Lost in paradise
A few years ago I was driving through Belize City on my way to Belmopan and San Ignacio and got tangled in traffic gridlock. The city has limited signage, narrow streets, very few police patrols, and if there is a specific pattern for driving through the city to get to the highway, I could not find the key.
For over an hour I attempted to find the road out of town with no luck! The sun was setting, rush hour traffic was increasing, and I started to panic. Was I ever going to get to my hotel (over an hour from Belize City) on unfamiliar roads (many unpaved and unlit), without a guide or a map? I was not happy.
From bad fortune to good luck
Although I could not find a police officer, I did spot a few teenagers with bicycles hanging out near a convenience store. My thought was that I would pay them some money, and they would lead me to the highway on their bikes; finally I would be on my way.
I parked my car close to the guys and jumped out to chat. No sooner did I begin my approach, then I heard a woman screaming at me to stop and not move one more step! I stopped! She caught up to me and pushed me back to my car! I got to the car and jumped in. The woman slid in next to me and immediately locked the doors. What had just happened?
As we both caught our breath, she explained she owned a nearby shop and noticed me when I got out of the car. She also noted that the fellows I was going to approach were notorious criminals and suspected of killing Belize citizens. Because the police did not have enough evidence to place them under arrest or in prison, they were on the street. However, local business people knew they were guilty of the crimes and kept a watchful eye on their activities. When she spotted me heading towards them… she had to stop me! She did not want to see another dead body in Belize City.
Talk about the kindness of strangers. Together we drove out of the city; she marked the route for me. I drove her back to her shop and now that I knew where to make a left and a right – I got out of the city (very quickly) and headed for my hotel.
I tell this story because I know (first hand) about potential dangers in Belize. I know that American government representatives have been killed on the streets of Belize City, and I know it is a dangerous place. When I came across the Hanson, Warchol, and Zupan (2004) research, Law and Disorder in Belize, (Police Practice and Research, 5(3) 241-257), I felt obligated to share the findings of the research and offer a “heads-up” with everyone planning a Belize excursion.
According to the US Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security (OSAC), Belize has seen an increase in crime over the past several years. This country remains a high-crime destination due to the extremely high murder rate per capita. This locale is the sixth most dangerous country in the world with an average of just over 39 homicides per 100,000 residents. The country has the second highest murder rate in the Caribbean, the third in Central America and the fifth in the Americas.
Most hated city
CNN Go rated Belize City as the tenth most hated city in the world, and Seleni Matus, the country’s Tourism Director found that it is, “…consistently rated as the worst destination” among cruise ship passengers.
Between January and June 2012 there were 35 murders in Belize City, and this destination has set new national records for murders in 2009 and 2010. Gang violence, largely confined to Belize City, contributes to a high murder rate with 125 murders recorded in 2011 (four less than 2010). In 2011, a Swedish tourist was robbed at gunpoint and her cash and passport were stolen.
Crime continues to spread north and west with 14 murders reported in Orange Walk and 17 murders reported in Belmopan, San Ignacio, and Benque in the west. Several murders have been linked with home invasions, which are a recurring theme in Belize and Lawrence Johnson; an American businessman was murdered in Cayo (November 2011) during this type of incident. In August 2011, an American woman was robbed and briefly held hostage in her Cayo district home. The thieves stole nearly US$6,000 worth of her jewelry and electronics.
Belmopan City, with a population of 13,000 and the home of the US Embassy, since 2006 has experienced increased violent crime. Diplomatic missions have been targeted for break-ins, while Chinese-owned businesses have experienced violent crimes, and a restaurant owner was shot. In addition, tourists have been robbed while visiting archeological sites, and violent crimes have occurred at resort areas on both mainland Belize and the Cayes.
Bad guys are winning
The research of Hanson, Warchol, and Zupan (2004) determined some contributing factors leading to the high level of criminal activities: a) The infrastructure of Belize City is in disrepair, b) weather (frequent hurricanes and tropical storms), c) narrow streets (heavily congested throughout the day with automobiles, bicycles, and foot traffic) impeding police response time, d) Belize police are unarmed patrol and must patrol in tandem with heavily-armed members of the Belize Defense Force, e) highways are in poor condition, f) inadequate signage and many potholes, g) a mix of paved and unpaved roads makes it difficult for police to pursue criminals, and h) unsafe conditions lead to a high number of traffic accidents and fatalities.
A percentage of Belize crime is attributed to illegal immigration from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Those apprehended by the police were frequently former “paramilitaries” that were better armed than the police and more prone to violence than other immigrant groups. It is these individuals that have been implicated in kidnappings for ransom and other violent crimes.
Illegal drugs also contribute to Belize crime statistics. The country is a major trans-shipment point for Columbian cocaine en route to Mexico and the USA. Street gangs convert the cocaine into crack for local consumption, and rival gangs are responsible for drug-related robberies of citizens and tourists. Marijuana is cultivated for domestic use and USA export.
Data combined with the United Nations information and US Justice Department shows that most of the 5,500 US-bound human trafficking victims are from Central America, via Belize. Available Justice Department statistics, reported last in 2003, provides an estimate of up to 17,500 foreign nationals trafficked into the US annually. The Organization for Responsible Tourism (ORT) recommends that the US offer aid and assistance to Belize so they will be able to stop the superhighway that runs from their country to the US with a view to averting worst-list human trafficking status for the country.
Although these issues are significant, Hanson, Warchol, and Zupan find that the major factor constraining law enforcement is the lack of basic resources. Police vehicles are damaged or disabled and at the Queen Street Station in Belize City, the station’s “rear parking lot resembled an auto salvage yard.” As of 2002, the department had 65 motor vehicles and 35 motorcycles with over one-third over five years old, requiring frequent and costly maintenance. Because of the shortage and disrepair of motorized vehicles, “…officers are not encouraged to engage in high-speed pursuits of fleeing felons….” as officers cannot risk damaging their small fleet of functioning cars.
The crime scene unit response time to distant locations is tallied in hours or days due to the limited vehicle availability. “By the time the unit arrives, the scene has typically been seriously contaminated by curious neighbors,” according to Hanson, Warchol, and Zupan. With porous borders, the Belize Maritime Unit has only three vessels for a) policing the country’s coastal waters and inland waterways, b) conducting search and rescue operations, and c) patroling fisheries.
While the research indicated that the training for police was on par with a typical police academy in the USA and salaries were in keeping with the country’s median income, morale declined when the officers entered the field. The research revealed that the officers considered themselves underpaid, had difficult working conditions, counterproductive job requirements (shifts and transfers), public criticism, and a lack of respect, along with resource constraints… all of this kept them from doing their job. The result: high attrition, misconduct, resignation, and dismissals.
The research indicates that community policing, the Police Youth Corp, and strategic planning have been successful crime prevention projects. Most recently, through a regional security initiative, Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the US presented a fleet of vehicles to Belize police, loaded with state-of-art security equipment to help law enforcers in the detection and apprehension of criminals. Vinai Thummalapally, US Ambassador to Belize, stated that, “Over the past year… the US Embassy and government of Belize have signed for almost US$6 million in CARSI funds. These funds are designated for citizens’ security initiatives in Belize including, among others, law enforcement capacity building, border initiatives, and crime prevention efforts.”
In addition, the US Ambassador donated approximately US$ million worth of equipment that included 17 vehicles, as well as training and assistance to law enforcement personnel, grants for at-risk youth programs, and infrastructure and technology upgrades.
Belize clearly benefits from its wonderful geography, and improvements to its administrative and infrastructure could improve and facilitate growth and expansion of the economy. The Belize National Police force, according to the research, is seriously underfunded and hence is unable to provide crime control, investigations, and services to its citizens and tourists.
Fear of crime is a definite detriment to tourism expansion. While it appears that the police continue to try to do their best under difficult circumstances, the measures are stop-gap at best. Improving the morale of the police by eliminating rotating weekend shifts and mandatory transfers, as well as modifying the gratuity stem (incentives to leave rather than stay), may also help to motivate them to solve more crimes.
Media should be used to inform multiple publics about the successes in crime control and new programs (i.e., quick trial system, targeting of predatory street criminals). The tourism police unit could be expanded to cover remote areas of the country where tourists are attracted by resorts and important Mayan ruins.
Support those who assist others
On a personal note, I would like to return to Belize City and not worry about being kidnapped or killed by teenage boys, because I stopped to ask for directions. There are beautiful parts of Belize that remain as touchstones in my memory bank and reminders of why I travel. Let us hope that members of Belize law enforcement will receive the funding, support, and encouragement they need and deserve so that the destination is able to be presented as a safe, as well as beguiling, destination.