Belize as Paradise? It is a complicated place

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Shock and awe: Military and law enforcement types converged on San Pedro Town for two days of "public display of enforcement." This, after four gang-type shootings in less than four weeks on the little island of Ambergris Caye.
Shock and awe: Military and law enforcement types converged on San Pedro Town for two days of “public display of enforcement.” This, after four gang-type shootings in less than four weeks on the little island of Ambergris Caye.

On a recent Friday evening, a podium-full of Belize movers and shakers waxed eloquently on the bold and beautiful future of San Pedro Town (“Voted No. 1 island in the world for the second straight year!”) to an enthusiastic and well-heeled crowd.

Hardly an hour later and only a handful of blocks away, three black-clad gunmen on a busy Neptune Street corner saw their target bicycle past and unleashed a volley of 9mm gunshots.  Their target was hit by two bullets. Fortunately none of the many bystanders were.

At any other time, such juxtaposing of civic boosterism and street realism would scream “Ironic!”

Except that this was the fourth shooting, one fatal, this month in San Pedro Town.

There might have been more. One of the shooting victims was detained outside a Belize City hospital with a 9mm pistol and a bag of pot. Apparently he was headed back to the island with revenge in mind.

Nothing ironic about it.

It has gotten so bad that the local weekly newspaper, The San Pedro Sun, published a brutally frank and gutsy editorial titled “It is time to stop pretending all is well in San Pedro.”  That’s like the sheriff shouting “Shark!” on Amity Island beach during tourist season.

This is how the editorial begins:

“My heart is very heavy and I am scared for San Pedro. We have friends killing friends, we have homeowners killing burglars, we have drug-dealing shootouts in our streets, we have cab drivers running over dogs without even slowing down, we have hustlers on the beach giving tourists the shake-down, we have thieves walking off with anything that isn’t locked down with a chain, we have questionable people mysteriously disappearing, we have daily rumors about ‘bodies found up north’, we have iron bars on our windows …”

“… We are an island, we know where the scumbags live and trade their drugs. Running them off should not be that hard, and sending the message that they and their dangerous behavior will not be tolerated should be an easy task.”

The editorial and a subsequent news story also hit hard on the low wages and deplorable living conditions faced by local police in San Pedro. Here’s the whole editorial.

After one much-beloved young man was murdered, about 400 people gathered in the town square to fight back against the violence.

Belize heard them and, perhaps more than a little concerned about their tourism cash cow’s reputation – We’re No. 1, notwithstanding – they sent in the troops.  On Thursday, March 20, a coalition of 50 Coast Guardsmen, military and the elite Gang Suppression Unit landed on the island to aid the local police force.

They lost the element of surprise – shock and awe, island-style — when their arrival was announced on a local morning TV news show. In truth, some locals said certain street corners and neighborhoods were emptier the night before the troops arrived.

But apparently the  forces established a law-and-order presence. The consortium swept through trouble spots, rounded up the usual suspects, raided some homes, established road checkpoints and went on high-visibility patrols for two days.

Might have worked, too. I’m not aware of any shootings since their departure.

I’m no expert on local drug wars, gangs and military tactics – or even on the other woes cited in the editorial  that now concern many San Pedro citizens. I’m only writing this because I am as guilty as many a writer of pushing the dream without acknowledging the reality.

It is pretty easy to keep your face (and camera) pointed toward the surreally beautiful sea and palm trees, the beach bars and restaurants, the incredible homes and condo complexes — and ignore the poverty, the crime, the hustlers.

When I’m asked about the beauty of Belize, I am quick to acknowledge that it does exist but just outside the frame of that carefully cropped image are piles of cruise ship trash washed up on shore, shockingly substandard housing and infrastructure and, yes, even poor and hungry people.

There are many worlds in Belize. Here on Ambergris Caye, with its limited and densely occupied habitat, those worlds are shoulder-to-shoulder and even intermingled. That is both exciting and cautionary. The same feelings you get when you see iron bars on doors and windows of homes and businesses and armed security guards posted at the corners of storybook beachfront homes.

Again, I’m not the one to ask what is normal. Having lived here just more than a month, everything is different – but not everything that is different is dangerous or hostile. Rose and I comfortably bicycle through the nighttime streets of San Pedro. People smile and say good evening and we do the same. I no longer carry our bikes up to the third-floor balcony but we would never dream of leaving them unlocked anywhere. I don’t feel the slightest bit threatened that I had pedaled past the most-recent assassination attempt only a half-hour before it occurred.

The simple truth is, the more we learn about San Pedro Town and Belize, the more reasons we find to love it. As you would love your own children – unconditionally but not indiscriminately.

I guess you could say that if you come looking for paradise in Ambergris Caye you will find it but if you are in it for the long haul, you’ll have to find a way to embrace the real world that exists just off frame.

Give Belize credit for being more than just another pretty face.


2 thoughts on “Belize as Paradise? It is a complicated place

    Paul Cloutier said:
    March 26, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Very well said. Poverty and crime are often intertwined with images of beauty and paradise.


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