BELIZE CITY, Belize, Friday September 7, 2018 – The United States (US) government has issued a security alert for American citizens in Belize, after authorities declared a state of emergency in two gang-plagued areas of south side Belize City.
Yesterday, the US State Department informed citizens of check points throughout the south side and urged them to exercise increased caution in the area, avoid crowds, keep a low profile, be aware of their surroundings, be vigilant when visiting banks or ATMs, and use caution when walking or driving at night.
Minister of National Security John Saldivar announced that the state of emergency, declared through a statutory instrument signed by the Governor General on Tuesday, was being implemented for an initial 30-day period, to tackle the escalation of gun violence in the area, but said it could be extended.
“Under the emergency powers granted under the Constitution, if we should wish to have an extension of this 30-day period, we will have to take the matter to the House of Representative and I, as the minister, do intend to do so if the circumstances do so warrant,” he said.
The development came on the heels of a weekend in which six people were gunned down, with the majority of those shootings believed to be gang related.
Acting Commissioner of Police Chester Williams said police had tried to have dialogue with rivalling gangs for the past few months to restore order, but that had not been as successful as anticipated, and firm action had to be taken.
“Those dialogues have yield some very positive results in some areas, while some areas seemingly want to believe that they can hold the rest of the city hostage. And as the police, who are tasked by law to ensure the safety of all, we cannot continue to dialogue with people who do not want to listen. Some people seemingly learn different from others, and so it is now necessary for us to be able to move to another level where we can let those persons who are adamant about creating havoc in our society understand that the police is here to do a job and that job will be done at any cost to ensure the safety and security of our law abiding citizens,” he said.
Under the state of emergency, police have the authority to incarcerate gang members and their affiliates for 30 days, without them been charged for any crime. More than 100 people have already been detained.
The acting police chief said citizens on the right side of the law had nothing to fear as police exercised their powers.
“We do not intend to abuse those powers that will be bestowed upon us by the proclamation. We will continue to discharge our duties in a manner that is respectful to the rights and freedom of all, especially our law-abiding citizens. We do not intend to disrupt the normal lives of those persons who live within those two areas in any way shape of form,” Williams said.
“However, if it is that they are condoning criminal activities or gang activities, then they can be sure that the police will be coming to their homes. But we do not want the public to believe that because we have a state of emergency that the ordinary lives of people will be disrupted.”
Meantime, Opposition Leader John Briceño disagreed with the measure, saying that what the residents of south side Belize needed instead were jobs and other assistance.
“It is not a matter of declaring a state of emergency and going in there and [infringing] on people’s constitutional rights and [grabbing] everyone on the streets and locking them up, because one month later when you release them, what will happen? Locking up gang members for a month will not do anything to address the poverty and inequality on the south side of Belize City. It will not address the number of young people who are on the streets instead of being in school. We need to look at this problem from a holistic point of view,” Briceño insisted.