First printed on Saturday January 16, 2019 via Facebook Note and reprinted with the permission of Dr. Jerome Straughan
“Belize City Trio Found Guilty of 2012 Murder” was the headline of the top news story for the online edition of Belize’s Channel 5 news on Friday night October 26 2018. The trio had ambushed a group of men who were socializing on the veranda of a school in Belize City. They opened fire on the group, hitting four men including one whose injuries proved fatal. The other three victims survived. It was a calculated attack. Belize has one of the highest murder rates in the world and correspondingly a low conviction rate for murder. And so the news was one of those rare times in my daily routine of looking at news from Belize online when I read the news of the convictions in the Belize Supreme Court. This was the kind of news most Belizeans hope for.
It was three days after the conviction of the men, and my decision to use the news story my writing on crime in Belize, that I noticed one of the witnesses for the prosecution was one of my cousins. “The prosecution was represented by Crown Counsel Kileru Awich who relied on the testimonies of Elvis Olivera, Fenton, and Danny Maskall who all placed the three convicts at the scene at the time of the fatal shooting” Channel 5 news reported. It went on to report that one of the men who was convicted had sought to take the rap for the deadly shooting, and gave investigators a caution statement saying his intention was not to kill Myers but Olivera. Olivera is my cousin and ended up being one of the crown’s witnesses.
Three days later in another case prosecuted by Crown Counsel Awich, two men who were on remand for 7 years were freed of murder charges when a nolle prosequi abandoning the case was entered by Awich before a Supreme Court judge. A nolle prosequi was entered for the two men accused of a home invasion murder because there was no witness to testify since neither of the two eyewitnesses wanted to come to court to testify. Shortly thereafter, another accused murdered was set free after being in prison for 9 years. Again Awich entered a nolle prosequi against the accused murderer, who was accused of fatally shooting his victim. According to court details, the crown entered the nolle prosequi because the victim’s mother, who identified his body, had passed away. A statement by a relative to verify her death would have allowed for her affidavit to be accepted during trial. When that was not available, the accused murderer was freed.
Sadly, less than a week after there were a number decisions on murder cases in the Supreme Court there was the killing of a police officer in the line of duty. The constable had responded to a robbery in progress at a hotel in Belize City when he lost his life. Three youngsters barged into the downtown hotel on Regent Street West and proceeded to rob the personnel of money and personal items. The police quickly responded to the robbery and surrounded the trio. A crossfire between the robbers and the police ensued and as a result the police officer who was not wearing a bulletproof vest was shot and killed. After a short chase the trio was captured and soon charged for the policeman’s murder and aggravated robbery. In the weeks leading up to the killing of the policeman, the police had been pro-active and crime in the city was down. But there was also a string of brazen robberies especially in Belize City, criminals continuing to prey on businesses, both big and small. Most of these robberies have been captured on surveillance cameras and often the robbers have been caught. But that doesn’t seem to deter potential robbers.
A Low Conviction Rate
As stated, Belize has a high murder rate. Most of the murders occur in Belize City largely as a result of gang warfare, but an increasing number occur outside the city. In the last 5 years murders committed by year in the country were as follows: 145 in 2012, 99 in 2013, 113 in 2014, 108 in 2015, 137 in 2016, 142 in 2017, and 143 in 2018. Despite a focus on prevention using a range of public services and law enforcement efforts that have been made to address the problem of crime and violence in Belize the yearly number of murders have increased, gang violence being the main contributing factor and domestic violence becoming more significant. Where the spread of these murders countrywide are concerned, it can in some ways be understood as an epidemic of crime and violence in the country transmitted from certain individuals and groups to others. Far gone as the increase in murders suggest, this is an epidemic way past the outbreak its main source being gang warfare in Belize City in the early 1990s, and contagious it has spread to other parts of the country.
For over a decade Belize has had a correspondingly low conviction rate for murder of only 3-5% conviction. Belize is not alone in that Belize is one of a number of the region (the Caribbean and Central America) with high murder rates and judicial systems with low conviction rates. Overall, the U.N. notes that the Americas have a vastly lower conviction rate for murder at 24% compared to 48% in Asia and 81% in Europe. Regardless, Belize’s low conviction rate doesn’t give many Belizeans confidence in the criminal justice system.
Belizeans decry the country’s low conviction rate for murder every time someone who was arrested and charged for murder walks free in the Supreme Court. One of my friends who once worked for the office of the Director of Public Prosecution’s office (DPP) has railed against Belize’s low conviction rate for some time. For many Belizeans increasing the conviction rate for those charged with murder is just common sense, if there is to be a reduction in serious crime, namely murder. It’s certainly reassuring for those who are concerned about the crime situation to assume with a desperate sense of hope that with an increase in the conviction rate the crime rate will decrease, because (if nothing else) it will take offenders off the street and can only have a deterrent effect as criminals (many repeat offenders) and others intent on committing crime will take notice and change their behavior. Gang members and other criminals would no longer act with impunity. Overall, an increase in convictions would restore Belizean’s faith in their criminal justice system.
Belizeans’ concern for the low conviction rate for murder is shared by the citizens of other Caribbean countries. In 2013 an International Narcotics Control Strategy Report summarized in the Gleaner claimed that Jamaica’s conviction rate for murder of five per cent was one of the reasons organised crime continued to flourish on the island. The low conviction rate was a result of an “underfunded, overburdened and sluggish criminal justice system with limited effectiveness in obtaining criminal convictions.” The report also stated: “This lack of efficacy contributes to impunity for many of the worst criminal offenders and gangs, an abnormally high rate of violent crimes, lack of cooperation by witnesses and jurors, frustration among police officers and the public, a significant social cost and drain on the economy, and a disincentive for international investment.” Lastly, the Gleaner article noted that the report “bemoaned the fact that the momentum of progress gained within Jamaica’s law-enforcement agencies is being obstructed by the inability of prosecutors and the courts to secure prompt convictions.
In his 2009 study of study of male participation and violence in urban Belize Herbert Gayle et. al. addressed the issue of Belize’s conviction rate and deterrence. This is what they had to say in the condensed book version of the study: “Belize’s conviction rate is so ridiculously low that there is little deterrence from gang activity and murder. Unless the conviction rate is increased there will be mounting gang problems as recruitment is easy” (Gayle et al., 2016:219). Based on what has been written about low conviction rates (and for what crimes) and on crime and deterrence, it would have been good if Dr. Gayle elaborated on the link between a low conviction rate and deterrence, as it applies to Belize’s problem with crime and violence.
Lastly, in a 2016 Jamaican Gleaner newspaper article titled “Swift, Certain Justice Key To Deterring Crime” University of the West Indies Professor Anthony Clayton stated that a strong element of deterrence was needed in Jamaica if the island is to experience any kind of properly functioning system of law enforcement and justice. Addressing an inaugural Policing and Security Conference he stressed that”There has to be a strong element of deterrence. To deter, the punishment has to have three qualities – it has to be swift, it has to be certain, and it has to be severe. It is actually the first two that are the most effective in reducing the propensity to commit crimes.” In terms of the effectiveness of swift and certain punishment he noted that once there is a very high probability for committing a crime and being caught and punished, persons would think twice before committing crimes. Conversely, if there is a very low risk of being caught and having to face any kind of justice for one’s actions, it doesn’t matter how severe the punishment is.
While it might seem like common sense, increasing the conviction rate for murder doesn’t necessarily lead to a decrease in the murder rate (and other serious crime rates) because it would most likely have a deterrent effect. Convicting those charged with murder will lead to incapacitation, taking dangerous criminals off the streets who can go on to commit other murders. This can certainly lead to a reduction in crime. However, the extent to which it will deter many from engaging in gang activity and committing murder – because of swift and certain punishment – raise a number of questions relating to certain assumptions that are being made about how many think before committing such an act and human behavior. Thus, it is important to review whatever scholarly articles have been written on the relationship between conviction rates and deterrence. This I continue to do and examine how it relates to Belize.
You cannot convict without evidence. As a result, Belizeans over the years have become accustomed to hearing the legal term nolle prosequi when a crown counsel decide to discontinue criminal charges against an individuals charged with murder, either before trial or before a verdict is rendered. In their reaction to seeing those whom they feel are guilty of murder being set free Belizeans blame what they consider a weak justice system that now contributes to a culture of impunity, whereby gang members and others think they can get away with serious crimes like murder. In addressing the main causes of the low conviction rate they blame the police and the prosecution. Increasingly, they are also blaming defense lawyers.
Many Belizeans believe that the low conviction rate is a reflection of poor crime investigation and evidence gathering on the part of the police. The police are not properly processing some crime scenes and collecting good evidence many say. There is also a problem in the way they interview or interrogate some murder suspects, especially using certain techniques. With many murders and other crimes going unsolved, they note the very limited forensic capabilities of the Police Department, which makes it more difficult to solve crime and obtain convictions. The DPP could only work with the evidence they have, and so it’s important for the police to put together good investigative files that would lead to convictions. Overall, they think there should be better training for Belizean police officers.
In their criticism of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, Belizeans blame the DPP for not preparing cases and presenting evidence in a way that would lead to convictions in court. But they recognize that one of the main reasons why a number of individuals accused of murder walk free relates to the difficulty to have many who witness a serious crime like murder come forward and testify. My cousin testified at the trial of the men who were convicted of murder, but an increasing number of Belizeans do not testify or want to testify at murder cases because they are intimidated and threatened into not testifying. Indeed some have been killed, including one of Olivera’s first cousin, who was killed before he could testify at a murder trial. Crown councils now more often go to a court relying on a statement provided to police by someone who claimed to have witnessed a murder, but subsequently recanted his/her statement during trial. Fearful, under oath the now hostile witness might answer few questions from the crown council or judge before refusing to respond altogether. Often they claim they couldn’t remember certain details of a murder. Without a reliable witness or witnesses the case often collapses and this results in a crown council entering a nolle prosequi, signifying that the prosecution did not wish to continue with the murder trial against the accused.
It should also be mentioned that justice is no longer swift in Belize the average murder case in the country taking more than five years to come to trial. That is of concern to anyone concerned with justice, especially for those wrongly accused of serious crimes. But in these cases taking more than five years to come to trial there is the potential for deterrence, even when the chance for conviction is low. Certainly, there is the view that in the mind of a rational potential criminal the prospect of spending five or more years in prison is a deterrent. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of real and would be criminals in Belize who take into consideration that the slow turning of the wheels of justice in the country means that if caught, and even if the chances are high that they will not be convicted, they will spend a substantial amount of time in jail.
I also noted what seem to be a trend with the DPP downgrading to the charge of manslaughter a number of cases where the accused seems clearly guilty of murder and not manslaughter. Nevertheless, while the number of individuals originally charged for murder pleading down to or eventually being convicted of manslaughter is a troubling trend, a recent uptick in the number of convictions for murder and manslaughter gives many Belizeans hope.
With a backlog of cases, recently the Belizean Supreme Court has granted bail to a number of individuals accused of murder. Some have been in remand at the Belize Central Prison for over 5 years, and in their petition to grant them bail their attorney argues that the Belizean constitution provides that a person is entitled to a fair trial within a reasonable time. In granting bail for some accused of murder the high court judges has cited Section Five of the Laws of Belize which reads, “The constitution gives the right to an accused person to be granted bail when he is not tried within a reasonable time in reference to the seriousness of the crime. That section of the constitution places no boundary on the type of crime for which an accused person may be granted bail.” Their release comes after meeting a steep bail and with stringent conditions. A number of individuals accused of murder have now been granted bail and as a result bail is no longer so rare (and unusual) for those accused of murder.
Lastly, many Belizeans have contempt for some lawyers who represent accused murderers; and when there is a senseless murder these lawyers are part of the discussion that includes bringing back the death penalty. Belizeans understand that the job of a defense lawyer is to create reasonable doubt in the case against their client. One way they have done so is by questioning how the police obtained statements or a murder confession from the accused. In a number of cases a judge ruled that the confession was inadmissible in court because of how it was obtained. However these lawyers have been disparaged and derisively called slick for what many Belizeans see as them trying to get their clients off on legal technicalities. But commenting in 2018 on what he considered a draconian piece of legislation to combat crime in Belize one defense lawyer had this to say about addressing the crime problem in Belize: “As a criminal practitioner in court if I was a decision maker my emphasis and focus would be on criminal justice reform. Because a lot of the cases of people who are actually murdered their cases go to court and we have good lawyers in Belize and there is a deficiency in the way that the evidence is marshaled and gathered by police and oftentimes the DPPs office tries its best but because of the cases that have been given to them there are no convictions.”
Conviction Rate and Deterrence
So what has been written about conviction rates and its effect on deterrence (in addition to what was stated earlier)? To answer that question we must first address the theory of deterrence. It is a theory of choice in which individuals balance the benefits and costs of crime. It argues that individuals evaluate both the risk of being caught and the associated punishment. Thus, deterrence is the behavioral response to the perception of sanction threats. Deterrence theory says that in terms of an individual’s potential to commit a crime the certainty of being caught is a vastly more powerful deterrent than the punishment, but people will obey the law if the punishment is swift and certain. The core concern of deterrence research has been to develop a scientific understanding of the relationship between the crime rate and the threat of punishment (see Nagin).
In his 2013 essay, “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century,” Daniel S. Nagin summarized the current state of theory and empirical knowledge about deterrence. Drawn from Nagin’s essay, the U.S. Department of Justice (Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice) summarized a large body of research related to deterrence of crime into five points. The first point is that the certainty of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than the punishment (severity).
The second point is that sending an individual convicted of a crime to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime. Prisons are good for punishing criminals and keeping them off the street, but prison sentences (particularly long sentences) are unlikely to deter future crime.
The third point is that Police deter crime by increasing the perception that criminals will be caught and punished.
The fourth point is that increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime. Laws and policies designed to deter crime by focusing mainly on increasing the severity of punishment are ineffective partly because criminals know little about the sanctions for specific crimes.
The fifth point is that there is no proof that the death penalty deters criminals. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Research on the deterrent effect of capital punishment is uninformative about whether capital punishment increases, decreases, or has no effect on homicide rates.” Some of these points are hard to accept and are debated, but some are on point.
In his 2013 essay on deterrence Nagin stated that there are two distinct mechanisms by which the police may deter crime. One way is through proactive policing: increasing the visibility of the police by hiring more officers and allocating existing officers in ways that heighten the perceived risk of apprehension can deter crimes. In occurrences in which this form of deterrence has failed (the effect of the intensity of police presence in creating a perception that apprehension risk is sufficiently high) the effectiveness of the police in apprehending perpetrators of crimes may deter crime. Their effectiveness in apprehending criminal perpetrators can have a deterrent effect only on others or on the perpetrator’s future behavior.
In an article “Crime Despite Punishment” Maggie Koerth-Baker states: “After decades of research, there’s little evidence to suggest that the threat of prison, or even the death penalty, deters would-be criminals.” Koerth-Baker draws on the work of criminologist Richard Wright. With the help of a former student who was once been a career criminal, in the late 1980 Wright et. al conducted one of the biggest ethnographic studies of working criminals ever conducted. For the study Wright interviewed 105 burglars and 86 armed robbers. “The interviews suggested that people trying to prevent crime don’t always understand how people think when they are committing crimes” Koerth-Baker states. She goes on to say: “Whether it’s prison itself, longer prison sentences, or sending more people to prison for smaller crimes, these prescribed consequences are usually predicated on the idea that a would-be criminal will consider them and then think twice: ‘Nope, I’m not going to do this,’ they’ll rationally decide.” I don’t want that to happen to me.” Thus, the work of Wright et. al. “suggests that real people don’t often make that kind of careful deliberation before they rob somebody, and subsequent decades’ worth of research on the effects of deterrence-based punishments…have failed to prove that they do anything to reduce crime.
The continued killings in Belize and spate of robberies raise questions about crime and the state of deterrence in the country. It would be easy to say that this is because of the failure of the threat of punishment to deter crime. But while the conviction rate for those charged with murder remain low and has been cited as a factor in an increase in serious crimes, the likelihood of those charged with murder spending over five years on remand does not seem to have had a deterrent effect. In the last three months the quick capture of a number of robbers (many in the act) by the police doesn’t seem to have a deterrent effect (although it’s somewhat early to determine this) o no been a deterrent. While some thinking goes into them committing crimes of opportunity, these robbers don’t seem to have evaluated the risk of being caught and the associated punishment, considering that the quick response of the police in Belize City has resulted in many being immediately being caught or caught shortly after committing a robbery.
Crime Prevention and Control Strategies
At this point in Belize’s prolong battle with serious crimes, will increased convictions immediately deter those intent on committing crimes? While increasing the conviction rate is something Belizeans wish for, it might not do as much to deter individuals committing serious crimes as many people would think. In Belize the possibility of increasing the conviction rate for murder that can possibly then have a greater deterrent effect has to be seen in the context of Belize’s enduring crime problem (of which gang warfare was the main catalyst) that has lasted almost three decades and spawned a culture of crime and violence that has enveloped certain sectors of Belizean society.
As a result, informal social controls (where they exist) have not been sufficient to deter criminal behavior among certain individuals, among member of certain groups (namely, as it relates to ethclass), and in communities. And while some might say that a strong element of deterrence is needed in Belize if the country is to experience any kind of properly functioning system of law enforcement and justice, there are questions about the state of crime and deterrence in Belize. Sadly, even if formal social controls involving law enforcement authorities and the criminal justice system becomes more effective in meting out swift and certain punishment to those committing serious crimes, there are questions about if or how effective deterrence is in Belize at this time.
While this might be a hard thing to accept for those who are frustrated with the crime situation, there has to be hope that the DPP’s office will continue to make slow but steady progress in increasing its conviction of those charged with murder (and other serious crimes like armed robbery). As this occurs, it in turn makes it possible for a reduction in the murder rate. Correspondingly, there is also the possibility that with a reduction in the murder rate there will be an increase in the conviction rate. While there is hope for both, an increase in the conviction rate for murder and a rapid reduction in the murder rate, the challenge is to reduce the yearly number of murders occurring through effective crime prevention and control strategies.
The police are fighting an uphill battle in attempting to curb an ever increasing crime rate, and they recognize that curbing the high crime rate will require a lot of different strategies that include not just an effective crime fighting strategy by the police. At this point I take a retrospective look at all that have been done to curb crime in the last decade.
As it relates to the functioning of law enforcement, in 2009 there was the publication of the Crooks Report to reform the Belize Police Department and as it relates to gang warfare in Belize in 2010 there was the publication of the Gayle et. al. study on Male Social Participation and Violence in Urban Belize. The completion of study was announced with great fanfare and its researcher UWI anthropologist Herbert Gayle gave a number of talks and conducted a number of workshops after the study was published. There was little implementation of recommendations from the Gayle Report.
In 2010 the government’s strategy to address crime, violence and other social ills plaguing the country was unveiled in a plan called Restore Belize. Now under Restore Belize, there was the Conscious Youth Development Program (CYDP), which is a specialized gang intervention program. One of its purposes was to try and de-escalate tensions between the different Belize City gangs. Then there was the Youth for the Future initiative, established to coordinate the activities of Belize’s young people.
Since 2009 the police implemented crime fighting strategies that included proactive policing practices to prevent and reduce crime and aimed at deterrence, especially in Belize City. In 2010 the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) was formed as a special unit of the police. It was formed in in response to the rising crime rate in Belize and was part of the larger Restore Belize initiative. (The efforts at gang prevention and intervention continued.). This paramilitary policing contrasted with efforts of community policing the police department had instituted. Trying to become pro-active with their crime fighting strategy around 2014 the department instituted broken windows policing. It is based on the theory that catching and prosecuting perpetrators of small crimes, over time, deter big crimes from happening.
A number of get-tough anti-crime laws were also passed, few described as draconian. In 2008 the Firearms Act became law and in 2010 the Crime Control and Prevention Act became law. In 2014 there was an amendment (revision) to the Firearms Act and the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act. Despite revisions to the act, major crimes in Belize continued to increase. In 2018 new laws and amendments were passed in the National Assembly in the fight against crime.
The Belize Police Department unveiled its National Crime Fighting Strategy, and part of the strategy was to put in place legislative reform to assist in getting the crime problem under control. In this regard, the Criminal Control and Criminal Justice Amendment Act was a piece of legislation that was put in place to curb escalating crime. Some laws in the amendment targeted the culture of gangs in Belize and called for stiffer penalties to be levied against persons belonging to a gang. Also amended were the Firearm Act and the Police Act. The anti-crime legislation also included the Protection of Witnesses Act, Evidence Act, and Domestic Violence Act. It was certainly hoped that with legislative changes that come under the crime fighting strategy there would be a decrease in Belize’s crime problem. This has not happened.
Murder and the Start of a New Year
If most Belizeans were not too hopeful about a gradual increase in the number of convictions for murder, they were hopeful that in the New Year Belize would have far fewer murders than it did in 2018 and previous years. In 2018 there were 143 murders in Belize, the second most murderous year in the history of the country, 2012 being the murderous year with 145 murders. This was not supposed to be. When there was a spate of murders in Belize City in the first part of the year more police were put on patrol in certain hotspots of the city, and a limited state of emergency was activated and imposed in three areas of the city. But the bloodshed continued. Regrettable, on the first day of the New Year there was an unprecedented five murders. The murders again highlighted how pervasive murder had become in Belize, not just confined to Belize City and committed largely by gang members engaged in ongoing feuds. The murders also highlighted how while the use of handguns had increased the number of murders in Belize (especially in Belize City) Belizeans continue to kill each other by other means.
The first murder occurred early in the morning in the village of Lucky Strike in northern Belize district, when a villager was hacked to death with a machete at his home. The killing was as a result of an early morning confrontation between the accused and the victim over a woman who was staying at the victim’s house. After a party in the village the accused was to have dropped off the woman. Instead of doing so, he followed her into the victim’s house. The woman and the victim asked him to leave but he refused to do so. An altercation ensued between the accused and victim, eventually resulting in the victim being killed. The woman was then raped by the accused.
A second murder was recorded after the body of an unidentified man was found floating in the Belize River in the Blackman Eddy area of the Cayo District. The man’s body was found on January 1 but police believe he was killed sometime before that. His hands were tied behind his back when his body was found, and a postmortem examination on the remains confirmed that the man died of manual strangulation.
The third murder was a gang-related murder occurring on the south side of Belize City. The known gang leader was gunned down in a drive by shooting (in front of a store).
The fourth murder also occurred in Belize City – and again on the south side – when two bicycles riding assailants opened fire on a victim, who was also riding a bicycle. Police say that prior to his killing the victim had a misunderstanding with someone that same day, and they suspect that his killing may be connected to that prior dispute.
The fifth murder occurred in San Ignacio Town, the victim who was a mother of 3 children killed by her ex-common-law husband (whom she had taken out a restraining order against). Once in an abusive relationship with him, she was lured to the home of one of his relatives. He lay-waited her and viciously stabbed her in the neck and chest.
As the murders became known to Belizeans it sparked many discussions on social media. Few who commented on the murders on Facebook mentioned what they saw as growing lawlessness in Belize. Along with the low conviction rate for murder, of particular importance to many commenting on crime and violence in Belize was raising domestic violence that in the extreme has resulted in a number of women being killed by their spouse or common law husbands. But some on Facebook also recognize that the Belize Police Department has what they consider a thankless job.
The print and electronic media also discussed the murderous start of the New Year. Citing the number of murders that occurred in 2018, there was criticism of the police crime fighting strategy by Channel 5 news (1/3/19), who raised questions about this strategy by stating: “Over the past few years, the Ministry of National Security and the Belize Police Department have attempted a number of strategies to arrest crime and violence in Belize City….But, have all the efforts of government to mitigate the endless spate of gun violence been for nothing?” In the aftermath of the murders the then acting Commissioner of Police Chester Williams and Prime Minister Dean Barrow discussed the crime situation.
On September 5th of last year the Government of Belize declared a “State of Emergency” (that did not include a curfew) in two gang-infested areas in the south side of Belize City due to escalating criminal activity in the area. The state of emergency had been declared because six persons were killed in the city between Friday, August 31st and Saturday, September 1st. Gang rivalry was suspected to have been responsible for most of the murders and the majority of the murders involved the use of firearms. The two days were considered the most murderous weekend in Belizean history and within four months the murders of January 1st would become the most murderous day in in Belizean history.
At a press conference after the state of emergency was declared the Minister of National Security along with his Chief Executive Officer and the Acting Commissioner of Police Williams, announced that measures were being put in place to deal with the escalation in gun violence in the city. Williams told the media that police has been in constant dialogue with the different gang groups in south side Belize City. According to him, the talks yielded positive results in only some areas. He also believed that in some areas gang leaders thought they could hold the rest of the city hostage. To this sense of impunity he responded that it was necessary for the police to “move to another level… to ensure the safety and security of our law-abiding citizens. The increased police on the street should have had a deterrent effect, but this was one of many times there had been a spike in murders in Belize and the response was similar.
In early December 2018 then Acting Commissioner of Police Williams at a press briefing expressed his optimistic view of the crime situation in Belize City by stating that there was a significant reduction in murders and this reflected the effectiveness of police operations on the south side. One of two broad approaches to crime prevention involves intervention, identifying groups and risk of committing crime and taking action to limit their offending. Gang intervention was one of the police strategies for reducing the tit for tat gang shootings that have been occurring in the city. And when there was a spate of murders in the city the police increased its presence in certain areas. Nevertheless, the murders continue.
At a police press briefing in the aftermath of the New Year’s Day killing Williams responded to questions about the effectiveness of the police crime fighting strategy by noting (with a sense of relief) that only one of the five murders was gang-related and had wider implications. “It is our hope that the efforts that have been put in place will prevent that from occurring” he went on to say about the possibility of retaliatory killings. As for the other murders, he acknowledged that those occurred in situations/incidents the police had no control over. However, he had this to say: “The fighting of crime spans beyond the police and it must incorporate the collaboration of other government agencies as well as other social partners and so it is our intention to be able to collaborate with those social partners to find some lasting solutions to the fight of crime particularly in south side Belize City. And so for 2019, we will be doing a lot of collaboration with social partners.” Lastly, Williams said the crime rate will require a collective community effort to bring it down.
The Prime Minister also responded to bloody Tuesday. “The scourge of crime and violence continues into 2019 and government, as well as the Belize Police Department, is still very much hamstrung in stemming the bloodshed” Channel 5 news stated in its continued coverage of the 5 New Year’s Day murders. The Prime Minister acknowledged the government’s continued “inability to contain crime and violence” and “hold down the murder rate.” He went on to say: “Now it has long since been admitted that our crime fighting approach has to be interdisciplinary, involving inter-agency collaboration and the deployment of a far flung net of social strategies. What is also inarguable, though, is that the Belize Police Department will remain the centerpiece of the effort to eliminate the triple scourge of gangs, guns and drugs. 2019 will therefore see a concentrated effort on reform for a more effective Belize Police Department. This reform will start at the very top and permeate throughout all ranks; it will include better training, better administration and better resources.”
The theory of deterrence is very much relevant to the two murders on the south side of Belize. For some time the police have maintained a visible presence on the south side of Belize City, but even with this presence a number of murders occurred on the south side. A few months before when there was a spate of murders on the south side the police announced policing in hot spots. This involves a practice whereby the police focus on locations where crime is concentrated, and in doing so crime reduction through deterrence comes about when police increased their visibility and patrols in known hotspots. Nagin has stated that “There’s no evidence that broken windows policing is an effective way of deterring crime.” And distinguished from so-called “broken windows” policing, a number of studies have shown that it’s possible to curb crime using the hot spots strategy.
Of the 5 murders that occurred on New Year’s Day, the DPP should easily get convictions on two -the murder in San Ignacio Town and the murder in the village of Luck Strike. The murders represent two disturbing homicide trends and the details of how the murders occurred are most disturbing. Premeditated, the murder in San Ignacio puts a spotlight on the increasing number of women who have been killed as a result of domestic violence. Belize has a history of domestic violence, which cuts across ethnicity and to a lesser extent social class. In the last 30 years an increasing number of women have lost their lives at the hands of their significant other (or a man who once was). Their deaths reflect the epidemic of crime and violence in Belize resulting in the country now being a more murderous place. The country had become a murderous place even in what was described as the peaceful village of Luck Strike. While there is a sense of community in most villages, when these murders occur in such a village it raises questions about the breakdown of social bonds between individuals and the community. Correspondingly, there is the question of the extent to which there is informal social control in an increasing number of villages (in contrast to most Mayan and Mennonite villages and communities). But while it might have been fueled by alcohol and desire, the seemingly impulsive nature of this murder raise question about deterrence and social control.
Only one of the two killings in Belize City was considered a gang killings, but the two murders were similar in the way young men get murdered in the south side of the city, and what leads up to these murders. The fact that most murders occur on the larger and densely populated south side of Belize City, in certain areas, and on or near certain streets highlight the geography of urban violence (or more specifically the geography of murder) in Belize. A city where people still live in close proximity to each other (although the city has expanded), one doesn’t have to go too far to find one’s enemies, especially in the case of gang warfare where handguns that empower any individual or small group have been used with lethal accuracy to increase the murder rate and serve as a catalyst for Belize’s epidemic of crime and violence.
Robberies And the Failure of Deterrence
Around mid-January I was hoping that there would be no murders in Belize for remainder of the month, or until I had finished what I was writing about crime in Belize. This was not to be as starting with the murder of a policeman in the tourist capital of San Pedro Town there has been one murder after another. Now the question is whether the number of murders in 2019 will come close to or pass the number of murders in 2018. There has also been an increase in the number of robberies in Belize, most occurring in Belize City. The robberies in particular highlight the issue of deterrence considering the effectiveness of the police in apprehending many of the robbers.
Broadcasted live on Sunday night January 13, a robbery which evolved into a hostage taking situation on the south side of Belize City eventually resulted in three robbers being arrested after a tense standoff and shots being fired by the robbers. Armed with a stolen handgun, the men had invaded the second floor residence of the Chinese proprietors of a grocery store that was on the first floor of the building. The Chinese couple were robbed and assaulted during the, but during the robbery but their teenage daughter was unharmed. Police were alerted to the robbery in progress and arriving on the scene before the robbers could make their getaway the robbery turned into a hostage taking situation, as the robbers held the couple hostage until police were able to persuade them to surrender. This happened just weeks after the policeman was killed in that robbery in downtown Belize City. It raises questions about crime (robberies, home invasions etc.) and deterrence in Belize. Of course deterrence, if it does occur, will be gradual and not immediate.
As stated, the police deter crime by increasing the perception that criminals will be caught and punished. On Facebook the morning after the robbery and apprehension of the robbers many Belizeans praised the quick response of the police. But one of the comments started by saying that Belize had a low conviction rate and that while the intruders were caught there should be a concern that they could “get off” whatever charges were brought against them. Most likely the three robbers will be convicted of the crimes they were charged with but the cynicism reflects the fact that many Belizean have little faith in Belize’s courts.
One of two broad approaches to crime prevention involves the local community in combating crime. Usually people police their own neighborhoods until they feel it is unsafe to do so. When the neighborhood becomes unsafe in their opinion, they either move away if they can or remain inside of their houses to stay safe. This reduces the effectiveness of informal social control, which can lead to increased criminal activity. What is also noteworthy about the robbery is that someone in the neighborhood tipped off the police to the ongoing robbers. Regrettably, crime is often not reported in many neighborhoods in Belize City such as the one the robbery occurred, as people feel unsafe or fear if they do so they face reprisals or worse.
Since the Mahogany Street robbery there have been several others robberies in the city and elsewhere in the country. As stated, robbery suspects have been caught, either through the quick work of the police of identifying suspect from security video. But the robberies continue, young men in groups of two or three armed with a handgun and giving little or no thought to the possibility of being caught (deterrence).
In the case of a gas company in Ladyville being robbed, one of the robbers pointed a gun at the security guard at the entrance of the company then the other proceeded to hold up another man inside the office and the cashier. The second of two robberies in the country, a restaurant was robbed in Belmopan, two masked men entering the restaurant and pointed what looked like a gun at the owner of the restaurant, her daughter and an off-duty cop that was present.
The robbery of a new grocery store on Albert Street, Belize’s main commercial street is the most notable robbery. It was one of the very few businesses that remain open on Albert Street after dark and this provided an opportunity for two robbers who entered the store posing as customers. Shortly after being in the store one man pulled out a pistol at the store counter and held up the store owner, while the other went into the cash drawer and grabbed about $1,500 dollars. It is reported that one of the men were caught shortly after.
These crimes highlight a need for enhancement of situational crime prevention strategies. Situational crime prevention includes strategies which focus on the specific point at which potential victims and criminals come together, making it harder for the criminal to commit a crime. An increasing number of businesses now employ security guards and have installed cameras. These are examples of situational crime prevention strategies by businesses. But these robberies continue. Most involve two or three individuals, and the robbers seem undeterred by the prospect of being caught. In possession of a handgun some youths become impulsive ready to rob those whom they feel have cash on hand and/or provide an easy opportunity.
In terms of these robberies and deterrence, it is also important to note that research does show that you can deter crime by nudging would-be criminals to weigh the odds of getting caught in the first place. Most people are going to avoid committing crimes in situations where somebody is likely to catch them. It’s the reason liquor stores are robbed more frequently than banks, Nagin has said. More specifically where the store robbery is concerned, residents in neighborhoods (and communities) such as the one in which the store is located can work to increase the perception among would-be criminals that they face real risks of getting caught. As an alternative to adding more police, it highlight the fact that communities are also responsible for policing themselves, adding a layer of informal social control and a layer of formal social control in reporting crimes.
When Does This End
For over three weeks after the start of the New Year there were no murders in the city, and the new Commissioner of Police, Chester Williams, attributed it to the crime fighting strategy of the police. He indicated after becoming the new commissioner that the goal of his department was to reduce the murder count for 2019. He went further a week later (Jan 22) on a morning talk show to say that he hoped to keep this year’s murder count to below 100. For some the commitment was controversial. “No matter what we do, we cannot stop all murders but we are going to ensure that we do our best to reduce the murder rate in Belize” Williams stated. Most Belizeans would agree that in order to make a dent in the number of murders there has to be a continued focus on gang warfare as the source of most murders. They also agree that there is now a need to focus more on domestic violence that is leading to a greater number of murders of women. But the police department’s intention to focus on nightclubs or bar has been somewhat surprising to many Belizeans.
Commissioner Williams and his assistant announced a strategy to curb crime at a press briefing. This would be done through continued working in partnership with communities and governmental and non-governmental organizations. In terms of policing, it would be done through such things as improving upon preventative patrols and responding to incidents in a timely and effectively manner. It was announced that there was a plan to erect a live crime center in Belmopan that will be used to address criminal activities on the streets. It was also announce that there will be boosting CYDP, designating it as a homicide reduction unit. An increasing concern for more Belizeans, both the Commissioner of police and his deputy spoke their department’s new strategy to tackle domestic violence.
“If you notice the last murder in the city has been a while” the new commander of south side Belize City (the police department’s largest and hardest formation to police) said at a press briefing at the end of January, that announced a new plan for the eastern division of the police department in Belize City. “I don’t want to be quick to say anything, but what we are doing at this point in time is certainly working” the Superintendent of Police went on to say about tackling crime in the city. Six days after the superintendent spoke about tackling crime in the city, and a week after the police high brass announced the department’s crime fighting strategy for the country, two men were shot and killed in Belize City. Four hours apart, one was killed on the north side and one on the south side. One of the men killed was a well-known businessman who was killed in what seem like a hit. He was with his girlfriend inside his car which he had parked near his girlfriend’s house when two men approached the vehicle. One of the men pulled out a firearm and fired shots in his direction. He was shot twice while the girlfriend escaped with minor injuries.
In mourning and trying to figure out who would have wanted his father dead his son had this to say about the crime situation in Belize:
Son of Michael Williams:
“We just want justice. We want this case to be solved and we want to know who is responsible. Who would send these guys or they were, did they do it or someone send them. We want to find out as soon as possible. All this senseless killing in Belize it has to stop. Something must be done, I don’t know what. We are in 2019 now and as the years go by it’s just getting worse and worse. You know every time you go and you see it and now it hits home. Mein that’s, I don’t know what to think after this.“
There is little that can be added to what the son of the dead man said about the crime situation in Belize. It’s a new year and Belize has a new commissioner of Police. Regrettably, since the murdered man spoke to the media about his father being killed the murders continue, one senseless killing after another happening in Belize City and outside of the city all the way to the town of Punta Gorda in the Toledo district. It was my hope that in the week or even two weeks I was planning to complete this essay there would be no murders and no robberies in Belize. In turn, I would be able to address all the murders that had happened since the first of January. This was not to be. “So sad as we get new commissioner it just getting worst” one woman commented on the Facebook page of a news outlet reporting a recent robbery that ended up in a murder. “Every day if it’s not robbery it’s killing she went on to say.
While it did not result in murder, less than a week after two were killed in Belize City there was a wild shootout on the heavily trafficked thoroughfare on the north side of Belize City between two men on a motorcycle and the police. On patrol, a police vehicle became suspicious of the two known men and started to trail them because it was believed that they were on the way to commit an armed robbery. One of the men was caught minutes after the shootout started and the others turned himself in to the police the following day. With One policeman injured in the shootout the men were charged with attempted murder and two others charges.
Also on the north side there was an armed robbery which turned into a murder when a 19 year old Belizean raised Japanese born student at the University of Belize was shot and killed coming to the defense of his restaurateur father who was held up by three men outside his home. The father was also critically wounded. Arriving home with his family, the father had just got out the vehicle and was walking into the home with groceries when the assailants pounced on the unsuspecting father. A struggle ensued between the assailants and the two victims and shots were fired by one of the assailants. The robbers got away with an undisclosed amount of cash and so far they have not been apprehended.
“What will it take to STOP these senseless killings” remarked President of the Senate Lee Mark Chang said. The father of the slain student had worked for him when he arrived in Belize. On Facebook others commented on the killing of the young man. “This piece of news is very disturbing and so sad for me to deal with” one woman commented. “I don’t know the family, but what hurts me so much is the fact that these perpetrators can kill so easily. When did Belize become a country where these men are so evil, and they can look at a person unfeelingly and just shoot to kill?” Another woman had this to say: “The money will done then it will be on to the next victim. It seems like all the robbers are armed and if necessary they would kill without hesitation. More people will have to arm themselves. He probably never thought it would happen to him but he’s running a business and was being watch and targeted. Such a sad situation. What can our country do? Would the creation of more jobs help curb all these senseless armed robberies. Where does it end! Lastly, one man commented: “These guys looking for opportunity and do not care for human life. So sad.”
A day after the UB engineering student was killed, the President of the university issued a message on his passing stating that it was with “indignation and deep regret” that he was announcing the student’s death. He went on to say: “The loss of any student, particularly in so tragic and senseless a manner, grievously wounds us all.” Regrettably, four days later he issued a similar message after another student of UB was killed in his home town of Orange Walk: “It pains me deeply to inform you that the UB community has suffered, yet again, another tragic loss of one of our young and promising student…due to gun violence.”