective tool, what about those masks? Just the appearance of it is foreboding and it introduces a level of anonymity that would make any citizen uncomfortable. Vidal though says it is necessary:
"There is this misconception in terms of how the mask is being used, and understandably. The unit wears masks because some of the officers need to protect their identity, and they fear reprisal. Officers have been threatened; there have been threats through phone messages. There have been threats otherwise; there are people who have been inciting violence against the unit and their families. There have been cases where one of our officers was shot at when he responded to a robbery - to an actual shooting incident. But again, whilst the mask is being worn, every operation that we do is videographed so that it provides the accountability for everything that the police does out there."
"But who reviews that?"
"Well I would, and the officers would because there is a debriefing. Every operation there is a briefing, and then there is a debriefing. So that it would be post-mortem. The operations would be post-mortem and we would review the tapes and see what glitches need to be mended."
"You are reviewing your own officers. You all are a team; you work closely. I would expect that you have a charitable interpretation of their actions."
"Right but then again, there is the IAD; there is the Ombudsman's Office; there is an IAD head-office in Belmopan-"
"So if requested, those people could access the-"
"Certainly, it is there and it can be review by those who may need to conduct any investigation, if there is any breech of discipline etc."
And when they go on those operations, Vidal says they always go prepared:
"When we operate in these areas, or for all searches for that matter, we carry warrants and we execute warrants. The warrants give us the authority to use force when it is necessary. So that if people refuse to open their doors, even though there has been the verbal warning and everything, and they refuse; then certainly force has to be used. We have had stand-offs with some of these gangs. So that they have barricaded themselves. In one occasion there were elements of this gang who barricaded themselves, and practically challenged the police. So we had warrants, and we used force to enter in."
And that's part one, join us tomorrow night for part two when Monica Bodden will suit up, bulletproof vest and all and go on an operation with the GSU, where she will get a first-hand look at their engagement tactics….