Belize Country Profile

02/02/2015

Key Statistics

Population: 334,000 thousand (Military Balance, 2014)

Capital: Belmopan

Languages: Spanish 46%, Crepée 32.9%, Mayan dialects 8.9%, English 3.9% (official), Garifuna 3.4% (Carib), German 3.3%, other 1.4%, unknown 0.2%

Major Ethnic Groups: mestizo 48.7%, Creole 24.9%, Maya 10.6%, Garifuna 6.1%, other 9.7%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 4,763 (IMF 2015 World Economic Outlook)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 8,338 (IMF 2015 World Economic Outlook)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: approx. 1,050 (Military Balance, 2014)

Police Force: 1,073 (Belize Police)

Small Arms: number of guns (both llicit and illicit) held by civilians is 32,000; the number of military firearms is 2,500; number of law enforcement firearms is 1,600 (Gun Policy, 2015)

Military Expenditure: 1% of GDP (World Bank, 2013)

Executive Summary

The former British colony of Belize has seen violence increase more than threefold since 2000, much of it driven by domestic gang disputes in the country’s largest city, Belize City. In addition to these local gangs, the country has become increasingly important in the transnational drugs trade in recent years with authorities concerned that powerful Mexican criminal organisations may be gaining a foothold in Belize. Salvadoran street gangs also have a presence, primarily in the Belize City. The capital, Belmopan, was built after Hurricane Hattie wreaked havoc along the coastline in 1961, and it was decided to move the government further inland.

Though the government embarked on an ambitious gang truce in Belize City in 2011, this was stopped at the end of 2012 due to a lack of funds to continue the programme. Initial returns on the truce were promising with a drop in homicide rates, though these failed to hold; 2012 was the country’s most violent year on record.

At present, the country’s security and justice institutions are ill-equipped to deal with the security situation. The police force is corrupt and underfunded, and the judicial system is suffering from a backlog of cases and in need of improved legal training for professionals in the justice sector.

Efforts can be made to help modernise institutions and train professionals in the justice and security sectors. This could help improve the capacity of the government to bring crime under control and go some way to purging each sector of corrupt elements. 

Security and Justice Context

Belize has struggled to control violence levels since 2000, seeing the number of homicides more than triple from then until 2012. In 2000, the country recorded 41 murders; this figure increased to 145 in 2012, making it the most violent year on record for the country and giving it a homicide rate of almost 45 per 100,000 inhabitants (See Figure 1.). Based on preliminary homicide statistics for the region in 2012, this would make Belize one of the most violent countries in terms of homicide rate, putting it above Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador.

belize1

Fig.1 Belize Homicide Rate 2000-2012

In September 2011, Belize was added to the United States’ list of major drug transit and/or major illicit drug producing nations, a title it was also assigned in September 2012. Much of the US-bound cocaine moved through Belizean territory is believed to transit the coastline and the country’s 450 or so small islands, or “cayes.” These serve as both transhipment and storage points[1] for cocaine coming from Honduras[2] .

The country is also a producer of marijuana though this is primarily for the domestic market and not for export.

Since 2008, Belize has experienced a rise in the seizure of precursor chemicals which are used in the production of methamphetamine. Production sites are not believed to be present in Belize though the country’s importance as a transhipment point for these chemicals[3] appears to be growing as seen by the February 2012 seizure of a shipment of methylamine hydrochloride that had the potential to produce 400 tons of methamphetamine, worth $10 billion.

With its apparently increasing role in the international drugs trade the presence of transnational criminal groups became a major concern. Belize’s authorities have expressed concern in recent years that violent Mexican drug gang, the Zetas, could be active along the border with Guatemala, another country where the group has a strong presence[4] . To date, however, there is little concrete evidence they are active in Belize itself. On the other hand, Belizean authorities have noted that another Mexican criminal organisation, the Sinaloa Cartel, does have links in 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 were “key associates” of the Sinaloa Cartel.

In addition to the suspected presence of Mexican criminal groups are Salvadoran street gangs, or “Maras,” who, according to media reports, are involved in smuggling goods bought in the Corozal Free Zone[5] to El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. Officials from the National Gang Unit of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have confirmed this, pointing to increasing numbers of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) members in the country.

In September 2012, a man suspected of having ties to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was arrested in Mexico and found in possession of a Belizean passport, driver’s license and birth certificate, in the name of a Belizean national who had died in 1976. All had been issued by Belizean authorities in the space of 72 hours. His application for the documents had reportedly been refused upon initial request by a junior officer; however, it was subsequently passed by a senior immigration official pointing to high-level corruption within Belize’s immigration control.

Hezbollah is not thought to have a presence in the country. However, this event suggested terrorist and criminal groups may use Belize as a transit point in order to acquire officially issued identity documentation.

Despite the presence of transnational criminal actors, the majority of violence in Belize is driven by domestic gangs who engage in local drug trafficking and robberies, and are 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[6] .

Belizean street gangs style themselves after the rival US street gangs the Bloods, and the Crips[7] . Within these broad categories exists 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 organised.

In an effort to stem the tide of violence, the government brokered a truce involving 13 gangs in September 2011 (see the Security Sector Reforms and Initiatives section, below) which delivered a temporary respite from the killings. However, this was ended in December 2012 as the government could no long afford to run the programme.

Belize is a transit point for the regional arms trade, with traffickers exploiting weak border controls in the country to move weapons into neighbouring Guatemala and Mexico, as well as Honduras. Experts[8] have said that Belize may be a transhipment point for Mexico-bound weapons coming from the United States due to the high concentration of law enforcement on the US/Mexico border.

Of all civilian-held firearms in the country (29,000 was the estimated figure in 2007), over half are unregistered. Guns are a key contributor to the country’s homicide rate; Colonel Lovell stated in 2012 that 95 percent of homicides in Belize are caused by firearms. The global average is 42 percent. 

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), between 2010 and 2012, the perception of insecurity in Belize improved from a score of 47.4 point to 39.9[9] . This gave Belize the 9th worst score out of 26 countries surveyed, placing it just behind Mexico (See Figure 2.).

Fig. 2 Perception of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Despite the comparatively high perception of insecurity, respondents in Belize see the economy as being a bigger problem; 53.1 percent said the economy was the most important problem compared to 22.4 percent who viewed crime of violence as the most important problem in 2012.

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

Due to Belize’s colonial history, the country has an accusatory legal system based on British practice, though with some variations. The judiciary is constitutionally independent and headed by the Supreme Court of Judicature which is comprised of three judges and has unlimited jurisdiction over civil and criminal legal proceedings.

Below the Supreme Court are Magistrates’ Courts. Each of Belize’s six districts has at least one Magistrate's Court[10] 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.

Though all appeals go to the Court of Appeal which normally sits three to four times a year, final appellate jurisdiction rests with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ)[11] , inaugurated in 2005 as the judicial institution of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)[12] . Belize switched appellate jurisdiction from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in London, United Kingdom to the CCJ in 2010.

The Attorney General acts as the government’s legal advisor and is also part of the cabinet, serving as the Minister of Foreign Affairs[13] . 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. Though the judicial branch is constitutionally independent from the executive and legislature, there are concerns of political interference, according to the US non-government organisation (NGO) 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 increase the number of pre-trial detainees who, combined with prisoners on remand, accounted for around 30 percent of all inmates in 2012. These detainees sometimes spend years in the penitentiary system 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. Due to the low level of confidence in the country’s justice and security institutions, many crimes are not reported by the public. Furthermore, the DPP’s office was found by the ABA to be lacking the resources required to effectively carry out its role.

There is only one prison on the island—Belize Central Prison—which is managed by a local NGO, the Kolbe Foundation. The penitentiary system is overseen by the Ministry of National Security. 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. 

Security Institutions

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. As previously noted, low confidence in the police means some crimes, particularly robberies and assault, go unreported. Witness protection, or lack thereof, is a problem, with many scared to come forward for fear of reprisals from those they are testifying against.

The police force is under resourced in areas and poorly trained. 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)[14] 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.

There is a Professional Standards Branch (PSB) responsible for investigating alleged police misconduct. The PSB is overseen by the Independent Complaints Commission (ICC) which is comprised of five civilians. Prior to the creation of the ICC in August 2011, complaints against the police were filed directly to the PSB, making the level of civilian oversight minimal. The Office of the Ombudsman can also receive complaints against police but has faced problems in retrieving information from the police force in the past; the US State Department notes that only 35 percent of inquiries made by the Ombudsman were responded to by the BPD in 2011.

As well as managing the police, the Ministry of National Security is responsible for the Belize Defence Force (BDF) which numbers 1,029 personnel between ground and air forces.  The BDF is primarily responsible for external security though does assist the BDP in domestic security on occasion, particularly in Belize City. It has limited powers in domestic law enforcement, however, with the police more often carrying out arrests.

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. In addition, the country’s Port Authority reportedly lacks the equipment to carry out night time searches, providing drug traffickers with an opportunity to move their product under cover of darkness with little threat of being detected.

The Belizean government has a long-term development framework titled 'Horizon 2030' which sets out a number of strategic development goals to be achieved by the year 2030. The goals fall under four so-called “pillars.” The pillar focusing on improving democratic governance encompasses aims for improving the security and justice sectors. Among these goals are raising the level of qualifications needed to become a police officer, improving relations between the police and community, addressing social issues which help contribute to violent crime, and improving access to justice for all citizens. 

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform 

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

The government announced in July 2012 that it had appointed a committee—headed by a former police minister—to study the decriminalisation of marijuana. The proposal was to decriminalise the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana, handing down fines or sending those caught with less than 10 grams to a drug education programme. Under the existing law, those caught with less than 60 grams of marijuana can be sent to prison for three years or fined up to BZ$50,000 ($25,000). A period for the public to comment on the proposal was opened after the announcement. At the time of writing decriminalisation was still being evaluated.

If marijuana were decriminalised it may relieve some pressure on the judicial system by lightening the case load prosecutors and judges must take on. As noted by journalist Julie López, however, its potential effects on violence in the country are unclear.

The Kolbe Foundation[15] was handed the responsibility of running the country’s prison in 2002. Since then, the non-profit organisation has placed emphasis on the rehabilitation of inmates, running education and training programmes to help with the reinsertion of inmates into society once their time is served. For example, inmates can be trained in agriculture, welding and carpentry, with products subsequently sold to the public. Funds generated by these sales are put back into rehabilitation programmes.

Security Sector Reform and Initiatives

The aforementioned gang truce is the biggest security initiative undertaken by the government in recent years. In September 2011, government officials met with Belize City gang leaders and agreed to provide work opportunities[16] for some 200 gang members and at-risk youths in exchange for a cessation to gang fighting. The initial results were promising with only nine homicides committed during the truce’s first 100 days. Government agency Restore Belize[17] was tasked with mediating peace talks between rival gangs throughout the truce.

Despite the promising signs at the beginning of the truce, this did not hold throughout 2012 as seen by the record number of homicides for that year. In December 2012, the government announced it would halt the program due to a lack of funds; it had cost the government around BZ$20,000 ($10,000) per week to provide jobs. Part of the truce’s inability to decrease violence may have been down to the fact that money was not directed to more deep-rooted issues that drive gang membership, such as poverty and a lack of education. Instead, the government was essentially paying gangs not to fight each other.

Belize has been the recipient of US aid in the form of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), an aid program that has sent $496 million to the region since 2008, to assist law enforcement and justice institutions and promote community policing programs, among other measures. CARSI has focused less on taking on sweeping reform measures, though, and more on increasing the capacity of forces to bolster citizen security.

In 2011, the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS) adopted the Declaration on Small Arms and Light Weapons, a regional initiative aimed at reducing gun crime in the region and improving regional cooperation in the field of arms trafficking.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

The Belize National Assembly is bicameral; the lower House of Representatives and the upper Senate. Members in the lower house are elected by the public while members of the Senate are appointed by the Governor General[18] .

The legislature has the constitutional authority to make and amend laws and is separate from the executive. At the time of writing there were 13 Standing Committees covering subjects from national security and immigration, to finance and economic development. Each committee has the mandate to act with complete independence and, according to the National Assembly, allows input from the public to help provide government oversight. 

Security and Justice Opportunities

Belize is facing a serious security crisis that at present shows little or no sign of abating. Exacerbating this problem are weak and underfunded security and justice institutions with poorly trained personnel.

The fact that the majority of violence is concentrated in Belize City and driven by its gangs will help focus efforts to bring down crime levels. Government corruption is a concern, though, meaning that engaging on reform measures should be approached with a degree of caution. 

Justice Sector Opportunities

Though the 2011 report by the ABA scored Belize’s prosecutorial system negatively on 16 out of 28 factors, the government has not undertaken any substantial reforms of the justice system. Corruption within the judiciary is a problem but, modernisation of the courts system and better training of legal professionals are arguably more pressing concerns. Efforts could therefore be made to offer attorneys and judges training programmes to help professionalise public prosecution procedures. As the ABA noted, civilian prosecutors are only required to attend a paralegal course and public prosecutors are not obligated to receive continued training. Professionalising the body would help address problems of judicial efficiency.

Modern equipment could also be provided to the courts system so that cases are able to move forward at greater pace—there is no computer filing and tracking system for cases—and resources directed to the DPP’s office, given their lack of funding.

The emphasis on inmate rehabilitation by the Kolbe Foundation is a promising initiative. However, the prison system needs further funding (something which falls within the government’s remit) in order to improve living conditions for prisoners and bring conditions up to international standards. 

Security Sector Opportunities

The inability of the government to continue funding the gang truce points to a larger problem; that of government finances.  Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced in 2012 that the 2012-2013 fiscal year would see budget tightening which, according to media reports, would affect community policing programmes and the prison system, among other areas. While the Ministry of National Security was to be largely safeguarded from budgetary cutbacks, the police force remains under resourced, much like legal professionals are, and requires modernisation. Providing resources such as training programmes and equipment would go some way to helping professionalise the force. This would improve efficiency, help combat corruption and help improve public confidence in security institutions. 

The gang truce, while a progressive initiative, unfortunately only had a short life span due to its lack of emphasis on the deep rooted causes of gang violence. The government’s willingness to engage in initiatives such as these and negotiate with gangs is promising and this could be aided by helping suggest other methods to restart the gang truce; for example, poverty reduction programmes in violence-hit areas and violence education in schools. Restore Belize would be the agency to engage with on this issue.

Civil Society Actors to Engage With

The Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRCB) is the most prominent advocacy group and was established in 1987. It promotes human rights, calling for the strengthening of state institutions to safeguard citizens’ rights and promoting human rights education programmes in schools.

Belizeans for Justice is another NGO that works toward combating injustices against Belize’s inhabitants, particularly helping victims of violence. The organisation registered itself in 2010.

In 2012, the Belize Coalition for Justice, an umbrella NGO comprised of some 30 organisations, was launched. The Coalition does not include Belizeans for Justice.

Resources

American Bar Association, “Prosecutorial Reform Index for Belize,” March 2011

Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2012 – Belize,” June 2012

Government of Belize, “National Development Framework for Belize 2010-2030,” May 2012

López, J, “Organized Crime and Insecurity in Belize,” Inter-American Dialogue, January 2013 (Working Paper)

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012

Ribando Seelke, C, “Gangs in Central America,” US Congressional Research Service, January 2013

Small Arms Survey, “Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving Targets,” August 2012

Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, “Belize – Gun Facts, Figures and Law,”Data retrieved from http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/belize

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” January 2013

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment,” September 2012

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Belize 2012 Crime and Safety Report,” April 2012

Endnotes

[1] For more information on trafficking routes see López, Julie, “Organized Crime and Insecurity in Belize.”

[2] Honduras is estimated to receive up to 80 percent of all drug flights coming from South America.

[3] The import of pseudoephedrine, a key precursor used to produce methamphetamine, is illegal in all forms. Other precursors such as methylamine hydrochloride, however, are legal in their pure form.

[4]  Alleged Guatemalan drug trafficker Otoniel Turcio sMarroquin, a man with suspected Zetas ties, was captured in the Belizean border town of San Ignacio in 2010.

[5] The Free Zone is located in the country’s north and is a duty free zone.

[6] Col. Lovell was interviewed by Julie López for “Organized Crime and Insecurity in Belize.”

[7] The affiliation with the Bloods and Crips is largely a result of time spent by Belizeans in Los Angeles, CA; while there, some Belize citizens became associated with these powerful street gangs and subsequently took this gang affiliation back to Belize when they returned.

[8] Eric Olson, associate director of the Woodrow Wilson Centre’s Mexico Institute, interviewed by Julie López.

[9] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity.

[10] Belize City has four Magistrates’ Courts.

[11]  Belize is one of three countries whose final appellate jurisdiction rests with the CCJ; Guyana and Barbados are the other two.

[12]  CARICOM is an organisation comprised of 15 nations and aims to promote economic integration and cooperation between its member states.

[13] The attorney general heads the Attorney General’s Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[14] The GSU was created in 2010 in response to rising crime rates.

[15] More information on their website: http://kolbe.bz/

[16] The jobs mainly involved park rehabilitation, neighbourhood clean-ups and mending roads.

[17] Restore Belize was created in 2010 to better coordinate government agencies to tackle socio-economic issues that contribute to the country’s violence.

[18] The Governor General appoints members in consultation with the prime minister (for 6 members), the leader of the opposition (3 members), the Chamber of Commerce (1), the Council of Churches (1), and the National Trade Union Congress and Civil Society Steering Committee (1).

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.
Organisation

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.

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