The small Central American nation of Belize has a remarkably high homicide rate. The main sources of violence in the country are domestic gangs that operate mainly in Belize City, engaging in local drug trafficking and robberies. However, as the country’s role in the international drug trade has grown, Central American gangs and Mexican drug trafficking groups have also established a presence there.
Although the Belizean government has noted that changes must be made to the country’s security forces, most remain underfunded and officers are often poorly trained. Both the police force and justice system are widely regarded as corrupt and inefficient, and low levels of public confidence in these institutions mean that crimes often go unreported and perpetrators unpunished. While it is not overcrowded, according to the US State Department, Belize’s only prison does not meet international standards.
Belize, Central America’s most sparsely populated country, shares borders with Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the south and west, while the eastern edge of the country consists of Caribbean coastline. This, combined with areas of heavy jungle, has rendered Belize an attractive destination for drug smugglers who use it as a gateway to Mexico.
Measuring roughly 23,000 square kilometers, Belize is approximately the size of New Jersey, although its many coastal and inland lagoons reduce its actual land area significantly. At the 2010 census, Belize’s population stood at 324,528. Around one-quarter of the population lives in Belize City, the country’s principal port and former capital. The nation’s modern capital is Belmopan, the third largest settlement in the country and the smallest capital city in the Americas by population.
The former colony known as British Honduras changed its name to Belize in 1973, and gained full independence in 1981. Although crime rates in Belize are not as high as in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, between 2000 and 2010 the homicide rate more than tripled, to 39 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. A rise in drug and arms seizures along the country’s border with Mexico, and the Zetas’ increasing presence in Belize saw the small nation added to the US watchlist of countries involved in the drug trade in 2011. The government of Belize and Belizean police have made several attempts to broker gang truces in the hope of reducing violence, but have so far had little success.
Belizean authorities have expressed concern in recent years that the violent Mexican drug gang, the Zetas, could be active along the border with Guatemala, another country where the group has a strong presence. Authorities have also noted that another Mexican criminal organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, has links to Belize. This was seemingly confirmed in August 2012 when the US Treasury Department placed sanctions on three alleged drug traffickers in Belize whom they believed to be “key associates” of the Sinaloa Cartel.
In addition to Mexican criminal groups, Central American gangs are involved in smuggling goods bought in the Corozal free trade zone to El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, according to media reports. Officials from the National Gang Unit of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have confirmed this, pointing to reports of increasing numbers of MS13 members in the country.
Despite the presence of transnational criminal actors, the majority of violence in Belize is still driven by domestic gangs who engage in local drug trafficking and robberies, and violence is primarily concentrated in Belize City. Colonel George Lovell, the chief executive officer for the Ministry of National Security, stated in 2012 that 85 percent of all homicides in Belize are a result of gang rivalries in Belize City, an area where 90 percent of all crimes in the country occur.
Belizean street gangs style themselves after the rival US street gangs the Bloods, and the Crips. Within these broad categories exist groups such as the George Street Bloods and the Brick City Bloods, and the Majestic-Alley Crips and Ghost Town Crips. These gangs are not as sophisticated as their Central American counterparts, and not considered to be well-organized.
Belize is a transit point for the regional arms trade, with traffickers exploiting weak border controls in the country to move weapons into neighboring Guatemala and Mexico, as well as Honduras. Experts have said that Belize may be a transshipment point for Mexico-bound weapons coming from the United States, due to the high concentration of law enforcement on the US/Mexico border.
The country is also known for providing opportunities for money laundering, in part because its currency is pegged to the US dollar.
The Belize Police Department (BPD), housed under the Ministry of National Security, is the primary body charged with domestic law enforcement and has around 1,200 officers. The force has a reputation for being corrupt and inefficient. Low levels of confidence in the police mean that some crimes, particularly robberies and assault, often go unreported. Witness protection, or lack thereof, is a problem, with many scared to come forward for fear of reprisal.
The Belizean police force is under-resourced in areas, and poor training and limited oversight have fueled inefficiency and abuses. Low salaries for police officers make them susceptible to accepting bribes. According to the US State Department, the use of excessive force by security forces is a concern. The police force’s Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) in particular has been involved in a number of incidents where suspects have been beaten with baseball bats, and/or shot at with rubber bullets.
In addition to managing the police, the National Security Ministry is responsible for the Belize Defense Force (BDF), which has a total of 1,029 personnel, split between ground and air forces. The BDF is primarily responsible for external security, although it does assist the BPD with domestic security on occasion, particularly in Belize City. However, it has limited powers in domestic law enforcement.
Belize also has a Coast Guard, which is separate from the BDF and works to counter maritime drug trafficking, among other responsibilities. The Coast Guard is under-resourced, with only six vessels at its disposal. Additionally, the country’s Port Authority reportedly lacks the equipment to carry out nighttime searches, providing drug traffickers with an opportunity to move their product in the dark with little threat of being detected.
Due to Belize’s colonial history, the country has an accusatory legal system based on British practice, with some variations. The judiciary is constitutionally independent and headed by the Supreme Court of Judicature, which is comprised of three Supreme Court judges and has unlimited jurisdiction over civil and criminal legal proceedings.
Below the Supreme Court are the Magistrates’ Courts. Each of Belize’s six districts has at least one Magistrate’s Court, which can hand down rulings on less serious offenses. Appeals from both the Magistrates’ Courts and the High Court are heard by the Court of Appeal. Final appellate jurisdiction rests with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
The attorney general acts as the government’s legal advisor and is also part of the cabinet, and also serves as the foreign affairs minister. The principal prosecution authority is headed by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). There is also an Ombudsman’s Office which is an independent body and hears public complaints against the government for alleged injustices.
Belize’s justice system suffers from inefficiency and corruption. Although the judicial branch is constitutionally independent from the executive and legislature, there are concerns surrounding political interference, according to the watchdog group Freedom House. Judges and lawyers are often poorly trained and there is a large case backlog with judges sometimes taking more than a year to hand down rulings. This backlog has helped to increase the number of pretrial detainees who, combined with prisoners on remand, accounted for around 30 percent of all inmates in 2012. Detainees sometimes spend years awaiting trial.
The 2011 Prosecutorial Reform Index (PRI) for Belize, carried out by the American Bar Association (ABA), found that the conviction rate for murder in Belize is 1 in every 10 cases. Furthermore, the DPP’s office was found by the ABA to be lacking the resources required to effectively carry out its role.
Belize’s penitentiary system is overseen by the National Security Ministry. There is only one prison in the country, Belize Central Prison, which is managed by a local NGO, the Kolbe Foundation. Though overcrowding is not a problem — the prison was at approximately 67 percent capacity in 2012 — conditions in the prison do not meet international standards, according to the US State Department.
Moreover, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, Belize has the world’s 11th-highest prisoner-to-public ratio. International experts have also recommended that Belize use less punitive measures with regard to its youth detention practices.