Defusing Gang Problems in Belize

May 4, 2013
Young Men Participate in Family Day at St. Martin Parish Field in Belize

About the Authors: Laura Till serves as a Stability Operations Officer and Julie Walton serves as a Mediation Specialist in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.

Most Americans hear "Belize" and imagine sandy beaches and unspoiled rainforests. But Belize also has one of the world's highest homicide rates, due mostly to gang violence. A gang truce took effect in 2011, but it was fragile, and by January 2012 there was concern that the homicide rate would start to climb again.

At that point, the Belize government requested U.S. assistance. As part of the broader Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), Embassy Belmopan responded by asking the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) to provide mediation expertise. In May 2012, a four-person CSO team arrived in Belize City to work with RESTORE Belize -- the crime-prevention and social development arm of the prime minister's office -- and with its community partners.

CSO spent the first two months establishing mediation programs and training mediators in Belize City, where the problems are most serious. Later, an evaluation of these efforts found that 80 percent of the mediations prevented violence and that disputants, mediators, trainers, and host institutions were enthusiastic about expanding mediation.

While doing so, CSO ramped up its work on community dialogues, which are regular gatherings of neighbors to identify local challenges and create community solutions diffusing potential violence by tackling root causes. We taught a two-day course and mentored dialogue participants as they established their groups. "I now feel empowered, and I am a voice to get help the community," said Julie Miguel, one of the 26 trainees. "I would have never stepped up to do this without the training."

The number of dialogues grew and now stands at 15. Each is tailored to fit the particular needs of the area. One neighborhood created what it named "The Rites of Passage" to offer mentoring for boys and young men facing challenges such as pressure to join gangs. Another, "Empowering Mothers," helps single parents tackle apathy, fears, and poverty. One goal of this dialogue is to help mothers find jobs so that they can support their families and thus dissuade their children from engaging in criminal activity to earn money. A third community is creating green space for families to gather.

"I am impressed by the level of activity coming out of the training," said RESTORE Belize's Mary Vasquez. "...Community colleagues organized a family day at the St. Martin Parish Field…[and are] also organizing some sporting activities for young people.""Of the many projects I have seen in Belize in nearly four years, this is one of the most outstanding," said U.S. Ambassador Vinai Thummalapally, an invaluable ally from the start. The full cost of the program for CSO was less than $165,000. The embassy and CSO asked the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) to fund RESTORE Belize's expansion of the program. INL issued a grant for nearly $86,000, and with those funds RESTORE Belize and Prime Minister Dean Barrow are working to extend conflict mediation to every high school in Southside Belize City.

In all its engagements, CSO is deeply committed to local buy-in so that the initiative lives on long after the bureau's team has departed. We are heartened by the enthusiasm of the people and government of Belize. Ambassador Thummalapally said that CSO's work "brought amazing good will and appreciation at the highest levels."

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