In his interview on Monday, 30 August 2021 on “Open Your Eyes” on Channel 5, Prime Minister Johnny Briceño essentially described the situation on the Southside of Belize City as “A humanitarian crises in a small geographic area.” He gave the impression that the matter was being discussed by his advisors, and, that they were inclining to the view that the problem has to do with education. He further implied that they were contemplating doing a pilot project on Southside Belize City, involving the provision of free education.
That news is both disheartening and frightening . The Prime Minister and his advisors seem not to have a proper appreciation of the urgency and magnitude of the domestic security threat which the gangs pose to our nation and of the scale of the intervention which will be required to neutralize it. Belize is presently experiencing a murder epidemic. The gang activity on Southside Belize City is a mere symptom of that epidemic.
The situation has now reached the point where Police Commissioner Williams is asking repeatedly and publicly, for the public ’s cooperation and assistance in helping to put an end to the wanton slayings, and in apprehending the perpetrators.
It was in the 1980’s that the then minister of housing Hubert Elrington first sounded the alarm that the youth in the Lake Independence constituency were becoming increasingly violent and lawless. He predicted that if the situation was left unchecked the lives and livelihood of Belizeans would be put in great peril. He advocated for urgent intervention by government to arrest the situation. Both his warnings and request fell on deaf ears. He was prophetic.
The Lake Independence constituency in the 1980’s was painfully evolving out of an expansive swamp filled with mosquitoes, snakes and alligators. It was a hell hole. It attracted, the poorest of the poor. They laboriously chopped out mangrove trees and dumped land fill on a portion of the land cleared out by them and built ramshackle structures thereon from whatever building materials they could hustle.
Shamefully, in the last forty years, not a single Belizean government has designed and built a decent residential subdivision in Belize City. And, seemingly, not a single Belize City cabinet member was sufficiently persuasive to convince their colleagues that what was being done to the residents of ghettoes like Lake Independence and Port Loyola was rank injustice and an affront to the social justice principles of which national hero, George Price, is reputed to be such the foremost champion.
Since Independence a growing number of Belizean youths have been dropping out of schools annually at an early age. In the main, they are from single parent families living in the ghettoes. Food for them is invariably in short supply and of questionable quality. These youth receive minimal nurturing because their caregivers themselves have negligible parenting skills. They are rarely properly disciplined. They are often exposed to drugs, alcohol and sexual activities at an early age. Their hovels provide neither privacy nor comfort.
Regretfully no Belizean administration ever seemed to have appreciated that the parents and children growing up in such dire poverty, squalor and ignorance required special affirmative programs to enable them to attain the skills, training and competencies needed to obtain jobs with which to earn their living and care for themselves. This is so notwithstanding the fact that the evidence is copious and irrefutable that the surest cure for poverty and the disadvantages which invariably afflict the descendants of the enslaved and colonized are good jobs and the skills to do them.
Successive administrations , both PUP and UDP, neglected and ignored for forty consecutive years, the children who keep falling through the cracks in our education system. No government has ever budgeted a single cent for any type of training programme for them, not even when it was becoming increasingly evident that more and more of them were joining gangs, acquiring fire arms, and engaging in criminal activities. The thought that these youth could be presented with a better alternative seemingly escaped our entire society; public sector, private sector, civic and religious organizations!
But it is indisputable that any amount of money which we would have spent in ensuring that those youth were properly educated and trained would have been far less than what we continue to spend on policing gang members, keeping them imprisoned, and providing medical attention to the numerous persons whom they have injured and maimed. We can never replace nor quantify the lives they have wantonly ended and the amount in productivity the deceased persons would have contributed to our economy had their lives not being cut short by gang members.
The evidence is irrefutable that Belizean politicians, entrepreneurs, and public officers , including those in the security forces, have clandestine relationships with gangs. The gangs are used both in the illicit drug trafficking trade and to strengthen the muscle and base of politicians. The gangs are also affiliated with the notorious narco traffickers in South America and Mexico.
Given the size, scope and complexity of the gang and crime problem in our country, it is truly astounding to hear Prime Minister Briceño opine that a free education programme may be all that is needed to solve the problem which has given rise to the imposition of the current state of emergency on the south side of Belize City. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Our country is experiencing a national security crisis domestically, that is potentially worse than the Covid 19 Pandemic. Because the pandemic is negatively impacting the whole world, Belize is being helped in dealing with it by the international community by way of grants of vaccines, equipment a n d technical expertise. But our country is receiving no such assistance with respect to our treatment of the gang crisis. The gang members, on the other hand, have no shortage of resources, cash, guns political protection and influence.
Putting Dr. Richard Rosado, the new Police Commander of Eastern Division, through the streets of Lake Independence, brings neither hope nor confidence to anyone in Belize City. The times for those symbolic gestures are long pass. What is needed is a comprehensive plan of action which includes, but is not limited to, an ambitious programme to permanently ameliorate the status of all caregivers in our ghettoes, intellectually, morally and materially; freely accessible, good quality, training programmes which impart relevant knowledge, and job skills to all at risk youth countrywide; and, jobs that those youth can readily access and which pay living wages. It is an accepted fact that hunger, poverty, alienation, resentment and anger, are known to disappear when people have fulfilling jobs that pay living wages. Their morale and confidence are boosted. The allure of anti-social, criminal behaviour, is blunted if not completely neutralized.
Rather than incarcerating our youth by using legislation which smacks of dubious constitutional validity on the spurious ground of crime prevention, why not try positive approaches and devise programs which afford the youths the opportunity of either engaging in training programs or work programs, the cost of which are fully defrayed by joint enterprise between our public and private sectors.
For years we have tried the stick and the situation has only worsened. Why not try the carrot now? It can never be a wise practice to criminalize and otherwise punish some of our most valuable assets: our youths who have fallen through the cracks, largely because of the neglect and incompetence of the state and their caregivers. That practice is patiently unfair and conduces directly to the humanitarian crises we are now experiencing. The implementation of such social justice programs would surely make Father Of The Nation George Price smile in his grave.
Article by Wilfred Elrington S.C. former Minister of Foreign Affairs.