Crime and Punishment in Belize
I understand that The Economist magazine recently labeled Belize the murder capital of the world, based on the number of murders relative to the country’s population. The label is similar to the one Mexico got when it was called on the border of being a failed state because of the ongoing struggle between the drug gangs and police/army.
There is no question about it, Belize does have a crime problem, particularly murders, in Belize City. Many of them are in Belize City, but occasionally it will spill out of that community into the communities west of it. I think there are several causes. The country of Belize has a small population, and Belize City is the only even moderately large city, so the crime there skews the numbers for the country as a whole.
First, there is a big community of Belizeans in Los Angeles, California, and another in New York. There are people who travel between those cities and Belize, bringing elements of culture of those cities. As I read about the senseless killings in the paper, I occasionally see references to gangs, specifically the Bloods and the Crips (?), which are notorious gangs in LA. There are a lot of young men in Belize City who are un(der)educated, un(der)employed and are fodder for gangs. So I think there are gang against gang killings, and there may be initiation killings.
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There is a growing sense of frustration in Belize City about it; even this weekend there was a “peace march” there to protest the violence. In the meanwhile, although the police frequently catch the perpetrators, they rely heavily on eye witnesses. But Belize is small country (see below), and it’s said everyone knows everyone, and witnesses often fail to appear at the trials, presumably because they have been threatened or just intimidated, so the murderers go free.
Although, I my view, alcoholism is rampant in the whole country (except, I believe, among the Mayans), Belize City is also the center of hard drugs. So armed robberies are not uncommon, frequently drug related, but if there is anything different about Belize from the western world, it seems to be a willingness to shoot.
Belize has a very small military, unlike other Central American countries, and they don’t get involved in law enforcement. (Having traveled in Mexico and Guatemala, I don’t mind not having trucks with mounted machine guns patrolling the roads.) Belize is not a wealthy country by a long shot, and outside of the “cities”, the police are hired and trained, and answer to, the national government. There are not nearly enough of them to deal with the problem, nor are they given the resources they need. The Judiciary seems competent, but they can’t do much without evidence or eye witnesses.
A note about the population of Belize and the impact on national resources: Belize is the size of New Jersey, which is the most densely populated state in the US at 452 persons per square mile. Belize, on the other hand, ranks 170 in a list of population density of 192 countries, with a density of 31 persons per sq. mile. For comparison, neighboring Honduras has 161 p/sq/mi, Guatemala has 348 p/sq/mi, and Mexico 139 p/sq/mi. This means there is a small population base to provide taxes to support the government. Although wages in Belize tend to be higher than surrounding countries, they are still low. We attract and keep good workers on our construction crews because we pay well – masons earn $75/day. With a generally poor local population, there is not a strong base to support the government, so programs like police protection are not supported as much as they need to be. In fact, we had a spate of boat motor thefts here in Placencia, and the local police came to our Rotary club asking for funds to fix their boat so they could patrol and pursue.
20% of the country’s population lives in Belize City. The most significant crime belt is from Belize City west through Belmopan, Cayo and Benque Viejo del Carmen. Those four communities have 35% of the population and probably in excess of 50% of the violent crime.
Before I came to Belize, people who had come here would tell me they didn’t like it. I would ask them if they had come on a cruise ship, and they would answer yes, which is all I needed to hear. The cruise ships stopped at Belize City, and people who did not take excursions by bus to attractions in the country, but stayed and wandered around in Belize City, saw the worst of Belize. People here in Placencia express fear that when the road is paved all the way to the Southern Highway that thugs will come down from B.C. I tend to doubt it – it is a 3 hour drive, but the improved road will make a difference.
I should also note that the violence tends to be among people in certain neighborhoods, and you rarely hear of any tourists or expats being targeted. In fact, there is a division of the police called the Tourism Police, and they not only look out for tourists, but also insure that tour operators are qualified and licensed to provide the services they offer. So tourists and expats are safe provided they don’t walk around bad areas of Belize City at night – and that can be said for many, many cities around the world.
The most rampant crime in our area is petty theft of opportunity. I always lock my truck, even if I’m going into the bank or a store for a minute, but I did that in Maine, too. Most people with items of value in their homes will have bars that go over windows, and metal gates at their doors, to prevent break-ins. People leaving their Belize homes for extended periods will often find someone they trust to stay at their house.
Fraud is so common it is almost taken for granted. The previous national government left office in disgrace, with millions of dollars missing or unaccounted for. The current mayor of Belize City, as well as other local officials, has been arraigned on charges related to $275,000 missing as a result of a practice they called “underdepositing of funds”. This stuff is in the news constantly, and it doesn’t seem that anyone goes to jail for it, and I think it filters down the food chain so to speak. It is not unusual for tradesmen to request full payment for a job before completion, and then disappear. Would you go along with that wherever you are now? Probably not, and there is no reason to do so here.
I’ve recently read some good stuff about the prison at Hattieville. Seems that they have a good program for training inmates in making crafts that are in demand, and so the recidivism among that group is very low. When Bob and I went to Belize City to go shopping, we stopped at the prison store. There was very little there, but there were some amazing carved doors and other large carvings.
Finally, I don’t mean to create a negative impression of Belize, but the reality is that crime exists here as it does everywhere. I live in a resort area, adjacent to a village marked by poverty. On almost every trip to and from Placencia village there are people looking for a ride. I have no hesitation to offer rides, and if there is room, they ride in the cab of my truck with me. I know several by name. I feel perfectly safe, but I do lock the doors to my apartment and truck when I am not in them, but that was true in Maine as well.
So if you come to Belize to visit, don’t go to Belize City, there is very little to see. You are safe if you take the same precautions you would take anywhere you travel.
Reproduced by kind permission of Carl Laws, the author of http://saltydogtales.blogspot.com