Crack, L.A.-Style Gangs Trouble Torpid Belize; Cocaine Traffic Replacing Marijuana Industry

The Washington Post September 19, 1989, Tuesday, Final Edition by William Branigin, Washington Post Foreign Service

"Big Russian" leaned against a street-corner lamp post as his fellow gang members surveyed the passing traffic. Behind him, on the graffiti-covered walls of a shuttered pool hall, appeared the word "Blood," the aliases of some of his 25 "homeboys" and the name of their chapter, "Ghetto Child."

"We gonna die for our color, man," said Big Russian, 18, a self-avowed former drug runner in Los Angeles. "Blood not scared to die. Police don't sweat me, man. If they mess with me, it be like messin' with a ants' nest."

The accent, the jargon, the mixture of bravado and nihilism, the talk of gangs, street fights, drugs and muggings -- all recalled the mean streets and troubled neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But the scene was this sleepy Caribbean port city in a country that has been a bastion of tranquility through years of war, economic dislocation and social unrest in the rest of Central America.

"Bloods," "Crips" and crack cocaine have come to Belize, and authorities seem powerless to do much about it.

Many Belizeans, including police and government officials, tend to dismiss the rival gangs as imitators who do little more than spray-paint walls with graffiti -- the result, they say, of too much American television here and too many impressionable young Belizeans in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. One youth, himself recently returned from Los Angeles aboard the two-stop flight that connects it with this city, summed up the gangs here as "Wanna Be's."

Yet, while the local Crips and Bloods may be pale shadows of their violent U.S. counterparts, they appear to be more numerous than authorities claim. And they apparently are linked with a growing problem of cocaine use here -- the offshoot of increasing transshipment of the drug through Belize on its way from South America to the United States. Along with gang graffiti, crack houses have sprung up all over Belize City in the last year or so, a phenomenon unique in Central America.

A former British crown colony known as British Honduras, this sparsely populated land of swamp and jungle became self-governing in 1964, changed its name toBelize in 1973 and achieved full independence in September 1981. About half the Belizean population of 180,000 is of African descent, and about a third live inBelize City, the former capital.

The only English-speaking country in Central America, Belize has developed a peaceful two-party democracy and a budding tourist industry centered on its many cays, the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and jungle excursions to wildlife reserves and ancient Mayan ruins.

With its small population, Belize is an informal, easygoing country whose citizens can drop in on the prime minister and where no one seems in much of a rush. Watching American baseball on television is a national pasttime.

And, it is a country that, until a few years ago, ranked as the fourth leading foreign supplier of marijuana to the United States. In the mid-1980s "Belize Breeze," as the marijuana here was dubbed, was the country's leading cash crop, with a yield in 1985 of 645 metric tons, most of it exported to the United States. But a massive U.S.-sponsored eradication campaign whittled the crop down, leading to an estimated yield this year of about 73 metric tons.

Marijuana still is being smuggled from Belize, diplomatic sources say, but most of it now comes from the neighboring Peten region of northern Guatemala. The marijuana fields that remain in remote parts of Belize are largely tended by some of the country's estimated 60,000 illegal aliens from elsewhere in Central America -- mainly Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans. Belizeans themselves disdain field work, diplomats and Belizean sources said.

Of greater concern, according to diplomats here and U.S. law-enforcement officials in the region, is the increasing use of the established marijuana-smuggling routes in the last couple of years by cocaine traffickers who use boats and light airplanes to take advantage of uninhabited cays and little-traveled highways. Some stretches of road were used so often to land and refuel drug flights that Belizean authorities erected steel poles along the roadsides to clip the planes' wings. But most of these have since been bent back out of harm's way.

Nevertheless, several drug flights have crashed here in the past two years, with the salvaged cocaine then finding its way onto the local market and "giving people a taste for it," one diplomat said. In addition, he said, drug dealers have started to pay for services with cocaine, adding to the local supply. Some of that is turned into crack in Belize, authorities believe.

"Three or four years ago, crack was nonexistent," said Arturo Gallego, a furniture upholsterer in a drug-ridden neighborhood. "It became a problem when marijuana was closed down. People say they can't get a decent joint anymore. Mr. Reagan burned it all down."

The new government here, elected Sept. 4 when the populist People's United Party of former prime minister George Price upset the more conservative United Democratic Party, denies as "total nonsense" opposition charges that local "drug barons" helped fund its campaign. "We're going to intensify the war against drugs inBelize," said Said Musa, the new deputy prime minister. "We consider that marijuana pales by comparison with crack and cocaine, which pose a deadly threat to the health and security of the country."

Authorities appear to take the gangs less seriously, however. "These young fellows, they copy everything off American television," said Police Commissioner Bernard Bevans. "We haven't really looked at it as a real law and order problem."

"It's not a problem now, but it's becoming one," said former home affairs minister Curl Thompson, who was in charge of internal security in the outgoing government. The gangs are "becoming more dangerous because of drugs."

Thompson said he knows of five crack houses in his own district in Belize City. "The cocaine is prevalent all over the country right now," he said. "It has superseded marijuana." He estimated, however, that Belize has no more than 75 Crips and Bloods, who he said are not real gang members but "only use the name."

A few blocks away, "Big Russian" told a different story. He said Belizeans who were members of the gangs in Los Angeles introduced them here, and that membership swelled after the movie "Colors" played to packed theaters. Now there are about 300 Bloods and 1,000 Crips in Belize City, said Big Russian, who refused to give his real name.

Speaking with a ghetto drawl and a permanent sneer, Big Russian said an older cousin brought him into the Bloods in Los Angeles and that he spent two years "selling dope" before returning to Belize in 1987. "Yeah, I got a job: ---- people off," he said, using a slang term for mugging. "I'm my own boss. I get paid for doin' my job." He pulled out a half-inch wad of 100-Belizean-dollar notes, each worth $ 50.

Although Big Russian denied selling crack in Belize, an activity he attributed to the Crips, area residents said the two-story building he calls his base is a crack house. At one point, a woman driving a large American car with tinted windows pulled up, spoke briefly with gang members and drove off.

"We don't destroy our people," said Big Russian in explaining his denial. "We destroy the American side. We don't like the Americans. They two-faced." Besides, he said, the U.S. consulate here refused to give him a visa.

Nevertheless, he said, he planned to return to Los Angeles soon through Mexico, crossing the border illegally at Tijuana. "I want to go back now and make big money," he said.

Asked why he calls himself Big Russian, he looked around through half-closed eyes and said: "I'm like a young rebel star."