Belize: challenges and contradictions in gang policy

Like its neighbours in the northern triangle (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala), Belize has a high murder rate that is closely connected to the strong presence of gangs – but the character of gang activity in Belize is quite different from its Central American neighbours. Belize has pioneered some innovative solutions to the problem it is facing. But it will need to overcome the challenges of internal resistance and an acute lack of resources in order to address the political, economic and social issues that marginalise Belize’s large youth population.

Belize’s gangs have been a persistent feature of the insecurity facing this tiny and sparsely populated country, which sits straddling Central America and the Caribbean, one foot in each but not completely in either. Murders have risen above 40 per 100,000 inhabitants in recent years, around a third of which are gang affiliated according to official police statistics. The murder rate in Belize City, home to an overwhelming concentration of gangs, peaked at 180.2 in 2012.

While the red and blue associated with the Crips and Bloods of LA (from which Belize’s gangs originated in the 80s and 90s) are seen elsewhere, the gangs remain a primarily urban phenomenon. In particular, they are symptomatic of the deep-rooted structural challenges that are most starkly present in the Southside of Belize’s former capital. There, large, marginalised and impoverished families live in a situation of social isolation and neglect, blanketed by the stigmatisation that results from the social prejudices and intolerances surrounding ‘Southside issues’. What’s more, youth living in the area must contend with a continuous exposure to often extreme and graphic violence, be it in the family or community environment.

Gang activity in Belize is not as well organised as in its Spanish-speaking neighbours, where links with organised crime are much stronger and crimes of extortion and large-scale drug trafficking activities more prevalent. In Belize the gangs are also more highly fractured. They are typified by smaller groups whose ‘turf’ often extends no more than a couple of streets and whose members may number little over a dozen. Personal conflicts, often-stretching back generations, fuel aggression and revenge attacks.

Beyond a driver of insecurity, the gangs are a symptom of the more deep-rooted structural challenges facing Belize, where social injustices, challenging socio-political conditions, and an acute lack of government resources have combined with an increasingly youthful population (69.8% under the age of 35) to create a large pool of marginalised youth lacking in opportunities.

It is only by targeting these root causes, rather than simply repressing the gangs themselves, that the issue can be successfully addressed, and elements of Belize’s approach to youth and insecurity deserve to be widely lauded in this respect.

A community building approach

An event at a high school in Belize City organised by RESTORE Belize

An event at a high school in Belize City organised by RESTORE Belize. Source: RESTORE Belize

Located within the Office of the Prime Minister, RESTORE Belize was launched in 2010 at the behest of the Government to lead a community-building approach to the restoration of law and order. It seeks to target the social roots of crime and violence and promotes a strategic and comprehensive cross-sector effort involving state institutions, the private sector and civil society, as well as implementing its own programs in the area. It coordinates closely with other institutions, including the police, and forms part of an effort to improve relations between the Belizean State (of which the police are the foremost visible representation) and the population.

Through its Community Action for Public Safety program, for example, it engages in human development activities focused on the Southside of Belize City, developing infrastructure including recreational and social facilities for youth as well as rehabilitation facilities for youth offenders. Similarly, its Metamorphosis Program engages young people deemed to be at-risk of school dropout and gang affiliation in an intensive program that involves counselling, weekend retreats, drug and alcohol therapy, as well as parenting classes and home visits by social workers.

Belize has also sought to increase its capacity to engage in conflict resolution. In cooperation with the United States, mediators have been trained to work in schools, youth facilities and the prison service as well as directly in local communities. The Conscious Youth Development Program, for example, has a team of mediators that are deployed as first responders following incidents of gang violence in order to calm the immediate situation and prevent escalation.

These community building approaches seek to cultivate change in the individual while providing tangible improvements to their personal and community environments. Furthermore, by engaging with them as individuals as opposed to ‘gang members’ they aim to foster their trust and confidence in the Belizean state and society. This is especially important because large segments of the Belizean population hold negative views of youth, who in turn resent being characterised as a source of the ills affecting society.

Resistance

One of the major challenges to these approaches – and a standard by which their progress can be judged – therefore, is overcoming resistance from those that favour more draconian policies. As an example, some schools in Belize, many of which are independently run, are strict, conservative, elitist and intolerant of ‘Southside problems’. Youth from such areas are often earmarked from the outset if their family members have been affiliated with gangs, while strictly enforced uniform codes work to further ostracise those from poorer backgrounds who often struggle to meet the financial costs. Given that free schooling is available only until the age of 12, many drop out prior to embarking on secondary education, despite it being a legal requirement up until 14 years of age. While interventions such as RESTORE Belize’s scholarship program assist in this regard, the stigmatisation and institutional marginalisation of such youth requires deep-rooted changes in attitudes and institutional cultures. Liaison efforts are being pursued to this end, but the autonomous nature of many of these schools means progress is often slow and hard fought. Meanwhile, with a national dropout rate of 8.4%, rising as high as 19.5% in certain schools in Southside Belize City, the scale of the challenge that remains is clear.

Stigma and repression

The issue of stigmatisation of youth is furthermore evident in the contradictory nature of other policies. For example, the Crime Control Act criminalises gang membership, meaning that by taking part in programs aimed at gang members and their leaders, these individuals are in essence incriminating themselves. Similarly, just as RESTORE Belize was launched, the Ministry of National Security rolled out Operation Jaguar, a hard-line approach involving military and police checkpoints and stop-and-search operations that had been developed and planned in isolation.

Perhaps the starkest example, however, is that of the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) – an elite police unit whose raison d’etre is the repression of gang activity. Widely perceived to operate beyond the law, the GSU is suspected of involvement in a number of high profile political and human rights abuses. While ‘harder’ approaches may be required to compliment ‘softer’ interventions, the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the unit and allegations of their involvement in such offenses undermines efforts to build trust and confidence and to transform the perceptions of marginalised youth towards the state. The placement of RESTORE Belize within the Office of the Prime Minister was specifically designed to aid in efforts to mould a strategic cross-agency approach, but it is clear that a silo mentality continues to impede progress on this front.

An uphill task

Beyond attitudinal resistance, the country is also facing an acute shortage of resources which affects all security and justice institutions, greatly undermining state capacity in these sectors, as well as more widely. As an example, the National Forensic Science Service struggles to perform even the most basic functions: a lack of DNA analysis capabilities, training and equipment means they are often unable to verify matches between suspects and evidence found at crime scenes. Even where sufficient evidence can be brought to take a case to trial, the lack of public prosecutors further undermines the state’s judicial functions. With only eleven public prosecutors it is no surprise that impunity is high and prosecutions for major crimes often face severe delays, especially when it is considered that there were 145 murders in 2012 alone. Add this to a police force lacking in vehicles and even basic equipment and the scale of the task becomes even more daunting.

Belize thus faces an uphill task in overcoming the challenges provided by gang violence. The approach followed by instances such as RESTORE Belize and the Conscious Youth Development Program are highly commendable for their recognition that youth, including those involved in gang activity, should not be treated as a plague on society that can simply be exterminated through repressive actions. But for their full value to be achieved there is a need for wider changes. Youth must be provided with greater opportunities to thrive, while state capacities need bolstering in order to improve its ability to provide security and justice to its citizens. Such changes, however, require significant resources that Belize is lacking. Furthermore, support to engage in these inherently longer-term efforts will be tested by the attitudes of those that continue to see Belize’s youth in a negative light, or that become impatient, and understandably so, with the immediate threats to their security.

Matthew Budd is a security analyst at RESDAL (Latin American Security and Defence Network), where he specialises in public security issues, and is also studying for a Masters in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. He is currently working on the second edition of RESDAL’s Public Security Index, which is the only existing resource to provide information on the public security context and institutional responses to them in the Central American region. The upcoming edition will incorporate the case of Belize alongside those of Spanish-speaking Central America.

Featured image: A Belize City high school. Source: Flickr | Carsten ten brink

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