Two weekend murders and a rise in armed robberies has prompted the state to declare another Southside state of emergency. It went into effect this morning at 3:00 am. And while you were sleeping, all gang neighbourhoods on the Southside were roused from their sleep by as many as 300 hundred police officers conducting raids and sweeps.
The Minister of National Security explained the reasoning at a press conference this evening at the Raccoon Street police station:Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security"Late last week as you know one young man was murdered and over the weekend another one was murdered and one young lady was shot in the arm whilst holding a baby. Intelligence told us that it would only escalate from there and there would be further bloodshed. So over the weekend we had n choice but to ask the Governor General to enter us into another state of emergency where we can detain these persons of interest to prevent any further bloodshed. I remain convinced that we would not tolerate any lawlessness in this country. We are in the middle of a pandemic already, we don't need any more headaches, so a still message has already been sent to persons of interest and more stiff messages are about to come especially if they don't decide to straighten up."
Police’s Rapid No-nonsense Response
Now, the last Southside State of Emergency started on March 18th, and finished 30 days later. When it was done, the Police Commissioner Chester Williams wanted that another one would be put into effect at the sound of the first gunshot.
And he has held true to that promise. Belize City had seen no gang murders since April - until last weekend.
This evening, the Commissioner outlined a rapid and no nonsense response to a rising wave of crime:Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police"In the press brief yesterday I made mention to the fact that the spate of violence would be address and would be address swiftly. This morning we launched an operation headed by Mr. Vidal and that operation was to go after those persons we believe are involved in the recent spate of violent crime in Belize City and to some extent across the country, because it is not just about the shootings, but also the robberies we are seeing across the country - those brazen robberies with people carrying firearms and pushing firearms in the faces of people. Those were committed as well by some of the same persons that we targeted this morning."
"In terms of why we decided to going to this state of emergency, the minister has covered most of it, but you all would recall that when we had the previous one in March, when they were release from custody, they were warned and they were told that if it is they decide to start their foolishness again that we will be coming back for them. Even those who did not go up as a part of that previous state of emergency, they too were warned that if they decide to go down that road where they try to hold the masses of our people hostage in this country and particularly in the city that we are not going to sit idle by and tolerate them to believe that they can have their way and so based on that when we saw the robberies, the brazen type of robberies occurring across the country business people complaining of being extorted by gang members and to some extent being threatened that if they don't pay the amount being extorted that they will be killed, then the spate of shootings over the weekend - all of those culminated to get us where we are today."
"Those who continue to demonstrate that criminal propensity and do not want to fall in line, but instead want to be violent hunting or preying on other people, recklessly shooting at women and children, we cannot have those people among us. Their behavior is incompatible with human behavior and as such they do not belong among us and those are the persons that we are after and those are the persons that we are putting away. I want to sound the message that entire south side Belize City is declared as a state of emergency area."Ops Commander Vidal: We Arrested 99
The cop coordinating the response on the ground was commander of operations ACP Marco Vidal. The former GSU creator and commander is known for his hard nosed approach, and he gave an outline of what was done in the city - and to those gangsters who fled the city to escape the police dragnet:ACP Marco Vidal, Commander OPS"This morning between 3a.m. and 11a.m. we launched the operation that was mentioned earlier by the commissioner targeting ten gangs in the south side of Belize City. The primary focus, however, was two sections or two gangs; the Ghost Town gang and the South Side Gang and its immediate affiliates. So we utilized just over three hundred officers, that's a combined B.D.F. and police team, that operation included the cordoning of the zones by both B.D.F. and the police and then we utilized our strike teams which are the specialized units. The Gang Suppression Unit, the Special Patrol Unit, the Anti-gang Taskforce, Special Branch and the Mobile Interdiction Team and they were accompanied by the SOTIF in regards to conducting searches of the premises of these individuals and detain these individuals who we have detention orders for this state of emergency. At the conclusion of the operation, we had 99 gang elements detained and as we speak they are currently being interviewed by the anti-gang task force as well as the criminal investigation branch. The state of emergency as stated in the regulation is for 30 days and it can be extended further, so there are some who sought to flee the area, but we had vehicle checkpoints in the districts and that allow for us to apprehend 3 this morning in the Belmopan area. During the operation, we also had several drug seizures as well as one firearm, which is an AK-47 and some ammunition. Those persons who had fled we know where some of them are, so we will be going after them and they will also be brought in and dealt with thereafter."
Vidal says he expects to be making more arrests of alleged gangsters outside the city.Is SOE The Only Tool That Police Have?
So, while many in the public may applaud the police for the get-tough, rapid response. Others might ask, why such a drastic measure? A state of emergency suspends many of a citizen's fundamental rights - and infringes on the presumption of innocence and due judicial process.
After all, many might say, shouldn't the police have other tools at their disposal? Rather than mass incarceration and suspension of citizens' right?
The Commissioner explained that - as he sees it - convicting gangsters is difficult:Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police"Some might say but why is it we have to resort to a state of emergency to deal with the issue? Well you all will know that with these gang activities though we know these players, we know when they commit crime, it is difficult to prosecute them because they threatened witnesses and nobody want to come forward and give statement against them and so we are unable to effect arrest where they are concern and so they remain on the streets and continue to torment people and so this is one way that we can deal with them. So while they'll be in prison, the gang task force and CIB will be working on the investigations where they are concern to see if we can charge some of them under the gang regulation and some of them under the criminal for whatever criminal act that they may have committed."
Reporter"Is there any concern on the part of the ministry and the police department that there may be perhaps a fatigue in the number of back to back state of emergencies that are being put in place to try to stem gang violence in the city?"
Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police"I wouldn't say so because this is a different one than the previous one. As I said before, the elements we are dealing with now were not a part of the previous state of emergency and so I cannot see an issue of a fatigue and remember that the previous one was supposed to be extended but because of the fact that they had gone to CYDP and had gone to Brother Nuri and had asked for sympathy, the minister and the government decided, you know what, let us give them a break and see what they are going to do if they're going to change and it was in that spirit that the previous one was not extended. So at the end of the day, it is incumbent on them to show that they are serious about making the change, they are serious about displaying behavior that is compatible with ordinary people's behavior so that they can live among us. At the end of the day If they cannot do that then will have no other choice but to put them away."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security"I don't know one single law-abiding citizen who hates a state of emergency. Law-abiding citizens love states of emergency because they have nothing to hide and they know they won't be gone after by the police. If you look at the whole COVID-19 situation, for example, my sentiment that I am hearing off the street is that people are asking back for the curfew so I believe that the Belizean public wants to be safe and if it takes ten SOEs for them to feel safe then that's what we'll do. In deed it's a legitimate question to say well are state of emergency the only thing that you can do, no, it's not the only thing that we can do, but whenever you want to stop something immediately, that's the best weapon. You implement the state of emergency, you detain the persons of interest and hopefully like the commissioner said when they come out they want to make some change to their lives and we have seen that with the previous set. Hopefully we will see that as well with this set."Not All Detained will Be Jailed
So, to recap, the Police have detained 99 gang members. These are persons who, according to their intelligence gathered, are either involved in some way with the two gang-related murders this weekend in the City, or the plans for retaliation against family members and friends of the deceased men. Finally, some of these detained individuals were picked up because police linked them to the recent spike in crimes such as armed robberies and the extortion of business owners.
The press challenged the police on the possibility that the State of Emergency operations this morning led to the detention of gang members who are trying to stay out of trouble.
Here's what the Commissioner and the Minister of Police had to say about that:Reporter"The dragnet still encloses on some of those other people who are fairly innocent or have nothing to do with the flare up over the weekend."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security"I can assure you that nobody is being dragged into it. If the police are paying you attention it's because the intelligence is saying that you are involved in some way and we want to make sure that you know, if you are involved in criminal activity, that the police is paying attention to you. So yes, if you know you are not involved in anything and you're not involved in anything you don't have to worry about the police. But if you are associated with criminal activity then you need to be really worried."
Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police"We will be filtering those persons out like what Mr. Cayetano have said, they may be some who are detained who may not be giving trouble at this time and so they'll go through the interview with the gang task force, CIB and once it is that we are sure that they are not a part of the problem they will be released. I can assure the Belizean people that anybody including any gang member who is not a part of the current problem will not go to prison. That's for sure. In terms of the amount of persons being targeted, we have well over a hundred persons that we are targeting, but not all of them may end up in prison. I am sure that the amount to go to prison this time is going to be less than those at went in the previous state of emergency. So, at the end of the day what we want is to ensure that we go after only those who are the problem at this time."
To recap, this State Of Emergency follows a recently lifted national SOE as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And before that national SOE, there was another for the Southside in March.Channel 7