Despite its initial success in reducing violence in the capital, a gang truce in Belize's capital city appears to be under strain as violence between groups escalates.
Since it came into force in Belize City in September 2011, the government-backed gang truce produced immediate results with only nine homicides committed during its first 100 days, according to the US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC). This marked a departure from the trend of rising violence in the city, which saw a peak of 129 homicides in 2010.
As part of the truce, government agency Restore Belize was tasked with creating a work scheme offering employment to some 200 people from the 13 gangs involved in the truce. This has involved park rehabilitation and neighborhood clean-ups, among other jobs, Restore Belize director Mary Vasquez stated. Restore Belize has also helped mediate talks between gangs.
A spate of killings in late April, however, seem to have placed the truce on a precarious footing, sparking fears that violence could return to pre-truce levels. Between April 20 and 24, three prominent alleged gang members were murdered; George Street gang boss Shelton "Pinky" Tillett, Taylor Alley boss Arthur Young and South Side Gang member Jermaine "Horse" Garnett.
In the two weeks following these deaths, nearly a dozen people have been killed due to gang rivalry, reports the Belize Times. At a press conference on May 2, Vasquez attempted to calm fears by stating that Restore Belize will try and mitigate any future violence.
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The truce in Belize could offer insights on a comparable initiative currently underway in El Salvador. Unlike the Salvadoran truce, which was supposedly brokered by the Church, Belize City's truce was an initiative of the government. This effectively puts the government in the firing line if the truce breaks down, as shown by the Belize Times's criticism of the more than BZ$1 million of government funding for the program. In El Salvador, the government has been careful to distance itself from the scheme, which could mean that it will not come in for as much criticism if the ceasefire is broken.
It is unclear what sparked the outbreak of violence over the last fortnight. The rapid way that things began to disintegrate, however, does highlight the difficulties in maintaining an agreement with criminal groups in a country that is of strategic importance for drug traffickers.
A Belize Times report last year noted that street gangs were becoming increasingly involved with the drug trade in the country. What's more, there has been a worrying increase in the presence of the Zetas drug gang in the country's borders and sea ports, according to the White House, which added the country to its watch list of countries involved in the drug trade last year. Belize is well located as a jump-off point for drug shipments to the Caribbean and possibly even the US.
Even if violence levels subside, events over the past few weeks show that at any given moment, Belize City could see a new spike in its homicide rate, despite the best efforts of the government.