Belize’s crime crisis – the stories behind the storiesAmandala
Although it got just a cursory mention in the New Year’s Day message of Prime Minister Dean Barrow, crime was the biggest issue on the minds of Belizeans—especially those living in the Old Capital—for all of 2010. The preliminary tally by Amandala reporter Aaron Humes puts the number of 2010 homicides at 132.
We will run the summary statistics graphically for easier perusal. Our analysis of the figures makes one point crystal clear: The crime problem is largely a Belize City male youth crisis.
More than half the murder victims in 2010 were under the age of 30. In fact, the most frequent victims of gun violence in 2010 were ages 22 to 30—a startling 33 persons, or 1 in 4 of the victims.
Several children also lost their lives violently: There were 9 murder victims who were ages 16 and under. Another 27 were ages 17 to 21.
Nearly 9 out of 10 slain in 2010 were males; whereas there were 17 female murder victims during the year, ranging from age 8, in the case of Eyannie Nunez, to age 56, in the case of Miriam Shimi.
As 2011 dawns, the nation is breathing a collective sigh of relief with the lull of the past few days; but still many are fearful that it may be only a short-lived respite to a phenomenon they forecast will only get worse if Government does not urgently help generate jobs for young people..
Our first thought in putting together this story, surveying the outrageous 2010 crime statistics, was to do a summary report on all that transpired in 2010; but we decided, instead, to hit the streets of Southside Belize City—the area of the metropolis most affected by crime and violence—to canvass an array of public commentary from those who are living the terror.
Those young people we interviewed insisted that the worsening crime situation is the direct result of a serious unemployment problem facing their peers—and the law of the jungle, the law of survival, dictates that even if they have to kill, they will make sure that they eat. Cold but real, they insist.
A carpenter, 29, said that he has heard scary gunshots while working, in broad daylight, and he is sometimes afraid to go out on the streets: “Government needs to create more jobs—and more sporting activities,” he urged.
A gas station attendant, 22, originally from Hopkins Village, Stann Creek, but now resident in Belize City, was stabbed four times with an ice pick back in 2008 in a gang feud in the Banak Street area, while he tried to defend his cousin who was passionate about being “Big Bloods”—so passionate he would have died for his gang.
The young man has been a member of some of Belize’s leading football teams, and he told us that he has served on Belize’s national team, as well as local teams: Wagiya, FC Belize, Ilagule, Toledo Ambassadors, and Hopkins FC.
He thinks that the crime problem “has something to do with young people not having jobs.” He is relieved that his friends are working, some with the Belize Defence Force (BDF); but, he told us, he is concerned about his three brothers, one enlisted in the BDF.
The interviewee, who lost his father at the age of 12 to a traffic accident, told us that a brother of his stopped school because he is not making money and they do not have a father to help out: “When you don’t have a father,” said the youth, whose mother had decided to stay single, “your mind goes astray and you think all kinds of foolishness—worse when you don’t have any money in your pocket and you can’t turn to a father and say, ‘Old bwoy, I need a little money. Can you help me out?’”
“He will look to his mother and the first thing his mother will say, she is broke. So the next thing he will think to do is rob, because he wants a little money. He is tired of being broke,” he explained.
His friends complain that they don’t get jobs because they don’t know the bosses or are not related to them. The young man, who has lived in Belize since the birth of his one-year-old son, said that he was able to land a job with a reference from a relative just last month.
He notes, however, that the influences in the City are very negative, as peers here discouraged him from pursuing his football dreams and try to make him believe he will go nowhere—that playing sports makes no sense. His friends in Dangriga, on the other hand, encourage him to stay the course.
His co-worker, who is originally from Orange Walk but who came to Belize City to find work, said that the moment he gets on the bus to return home, he feels relieved. He does not enjoy a sense of security in the City.
The worker, who boards in Belize City, recalled that one morning around 5:00 in December 2010 (as he and his housemates awoke) they heard a gunshot and learned that somebody had gotten shot. It was his first such experience and one that has left him feeling that he could very well become a victim, too.
The solution: Jobs, he said. “A lot of people are getting robbed right now, so maybe it is that,” he elaborated.
A bus conductor, 26, had his rude awakening when he was only 9, when he saw a friend get killed in a street feud.
As we were probing him for details on this incident, this interviewee cut to the chase: “The thing with the crime problem is, it is hard to get jobs out here. And then the ministers, when you put them in power, they just sit down behind their desks. They don’t come to the streets and check the youths to try and see more or less what is happening.... When they need your vote, then you will see them walking around the area like they could do the world in one day.”
He told us that he will never vote again.
“A lot of people say that the Southside is the worst side and the roughest side [of town], but they fail to realize that majority of the businesses and the businessmen are from the Northside. The ministers and the politicians are from the Northside, so what will they do? They rather give their relatives a job than give somebody else who is trying or who needs a job. The relatives are working in the businesses, so Southside is left to be in poverty with no jobs and the youths are fighting each other to eat.”
He opined on why the killing was worse in 2010: “Everything rose except pay last year.”
A businessman and football player, 31, who has a sports club for young boys, agreed. He told our newspaper that killing is now the new sport—but one that emerged out of the sheer need for survival, because some people are so poor, they cannot afford to feed themselves. They go to bed hungry; they wake up hungrier and more desperate, he added.
It’s the rat race for a plate of food, he said. “Now you throw in another ingredient: You throw in guns; you throw in weapons... When it comes to the law of survival, morality gets thrown out the window,” he commented.
The majority of the killings boil down to basic economics; but corruption in various ranks of society makes matters so much worse, he also offered.
“The law will not do anything about crime, because the law is [involved with] crime itself,” said a former drug dealer, indicating that he could say from experience that one phone call can make all someone’s problems with police disappear when you know the right people.
“People realize there is a double standard in the system,” the businessman and footballer added.
The more money you have, you can call the shots, said the ex-drug dealer: “There is a boy around my house. The other night he told me if anybody fools with he, he will kill them, and this little boy is about 14 years old. He took me behind his yard, pulled back a sheet and there was an AK-47 on his septic tank.”
He notes that because parents are often not around to take care of their children, others take the wrong kind of interest in them and entice them into a life of crime. It was his children—not being shot three times—that this young man, also 31, said was the biggest motivation for reforming his life 6 years ago.
“Everybody is not like me; everybody will not wake up and smell the coffee, because people are suffering,” he said. “To be honest, it is easier for me to pick up my phone and call people and say, ‘Boy, I need a little kee [kilo of cocaine] to sell or a pound of weed to sell than to go and look for a job.
“If you do work for some people and get sensible job, you work 6 months and things are so hard, they will let you go,” he said.
A computer science major at a Belize City junior college, 22, is the single mother of a boy not yet one, and she said it has been hard for her to get a job. She said she survives with the support of family.
The 6:00 p.m. shooting on Lancaster Street of Keon Williams Myvette, a.k.a “Duppy”, 26, in November 2010, jolted this worrying woman out of her sleep. The incident happened just a few blocks from where she lives. She is now anxious to move out of the City.
The young mother also just lost a cousin, Justin Jones. On Wednesday, December 22, Jones was stabbed while attending the wake of an in-law in Ontario, Cayo: “Just to know that it is coming closer to home makes me frightened,” she told Amandala.
Stabbings are the second most frequent types of murders; shootings are the most frequent.
“When time I hear gunshot and I know it sounds close, all I do is grab my son and make sure I go on the ground,” she said, adding that such incidents happen every month in her neighborhood.
Although her son is too young to know the source of the earsplitting blasts, they do jolt him out of his sleep.
“I feel scared,” said the mother, “...when he grows up, what will happen? I am trying to do my best to secure a future for him to ensure he is not in that situation or gets influenced by other people. I want to try my best to ensure he is not another victim or a part of this that is happening.”
She agrees with the recent declaration by Jamaican Social Anthropologist, Dr. Herbert Gayle, in commenting on his study on violence in Belize, that “...Belize City, I found to be the most dangerous place in the Caribbean to raise a child.”
“It’s true,” said the Belize City mother. “You struggle so hard to take care of your kid and try to get the best life for your child and at the end of the day, anything could happen or he could die or not have long to live...”
She is working on relocating to Hattieville, although, she notes, “Just the other day, a shooting happened at Hattieville too.” Nevertheless, she thinks it is still safer than the City.
Although there are many who, understandably, want to migrate from the City, there are the tourists who, notwithstanding the crime situation, keep coming to the country, because there is still something that invites them to this place called The Jewel.
Terry Downes, who is visiting Belize for a month from England, told Amandala Monday morning that information he has read on the Internet about the crime situation in Belize did not keep him away, and today, in the final week of his stay, he has only good things to report: “Everybody I have met has been friendly.”
Downes, who we met with two Belizean men on the Southside of Belize City, said: “It is the same everywhere in the world. Some areas you go, some areas you don’t.”
Although one of his escorts was celebrating the lull in killings over the past weekend, another Belize City young man told us that it was not so quiet after all: “Watch New Year’s Eve. 12 o’clock on the dot, you could hear the amount of guns ring out, and in each neighborhood...along with the fireworks. One neighborhood, if you fire probably one with a 9 millimeter [gun]; somebody else will fire about 5 or 10 [shots]. Another block will fire with a machine gun. That’s how it goes. It’s just who has the bigger gun.”
Sadly, the bus conductor we had a chat with told us that he does not see any hope that things are going to get better. He wants to tell Dean Barrow to make things better for everybody. “Share the wealth,” he urges.
In his message of hope and prosperity for 2011, Barrow said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, my fellow Belizeans: this 2011 agenda is filled with good things. And even crime appears, albeit slowly, to be giving way to our now resumed, now unstoppable march of progress; for while 2010 overall was challenging, we did see a sharp decline in the murder rate for two of the last three months of the year.”
The summary statistics Humes has compiled based on the homicide reports to our newsroom tell a different story: September showed a spike of 20 murders, almost double the murders in the previous year. For October, the numbers were the same for both years – 8. For November, the number of reported homicides was 11, versus only 2 last November. Both December 2009 and December 2010 recorded 11 murders. The only months in 2010 that showed decline, based on the provisional data, were January, March and June. Seven months of twelve showed an increase.
Minister of Police and Public Safety, Douglas Singh, said in September, that whereas gang-related murders have fallen, which were estimated to be about 50% of all murders, other types of murders (such as those arising from fights and family disputes) have increased, keeping the murder rate at new highs.
“Those are murders that are not as easily preventable,” said Singh.
Contrary to that view, the people in the streets are saying that the key is to ensure gainful employment for young people and to renew an active culture of sports for Belize City youth: It’s not rocket science.
(Amandala’s Stacey Kelly teamed up with Adele Ramos to conduct interviews for this story. Aaron Humes provided the 2010 statistics.) Amandala