More police for Old Capital in crime “crisis”
The Old Capital remained on edge this past weekend, as an already tense atmosphere became more so following five reported deaths beginning on Friday, part of a greater epidemic of seventeen murders reported since the start of this month.
Today, the heads of various ministries in the recently re-elected Dean Barrow administration faced the press at the River Hall of the Belize Biltmore Plaza, to outline a strategy for moving forward.
After the execution of Shelton August, 31, also known as Shelton “Pinky” Tillett, and female companion Kamille Andrews, 23, on Friday night at the Esso Gas Station at the Northern Highway, and the death of legendary street figure Arthur Young, 36, who died, according to initial police reports, after struggling with officers who were bringing him in connection with August’s death early this morning, there are increased questions as to the stability of the truce signed between the authorities and the leaders of the various gangs situated across the City.
Rattled City residents also question whether the police, in conjunction with the Belize Defence Force (BDF), can effectively restore and keep order after two clashes between the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) and other elite police units, and residents of first George Street and then Taylor’s Alley, both located close to the downtown area.
The response from authorities, primarily Minister of National Security John Saldivar, is somewhat akin to that given during hurricane emergencies: stay calm, prepare and do not listen to rumors.
Saldivar first acknowledged the concerns of the public in relation to gang warfare in Belize City, stating that despite “increased visible presence” of the security forces on the streets since January and in particular since last Wednesday, April 18, there had been 30 shooting incidents and nineteen murders reported (the latter tally reflects our unofficial figures collected to date), leading up to the deaths of Orlando Reyes, 20, Tillett and Andrews, and Peter Flowers, 26, on Saturday.
With a fifth additional murder in Belmopan, that of Luis Valladarez, 28, the count for murders to date is 38 across Belize. (Each death, as well as that of Arthur Young, will be reported on separately elsewhere in this issue.) Saldivar freely described the situation as a “crisis.”
In addition to the murders, Larry Sutherland, 40, was shot and is in stable condition at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH), and during the press conference, news broke of another shooting incident on Freetown Road, in which one Corrington Bodden, 40, was shot in the face. He too is now in a stable condition.
Saldivar then condemned “the reports, especially in the social media, of a bloody retaliation, which rumored up to a dozen dead and more to come…” as “idle, or malicious, exaggeration.”
So what will the Ministry do? According to Saldivar, beginning on Sunday, more troops and officers, “close to 80”, were deployed with a mandate to “effectively contain, interdict, and dismantle all factions that are not participating in the truce and are involved in these criminal activities. These operations are done to ensure that crime and violence are reduced and that the truce return(s) back to its November 2011 status.”
This containment will involve “effectively patrolling, by means of foot, ATV’s, motorcycles and vehicles, and targeting of special areas and persons of interest.”
Saldivar attributed Young’s capture to the efforts already in place to slow down crime in the City.
After detailing the police’s version of what happened to Young, Acting Commissioner of Police David Henderson deflected all further questions, stating, “I will not speculate, I will not jump to any conclusion; the matter is under investigation; as soon as it is through, we will know the true facts and you will get whatsoever details you need to get.”
He thus refused to comment on or confirm whether Young’s death was accidental or part of a struggle with police, or how many times he was shot.
Concerning the Ministry’s and police’s efforts to calm the fear in the streets, alleged by Minister Saldivar to have been raised by excessive and erroneous reports in social media and by other avenues, Saldivar explained, in response to questions from Amandala and KREM Radio, that the Department responded to concerns with a public release and advised that “even media persons (should) stop being reckless with what they post on the social media; that would help us to calm the situation.” He later clarified that his statement was not an attack on the established media and stated, “…in fact I don’t visit the social media so I wouldn’t even know who is on there, but I have been told of what has been said out there, and not having information – and I understand clearly my Department’s and my Ministry’s job of trying to make sure that we can disseminate information – but not having that information is no excuse to be putting out the wrong information.”
On the status of the truce, the Minister explained that a meeting of 11 leaders took place yesterday (George Street and Gill Street were not present, but meetings are expected with them), at which those leaders gave their continued commitment to the truce; “full force” would be brought down on those who refuse to be involved.
Asked about other options, such as implementing curfews, the Minister indicated that certain options, which he declined to specify, are being considered, but insisted that he feels that this show of force would be enough to calm things down.
Later, when questioned about the safety of students who go to school in the night, Saldivar said that “the Ministry is doing all in its power at this time, and we believe that our strategy will work and we need to give it time to work.”
Prime Minister Dean Barrow and Minister for Human Development and Social Transformation Anthony “Boots” Martinez weighed in on the measures from the aspect of finance and operations. Minister Martinez stated that under the purview of his junior Minister, Mark King, and RESTORE Belize, “We have put in extremely strict guidelines where there should be proper reporting in terms of work schedule and a working plan for the week from the Gang Truce…it’s a must, even before we (had) this tragedy. At the end of the day, I think that it is very important for us to get quality work and value for money…”
The Prime Minister was asked where the money will come from for the various youth projects championed by his administration, since Government does not plan to read the 2012 Budget until July.
He said in reply that, “…the Government continues to collect its revenue, and we have done a provision, we have promulgated a provision that allows the allocations that were voted for the last Budget to continue until the new Budget has been finalized, read, presented and passed. So there is no difficulty at all with cash flow, and there is absolutely no problem with the funding that is needed for all Government’s efforts, all Government’s output, but in particular…the resources necessary for the security forces to continue to do their work.”