State of Emergency Declared in Belize City Amid Gang Violence
Tonight, twenty-five alleged gang members are behind bars, and police are hunting for fifteen more after a State of Emergency (SOE) was declared in three areas of Belize City. The SOE seeks to quell an ongoing war between factions in the George Street, Taylor’s Alley, and South Side Gangs after it resulted in three murders. Most recently, James Escarpeta was shot and killed in the George Street area, and his death is believed to be an act of retaliation. The SOE commenced this morning, and police say it will aid in defusing tensions and bringing charges against the perpetrators of those crimes. Commissioner of Police Chester Williams explained that the SOE was a last resort and assured law-abiding citizens that the operation does not impact them.
Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police: “The SOE is not a blanket one where we’re just picking up any and anybody from within those particular areas but we do have a number of persons who are being targeted and what we’re doing is to pick them up based on intelligence and just pluck out those persons who our intelligence is telling us are creating a problem or have the potential of creating problems in those declared areas. We have so far detained a number of 25 persons there about. There are still a few persons we’re looking for and the GI3 has been tasked to create the wanted posters for those persons who, thanks to the media, Channel 7 in particular, who said on the news last night that there was going to be an SOE I don’t know how Jules get that but that certainly created a number of these persons to have fled the areas of concern and may have gone elsewhere. So we’ll issue the wanted posters for those individuals and hopefully the public will be able to help us to find those individuals who have fled the declared areas under the SOE. It was a joint operation between the police and the BDF. You’d know that due to the areas we had to cover the police would not have had the manpower to properly cordon the areas. So we did get BDF to assist us in cordoning as well as to carry out the operational mandate of the SOE. The police will do our utmost best to maintain presence in the particular area, but again like we’re saying, this is not being done to target the law abiding citizens. We do not want to in no way impede the movement or the freedom of the law abiding people within those declared areas. We want them to be able to move around as freely as they would normally do or even better now that we are plucking out those troublemakers. And so to say we’re going to maintain a heavy presence in the area, we’re not going to do that. But yes police will continue to move around in the areas to make sure that those persons who are not yet detained by the police are captured if they would venture into the area. There may be some members of these particular groups who are not going to be captured because they’re not seen as those who are giving us problem. There may be those who are working with the LIU and are cooperating with us and so we’re not going to touch them. We’re only going after those persons as I said before where intelligence dictates that they are creating the problem or likely to create problems for us.”
It is the fourth consecutive year that an SOE has been used to round up the men for a one-month period. The decision has been noted as a last resort and one that many citizens see as a signal of failure on the part of the Police Department. Police Commissioner, however, says the SOE is one of the few tools the police can utilize along with conventional practices to douse the sudden flare-up of gang-related shootings.
Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police: “I am sure that you would agree as to public put that as a department working in tandem with the ministry and the LIU we have been very, very lenient or considerate of the different groups and we have done a lot to work with them. It is only proven that when we have a situation where we have done our best to ensure that we try to find ways to work with these different groups, like for example through LIU and you have opportunities for them to get into different programs and they refuse to and continue to live a lifestyle where they create fear in the lives of the ordinary people then the government do have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the citizenry. And while the SOE may be the measure of last resort as the minister had said sometimes it is the necessary evil that we need to apply to ensure that we get these people to put a pause in their actions. Certainly it’s not a reflection that law enforcement is failing but a reflection that we need to do more. And we’re going to continue to work with those groups who are cooperating. I have said to the LIU people that I was not going to do an intervention with the different warring groups right now because it wouldn’t serve the purpose that they go and kill someone and expect that Oh, I go kill and I just go in a mediation and things done and then little later down the road they kill again. It makes us look like fools. And so I said I was not going to mediate with them until the investigators have done what needs to be done, picked up and charged who needs to be charged and then the remaining factions in the different areas, I don’t have an issue bringing them to the table for mediation. So once we have plucked out the people that need to be plucked out from different areas we’re going to bring in the others who are remaining who we’re not going to send to prison and we’re going to have a mediation with them to make sure that we keep things on the level that we want them to be.”
Minister of Home Affairs Kareem Musa was critical of the previous government’s use of the SOE regulations during their term and has gone on record numerous times to say he sees it as a last resort. Given his past statements, today, Musa was asked if he believes his ministry has failed to bring crime under control.
Hon. Kareem Musa, Minister of Home Affairs: “Of the last four murders I am fairly certain we will have at least two charges if not three. Along with good police work and aided with the assistance of CCTV cameras we are able to identify who these individuals are. We are able to make arrests. Those are the primary crime-fighting efforts. It is only if those efforts are failing and it is for a very small group, as the Commissioner said, 45 and we’re talking about potentially 1,000 at-risk youth that are out there. We have to look at crime as a public health crisis. So it’s not one solution for everything. A state of emergency is not that solution. You don’t give a cancer patient the same medication as you would give a dialysis patient. And that is how we have to look at crime. There is a pill for everything. This may be called the Bukele Pill. There is the William Dawson Pill for all those young men who are saying, “I do not want to live this life. I want to be able to have an opportunity to learn a skill or a trade.” And I think the media should cover all of those instances because there are hundreds of young men getting skills training, turning their life around and getting employed in the private and public sector and those are the success stories. And Mr. Dawson used to always remind me, if you’re saving one life, you have saved an entire generation. One life matters, you know. And so that is how we have to look at this. It’s a complex issue and you shouldn’t look at us coming here today a state of emergency is a failed UDP policy. It might have been their main policy and their only solution but for us it’s not a solution. For us the priority is taking care of the law abiding citizens in these communities who are clamoring for a state of emergency because they recognize amongst themselves that these young men will stop at nothing. And so we have to hit the pause button for the community members. And so by extension what that will result in is saving these young men lives. Because yes, they’ll be in prison and it is up to them to cool off. And if they come out, it will be right back at prison again, because we cannot countenance that. We cannot continue with that spate of retaliation, spate of murders.”
ComPol Williams added that the department will also be detaining minors, who are alleged gang members as part of the SOE, if necessary.