Since the beginning of the year, there has been an escalation of violence in Belize City, much of which has been attributed to gang violence. That violence came to a major point on April 20th, when George Street Gang leader Shelton “Pinky” Tillett was killed and shortly thereafter during the same weekend, Arthur Young met a similar fate at the hands of the police.
The last spate of violence sent Belize City into a near talespin with everyone thinking that the streets would run red with blood. Thankfully, due largely to the efforts of the Belize Police Department and the little heard of Restore Belize Program, that was not the case. The police is the center wall and Restore Belize is the mediating factor. While the work of the police is obvious by the number of checkpoints and overall increase of man power that is evident on the street, the work of Restore Belize is not as evident.
In an effort to give the media a better appreciation of what the program does, in particular as it relates to the fragile gang truce, a breakfast was organized on Wednesday May 2nd to appraise us of the work being done. According to Director of Restore Belize, Marydelene Vasquez, the organization has been laboring in obscurity all in an effort to ensure that the truce is maintained.
Currently, there are 13 gangs involved in the truce, each of those has 15 young men involved in the work program. Vasquez says that the program has been very successful with young men involved in neighborhood cleanups, park rehabilitation and similar endeavors. With the escalation of violence however, the program is put under threat as young men are afraid to participate in the program without assurances from the police department to provide them security.
A major part of the role of Restore Belize is their role in crisis intervention and conflict mediation. Since the start of the truce, whenever there is gang aggression, skirmishes (shootings) and other forms of negative gang contact, Restore Belize kicks in. Depending on the severity of the interaction, Restore Belize would assist in negotiations - sometimes for two or even three weeks. Vasquez says that these types of interactions with the gangs usually go unreported because they are done in a manner as to attract the least attention but, they have had huge impacts on the truce and peace in the city.
Vasquez concludes that this type of interaction and mediation by Restore Belize will continue as long as the gangs will allow. For now, there has been a great deal of goodwill on the part of the “streets” that allows the program to continue its work. As long as that continues, the work of Restore Belize will continue. So far, they have been able to assist the larger underlying issues and social conditions that create gang problems including the involvement of people in the BOOST and the Food Pantry Programs. They have also been able to increase the access to education in some neighborhoods. She said that they will not “let any one situation stop us from trying… we can’t afford to drop the ball.”