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Do state of emergency declarations make any difference to crime?

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Posted: Saturday, September 18, 2021. 11:44 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: As the latest state of emergency (SOEs) in Southside Belize City comes to an end tomorrow, Sunday, Insight Crime is asking whether this fourth such emergency since 2018 really makes a difference.

According to the Belize Crime Observatory, from January to July 2021, Belize suffered 60 reported homicides, down fractionally from 63 seen in the same period last year. And in 2020, homicides reached 102, a marked improvement on the 134 killings seen in 2019.

But in May there were 21 total killings, Belize’s highest monthly homicide level since 2011, many of which were attributed to gang violence.

Police authorities have cracked down, removing weapons, drugs and appealing to residents to provide critical information that will keep gangsters behind bars for as long as possible.

The authors suggest Belize is in danger of relying on states of emergency as ‘pause buttons’ to contain the murder rate, as explained by Police Commissioner Chester Williams. There is a marked difference, they point out, between all of Belize District which takes in the mainland, and San Pedro and Caye Caulker and Belize City, and especially Southside Belize City, which has seen its homicide rate remain even over the last two years.

States of emergency in Belize provide the police with greatly enhanced powers to make arrests inside a specific area, even allowing them to pull additional forces from the Belize Defense Forces and the Coast Guard to go after suspected gang members. But the practice does warrant close inspection in a country where the police struggle with allegations of excessive use of force and corruption.

Critics and alleged gang members decry a lack of employment opportunities or social programs within the city as the true drivers of these homicide rates.

SOEs are an easy way for authorities to respond to patterns in violence. But there is a risk Belize could use them the same way as Jamaica does.

Jamaica appears stuck in an endless loop of declarations and renewals of states of emergency. Hundreds of arrests are made and announced, but most of those detained are released within weeks. And the country maintains the highest homicide rate in the region.

We’ll have an update on the number of murders countrywide in a future story.

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