By: Dr. Robert Winslow

Belize is a parliamentary democracy with a constitution enacted in 1981 upon independence from the United Kingdom. Numerous ruins indicate that for hundreds of years Belize was heavily populated by the Maya Indians, whose relatively advanced civilization reached its height between A.D. 250 and 900. Eventually the civilization declined leaving behind small groups whose offspring still exist in Belize contributing positively to the culturally diverse population. In 1502, Columbus sailed through parts of the Caribbean, but did not actually visit the area later known as British Honduras. The first reference to European settlement in the colony was in 1638. These were later augmented by disbanded British soldiers and sailors after the capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The settlement, whose main activity was logwood cutting (logwood was used in the past to produce dye), had a troubled history during the next 150 years. It was subjected to numerous attacks from neighboring Spanish settlements (Spain claimed sovereignty over the entire New World except for regions in South America assigned to Portugal). It was not until 1763 that Spain in the Treaty of Paris allowed the British settlers to engage in the logwood industry. The Treaty of Versailles in 1783 reaffirmed those boundaries and logwood concession was extended by the Convention of London in 1786. But Spanish attacks continued until a decisive victory was won by settlers, with British naval support, in the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798. After that, British control over the settlement gradually increased and in 1871 British Honduras was formally declared a British Colony. From an early date the settlers had governed themselves under a system of primitive democracy by Public Meeting. A set of regulations referred to as Burnaby’s Code was effected in 1765 and this, with some modification, continued until 1840 when an Executive Council was created. In 1853 the Public Meeting was replaced by a Legislative Assembly (partly elected, on a restrictive franchise), with the British Superintendent, an office created in 1786 at the settlers’ request, as Chairman. When the settlement became a colony in 1871 the Superintendent was replaced by a Lieutenant Governor under the Governor of Jamaica. The Crown Colony System of Government was introduced in 1871, and the Legislative Assembly by its own vote was replaced by a nominated Legislative Council with an official majority presided over by the Lieutenant Governor. An unofficial majority was created in 1892, and this constitution, with minor changes, continued until 1935 when the elective principle was once again introduced on the basis of adult suffrage with a low-income qualification. The administrative connection with Jamaica was severed in 1884, when the title of Lieutenant Governor was changed and a Governor was appointed. Further constitutional advances came in 1954 with the introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage and an elected majority in the Legislature, the Ministerial System was adopted in 1961 leading up to Self Government in 1964. The country’s name was changed on 1st June, 1973, from British Honduras to Belize. Independence was achieved on September 21, 1981 and a new independence constitution introduced. Belize was then admitted as a member of the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth of Nations.


The principal source of the nation’s criminal law is the Criminal Code of 1980. The code has two sections. The first section defined general legal principles and set forth standards of criminal liability, addressing such issues as intent, negligence, conspiracy, and justifiable force. The second section of the criminal code defined crimes and their punishments. The criminal code provided for the death penalty for persons convicted of criminal homicide. Under the constitution, the death penalty could be adjudged only after the judge of record submitted a report to the Belize Advisory Council, which in turn advised the attorney general as to the appropriateness of the sentence. The government amended the criminal code in April 1987 to provide stiffer penalties for rape, kidnapping, blackmail, and robbery. At the same time, the government raised the penalties for offenses subject to summary jurisdiction. In addition to the penal code, several other statutes covered criminal offenses. The most important of these is the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1990, which is the nation’s principal drug legislation. This act repealed and replaced the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1980, which is deemed inadequate to meet the challenges of the explosive growth in the drug trade during the 1980s. The 1990 legislation provided for the establishment of a National Drug Abuse Control Council, which was to review the current state of Belize’s illegal narcotics trade and advise the prime minister on measures to restrict availability, provide for treatment and rehabilitation, educate the public, and advise farmers on alternate crops. The act called for fines of up to Bz$25,000 and imprisonment of five to ten years for less serious cases of drug trafficking. Persons convicted of more serious offenses by the Supreme Court are liable to fines not less than Bz$100,000–or three times the street value of the illegal commodities seized–or are subject to seven to fourteen years of imprisonment, or both. Penalties for public officials and members of the National Assembly, the Judiciary, the police, and the BDF are more severe. The 1990 law also provided for forfeitures of all aircraft, vessels, and vehicles used in illegal trafficking and for forfeiture of all proceeds derived from this activity.


Official statistics on the incidence of crime in Belize are not available. Still, according to some observers, Belize suffered from relatively high rates of crime. Drug trafficking, in particular, spawned violent crimes of all kinds. The principal trafficking threat came from Colombian organizations that transshipped cocaine through Central America. The extensive domestic cultivation of marijuana posed a significant problem. Growers and traffickers of marijuana were also blamed for much of the country’s crime. Most of the cocaine and marijuana was destined for markets in the United States. Some, however, was diverted to local markets. Studies in the mid-1980s revealed that drug abuse was on the rise among Belizeans, especially among teenagers. During the late 1980s, local law enforcement, backed by the Belize Defense Force (BDF), enjoyed only limited success in combating cocaine traffickers. During the early 1990s, the nation had to rely on foreign assistance, principally from the United States and Britain, to maintain antitrafficking operations. The government’s efforts to eradicate marijuana were more effective, however, and the local press carried regular reports on confiscation of the drug or eradication of it through crop spraying. Despite the destruction of large quantities of marijuana, observers estimated that enough marijuana survived herbicidal crop spraying to provide a significant income. Most observers agreed that drug trafficking seemed unlikely to decrease as long as the potential for profit remained high and no alternate crops could net comparable profits for local farmers. Crime associated with illegal immigration posed another serious challenge for law enforcement. Traditionally, illegal aliens posed problems from an economic and regulatory standpoint. But in the 1980s, some illegal immigrants posed problems from a social standpoint. During the mid-1980s, aliens, who had been hardened by the civil strife and the resulting social chaos in their own countries, were implicated in a number of kidnappings for ransom in northern Belize and for various other violent crimes nationwide. Efforts to address these problems culminated in 1987, when the government stiffened laws to penalize employers who hired illegal aliens. The new legislation also provided for the expeditious expulsion of illegal immigrants. Such laws notwithstanding, the government, working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, planned and implemented a variety of assistance programs aimed at Belizeans and aliens in an attempt to defuse resentment against the latter. During 1990 Belize forced or pressured no refugees to return to their countries of origin. As a reflection of the growing incidence of crime, tourists in the late 1980s began to complain about being openly harassed, particularly on the streets of Belize City. Theft and assault were the two offenses most commonly reported. The government was particularly concerned about publicity surrounding such crime because national economic planning focused on expanding tourism. One response to the problem was imprisonment of “veteran muggers” convicted of repeat offenses.


The incidence of violent crime, including armed robbery and muggings, has risen in recent years. Although Belize City is the site of more reported incidents than other areas of the country, rural crime rates have also risen. The incidence of crimes such as theft, burglary and pick-pocketing rises around the holidays. While not frequent, there has been an increase in crimes against tourists at resorts and on the roadways. Sexual harassment of females traveling alone or in small groups is a problem. Although violent sexual assault is not a common occurrence, it does occur. Several American travelers were the victims of sexual assaults in recent years. At least one of these rapes occurred after the victim accepted a ride from a new acquaintance, while another occurred during an armed robbery at an isolated resort. Armed robberies have been reported near the western border with Guatemala. In particular, criminals have targeted popular Mayan archeological sites in that region. Although there are armed guards posted at some of the archeological sites, armed criminals have been known to prey on persons walking from one site to another. Victims who resist when confronted by these armed assailants frequently suffer personal injury. A lack of resources and training impedes the ability of the police to investigate crimes adequately and to apprehend serious offenders. As a result, a number of crimes against Americans in Belize remain unresolved.


The Police Department has primary responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The Belize Defense Force (BDF) is responsible for external security but, when deemed appropriate by civilian authorities, may be tasked to assist the police department. Both the police and the BDF report to the Minister of National Security and are responsible to and controlled by civilian authorities. The Belize National Police is descended from the British Honduras Constabulary, which was established in 1886. Constabulary personnel initially numbered 141 and were recruited in Barbados because local men showed no interest in enlisting. The government assigned the early police the task of preserving law and order in the colony. The Constabulary was at first a paramilitary force, but in 1902, it was made into a civil police force. The constabulary was reorganized after World War I, when soldiers returning from service abroad (as well as several Barbadians and Jamaicans) joined the force. The force was reorganized again in 1957, when its first commissioner of police instituted modernizing reforms that resulted in the force’s present form. During the colonial period, expatriate officers filled all senior posts in the police. But with self-government and then independence, more Belizeans assumed positions of authority. The official name of the force was changed to the Belize National Police in 1973, and by the early 1990s, the commissioner and all senior police officers were Belizeans. As of 1991, the force, which was part of the Ministry of Home Affairs, was the sole organization responsible for policing the country and for managing regular immigration matters. A commissioner of police headed the force. The Governor General appointed the commissioner with the concurrence of the prime minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition. The commissioner exercised operational and disciplinary control over the police force. The police force had an authorized strength of approximately 500, a ratio of about three police to every 1,000 inhabitants. Police operations were divided into three territorial divisions: Eastern, which included Belmopan and Belize City; Central; and Western. The force had a small maritime element that operated six shallow-draft motorboats capable of patrolling coastal waters frequented by smugglers. The force was also divided into three operational branches: General Duties, Crime Investigation, and Tactical Service. The Tactical Service, formed in 1978, assumed the nonmilitary responsibilities of its predecessor, the Police Special Force, which was incorporated into the BDF. The police underwent training at the Police Training School in Belmopan. In sixteen-week programs, recruits studied general police duties and procedures, criminal law, evidence, traffic management, and firearms. Senior police officers attended a ten-week command course run by the British police in Britain. There were a small number of women police in the force, and the first woman was promoted to the rank of inspector in 1989. All personnel were subject to transfer anywhere in the country. Police performed their regular duties unarmed, although arms were issued for special duties or in cases of extreme necessity. Officers’ uniforms resembled those of British police forces. Sergeants and lower ranks wore khaki shirts, blue serge trousers with a green seam on both sides, and dark blue peaked caps. Some police investigators were not required to wear uniforms. During the 1980s, the large increase in drug trafficking greatly challenged the police. Unfortunately, some personnel proved vulnerable to corruption by traffickers, and public confidence in the police suffered from charges of official collusion in the drug trade. Public perceptions of the police also suffered from charges that police sometimes resorted to unnecessary force in their efforts to deal with escalating violent crime. During the late 1980s, police leadership began to focus on both problems, expressing a willingness to pursue every allegation of malpractice and to rid the police of unworthy personnel. Penalties for official violators of criminal statutes also increased. The success of these efforts was unclear as of mid-1991. There have been reports of abuse by the police. Principal human rights abuses include occasional brutality and use of excessive force by the police when making arrests. The Constitution prohibits torture or other inhuman punishment; however, there were occasional confirmed reports that the police used excessive force. Some of the most common complaints received by the office of the Ombudsman involve alleged misconduct and abuse by police and Department of Corrections personnel. However, the Ombudsman reported that the number of such reports are decreasing. From April 2000 through March 31, the Ombudsman received 86 complaints of police misconduct or abuse; the office received complaints at a decreased rate for the rest of the year 2000. Additionally, the Ombudsman stated that in approximately 60 percent of these cases, police are found to have acted appropriately. The Police Department’s internal affairs and discipline (IAD) section, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Ombudsman’s office, and on occasion, special independent commissions appointed by the Prime Minister, investigate allegations of abuse by officials. During the year 2000, the IAD received 297 complaints against police officers; of these, 17 involved alleged use of excessive force by police.


The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention, and the Government generally observes these provisions; however, there are occasional accusations of arbitrary arrest and detention. The law requires the police to inform a detainee of the cause of detention within 48 hours of arrest and to bring the person before a court to be charged formally within 48 hours; a constitutional change that took effect during the year 2000 reduced the time from 72 hours. In practice the authorities normally inform detainees immediately of the charges against them. In the past, there were persistent allegations that security forces held detainees for 72 hours and released them but upon release, rearrested them; however, there were no such allegations during the year 2000. Police are required to follow “The Judges’ Rules,” a code of conduct governing police interaction with arrested persons. Courts throw out cases in which police have violated these rules. Bail is available for all cases except murder and is granted in all but the most serious cases. In cases involving narcotics, the police cannot grant bail, but a magistrate’s court may do so after a full hearing. Detainees sometimes cannot afford bail, and backlogs in the docket often cause considerable delays and postponement of hearings, resulting in an overcrowded prison, and at times prolonged pretrial detention.


The legal system of Belize is founded on English Common Law, and the court system is modeled after the English system. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respects this provision in practice; however, at times the judiciary is subject to political influence. The appearance of judicial independence from the executive branch is compromised because some foreign judges and the Director of Public Prosecutions must negotiate renewal of their contracts with the Government and thus may be vulnerable to political interference. There are lengthy trial backlogs in the judicial system. One factor commonly cited is the low pay offered to judges, resulting in high turnover rates. In addition, many cases are taking years to resolve. Four justices staff the Supreme Court, although a full complement is five. On October 2, a fifth judge was added temporarily to the court for its fall term to help it handle a docket of criminal cases. However, the heavy caseload of serious crimes, as well as poor case management, lack of attorney discipline, and unreliable witnesses contribute to a significant backlog of cases. Finding suitable magistrates has proven difficult, even though magistrates need not be trained lawyers. Vacancies have contributed to a backlog of cases and many prolonged acting appointments, a situation which, critics charge, has opened the courts to political manipulation. Law students returning to Belize for summer vacation or retired civil servants often fill the vacancies. Of the four justices sitting on the Supreme Court, only one is a citizen. The judiciary consists of the alcalde courts, the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, and a family court that handles cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and child support. The constitution assigns judicial power to the Supreme Court, whose chief justice is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister after consultation with the leader of the opposition. The other Supreme Court justices are also appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the judicial and legal services section of the Public Service Commission. Immediately below the Supreme Court are the alcalde courts which include the Summary Jurisdiction Court, which is responsible for criminal matters, and the District Court, which hears civil cases. The Summary Jurisdiction Courts and District Courts are established in each of the nation’s six district capitals: Belize, San Ignacio, Corozal, Orange Walk, Dangriga, and Punta Gorda. Both types of court of first instance are referred to as magistrates’ courts because their presiding official is a magistrate. These courts have wide jurisdiction in summary offenses and limited jurisdiction in more serious offenses but they must refer to the Supreme Court more serious criminal cases, as well as any substantive legal questions. Magistrates’ courts may impose fines and prison sentences of up to six months. The jury system is in operation at the Supreme Court level, and trial by jury is mandatory in capital cases. Those convicted by either a magistrate’s court or the Supreme Court may appeal to the Court of Appeals, which meets on an average of four times a year. In exceptional cases, including those resulting in a capital sentence, the convicted party may make a final appeal to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. The Court of Appeals may also grant permission for such appeals in cases having general or public importance. The crown may grant permission for an appeal of any decision–criminal or civil–of the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court has unlimited original jurisdiction in both civil and criminal proceedings. Justices may serve until they reach sixty-two, the normal, mandatory retirement age, which may be extended up to the age of seventy. Justices may only be removed for failing to perform their duties or for misbehavior. A president heads the Court of Appeals. The Governor General appoints the president and the two other justices serving on the court. The constitution sets no fixed term of office for these justices but provides that their terms of office be fixed in their instruments of appointment. Juvenile offenders are tried in district family courts established by the Family Courts Act of 1988. The family court is at the same level as the magistrate’s courts; however, trials in cases that come before the family court generally are private. Persons accused of civil or criminal offenses have constitutional rights to presumption of innocence, protection against self-incrimination, defense by counsel, a public trial, and appeal. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial unless the opposing party fears for his or her safety. In such a case, the court grants interim provisions under which both parties are addressed individually during a 5-day period. Legal counsel for indigent defendants is provided by the State only for capital crimes. In 1999 the Government appointed an attorney to the Legal Aid Center to improve and strengthen legal aid services to the public. The judicial system is constrained by a severe lack of trained personnel, and police officers often act as prosecutors in the magistrate’s courts. The convicted party in family court may appeal to the Supreme Court.


Prison conditions are poor. Conditions at the Hattieville Department of Corrections, the country’s only prison, have deteriorated continually since it opened in 1993. Although designed to house 500 inmates, it housed 873 male inmates and 30 female inmates, resulting in significant overcrowding. Pretrial detainees are housed in overcrowded cells separate from convicted criminals. At year’s end, 131 detainees shared 13 15-by 20-foot cells, equipped with beds for less than half that number. The majority of prison accommodations do not have showers or toilets. Instead, inmates are provided with 5-gallon buckets. The prison psychiatrist provides mental health services for inmates. There is no separate facility for inmates with mental illnesses. First-time offenders are housed in the same building as those who commit capital crimes. Although the Assembly passed legislation that would reduce the number of first-time offenders sent to prison, the Government had only limited funding to support the proposed changes, such as developing community service projects to employ first-time offenders. Noncitizens constitute approximately 15 to 20 percent of the prison population. There are rare reports of human rights abuses in the form of physical brutality by prison wardens. Prisoners enforce their own code of conduct and have attacked prisoners convicted of particularly serious crimes, such as child molestation. Incidents of gang- and drug-related violence in the prison have decreased. Frequent prison breaks, confiscation of weapons, and reports of beatings have occurred throughout the prison’s history. During the year 2000, prison authorities confiscated a large number of deadly weapons, including 23 machetes and 4 makeshift guns. The authorities reported that there were 14 prison escapes during the year 2000, the lowest number in over 50 years; the authorities had captured all but 3 escapees by year’s end. In March 2000, a visiting judge sentenced two inmates at the Hattieville prison to be flogged with a tamarind whip as punishment for assaulting and nearly killing another inmate. This punishment was given official support and approval from the Minister of Prisons and the prison governor, who said that the punishment was necessary, but that floggings would not be carried out in the future. However, later in 2000 and again in August, inmates were flogged in accordance with prison rules for stabbing a fellow inmate in the neck and for escape. The prison includes a separate facility for women, located about 200 yards outside the main compound. Conditions in the women’s facility are significantly better than those in the much larger men’s compound. The 30 women held there occupied 17 cells; each inmate has her own bed. The facility is clean, and inmates have access to limited educational classes and vocational classes in cosmetology. The Government has taken steps to curb recidivism and focus on rehabilitation. The Youth Enhancement Agency (YEA) houses over 60 youths between the ages of 13 and 25, who participate in rehabilitation and job training programs. Increasingly, youthful offenders are transferred from the main prison to the YEA facilities. Prison authorities provided training for inmates in basic skilled trades such as carpentry and construction. During the year 2000, the prison joined with the Fisheries Department to teach aquaculture to inmates. In addition to providing food and income for the prison, prison officials hope to train inmates for eventual work. A job-training program at a citrus farm employs 44 inmates. There is a time-off program for good behavior.


Violence against women is a problem. Although statistics are incomplete, the Ministry of Human Development, Women, and Civil Society estimated that there were about 1,000 domestic violence cases during the year 2000. On March 8, the Domestic Violence Surveillance Data Report was released; compiled by the Women’s Department, police, and other organizations in all six districts of the country, it showed that domestic violence is widespread. Most of the reported cases were from Belize City. The report recognized that underreporting of cases may occur in other parts of the country where persons are reluctant to discuss or report it. The Police Department has a family violence unit that addresses complaints of spousal abuse. A shelter for battered women offers short-term housing. The Belize Organization for Women and Development, an NGO, advises women on their rights and provides counseling. Laws prohibit rape and sexual harassment, but few offenders are charged and convicted. The Criminal Code prohibits marital rape. Adult prostitution is not illegal, although the law prohibits loitering for prostitution, operating a brothel, or for a man to solicit for prostitution. The laws carry penalties of fines up to $500 (bz$1,000) or 1 year of imprisonment, and are weakly enforced.


Although the law does not specifically prohibit trafficking in persons, it does proscribe procurement for the purpose of prostitution. There were unconfirmed reports that women had been enticed to come to the country with promises of work as domestics or waitresses, but then were forced to work as prostitutes. The Ministry of Human Development, Women, and Civil Society, the police department, and–in cases involving migrant children–the Ministry of Immigration investigate and attempt to remedy cases that involve trafficking in children. Unlike the previous year, there were no reports of trafficking in children for the purpose of prostitution.


American anti-drug efforts in Latin America have become decidedly more militarized since 1989. The U.S. Congress assigned the Defense Department the task of leading “all Federal efforts to detect and monitor drugs smuggled by air and sea.” The U.S. Andean Strategy, a 5-year $2.2-billion aid package, has brought an explosion in U.S. drug-related military spending. An assessment of public attitudes toward this effort focused on Belize in Central America, which is in the center of the most heavily trafficked drug-smuggling route. Illegal drugs and drug enforcement have been prominent issues in Belize for more than a decade. Findings from the survey of public attitudes toward the “war on drugs” in Belize indicate strong support for drug education as well as for an increase in criminal sanctions and the size of the police force. Public support is weak, however, for the militarization of drug law enforcement. The significant determinants of public support are education, gender, attitudes toward the police, fear of property crime, and neighborhood crime prevalence. The citizens with more education are less likely to support the drug war, and women are more likely than men to support the drug war.


Internet research assisted by Florentina Acosta, B. Mims, and Brandon Smith