Prime Minister Dean Barrow rushed back to Belize last Friday to meet with gang leaders. They agreed to hold the peace until after the September celebrations; the carnival road march went without incident. Friday’s meeting was followed by another at the ITVET on Sunday where all Belize City gangs sat around the table with the Prime Minister, Minister of Police Doug Singh, Anthropologist D. Herbert Gayle and others on behalf of the government. The gangs agreed to a truce and a coordinating committee was formed to monitor the progress. But how fragile is that truce? News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The seemingly relentless waves of gang related homicides gripping the streets of the Old Capital since the turn of the century have arguably contributed more to the country’s annual mortality rate over the last five years than all traffic fatalities combined. Despite successive governments fruitlessly attempting to address the problem the number of casualties to crime and violence has only snowballed with time. It has been three and a half years since the Barrow Administration assumed office and the problem has proven to be more than just a thorn in its side. An effort to bring together rival factions within Belize City’s underworld is the latest endeavor to call a ceasefire.
Doug Singh, Minister of Police
“The agreement is that there’s a commitment on the part of both sides, and I’m saying both sides even though it involves different groups in each side, to actually hold it down. Essentially to start a process to work together that includes several stages. It includes mitigating, reconciliation, there were suggestions made by one side that perhaps we need to have a forum where they can all get together and start to socialize together to help to develop a relationship.”
That relationship between enemy gangs have, for quite some time, been non-existent. As it currently stands there have been ninety-five homicides since the start of the year, much of which can be attributed to the ongoing turf wars. On Friday a meeting was convened by P.M. Barrow with members of various groups, including the dominant George Street Gang, to establish a peaceful co-existence going forward.
Dean Barrow [File: September 2, 2011]
“The idea is to try and forge some kind of a truce and that was made clear to both sides, both sides expressed that willingness to talk about exactly that objective. Whether we will actually be successful coming out of that meeting on Sunday is another matter, but given where we are, it is certainly worth the effort and I certainly am absolutely committed to investing my time in the process to try and achieve the outcome that we all desire.”
According to Minister of Police, Douglas Singh, the principal gangs, those being George Street and the South Side Gangsters, have taken the necessary step to arrive at an amicable solution to curtail the recent spate of killings.
“There is this clear understanding that this is an opportunity, maybe a first-time opportunity with this very large group to actually move forward and I think we are grateful for that. There’s a lot that has to be done to ensure that the proper things are put in place but we certainly are grateful for the commitments that are being made on the side of these [gangs], by these parties.”
To understand the gravity of this problem one needs only look at the evolution of gang culture in Belize. Much like both major political parties, not only do these cliques bear similar colors but their rise to prominence have occurred within the constituencies of past Prime Minister Said Musa and current Prime Minister Dean Barrow. The former saw the rise of Majestic Alley in Fort George during his consecutive terms in office while the latter has seen and continues to see the growth of George Street in Queen Square. A similar, unsuccessful attempt at armistice was made in early last year.
Dean Barrow [File: September 2, 2011]
“We acknowledge that in fact the situation has not improved and so we will continue to go with it a will. There is a difference between this time and last time—these were far larger groups. Both the earlier group at one-thirty and the second group at three-thirty and there were many more of the major players. In fact, all the known leaders as far as I can tell were present except for people who might actually in jail—and I think we even brought one or two people out of jail. So the point I want to make is that I was cautious and in fact factual in terms of telling you that what will come out of Sunday afternoon’s meeting is anybody’s guess—whether anything will come out of Sunday’s meeting, is anybody’s guess. But the effort has to be made.”
Part of that effort is to provide gang members with gainful employment.
“Certainly on the group associated with the SSGs they said that they felt that they could take care of their employment opportunities. We got a different impression from the groups associated with the George Street Gang that certainly they may need some form of assistance in securing employment, recognizing that many of these people are unemployable from the standpoint that business houses and employers in the society at large are not prepared to take chances.”
GOB, for its part has taken several risks, admittedly, Singh says, they did not turn out according to plan.
Raymond "Killa" Gentle
“The government has made efforts in the past, most recently there was a group of about fifteen that were relocated to different parts of the country. That program hasn’t worked very well. There was also the effort, I think, with the construction work, being done on the south side for the rebuilding of certain homes and [Raymond] Killa Gentle was shot on the worksite there. The prime minister made it absolutely clear to the group that unless we can create a safe working environment even for the members of these groups then it’s useless to try to provide the opportunities because if they can’t work, if they can’t come out and work anywhere then what’s the use of the government effort?”
A coordinating committee has since been assembled to monitor the truce and to propose to government community uplifting initiatives that will also provide jobs across Belize City. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.