BELIZE – Gang Supression Unit: Bigger Guns, More Force, But Is It More Effective? (2011-04-08)

Published on April 9 2011 by admin

[[SUMMARY / COMMENTS: “Sambula got one of the Taser and shocked me here. When he shocked me and i felt what it felt like I drew back and he pushed it on me again. It was more than one of them and they crowded me and shocked me all over ” …. Belize City – has a serious problem of gang warfare with gun killings. The police created the “Gang Suppression Unit” (GSU) arming them, inter allia, with tasers. The GSU, accused of widespread abuse, justifies the violence of their interventions by repeating “We have a job to do”: their mandate is “to wipe out violence and crime”. The indiscriminate use of tasers, often against innocent victims is the focus here. (News 7 has its own web-style: quoting interviewees and many photos. We try to follow this formatting and apologize for the layout.)]]

News7, Belize:

GSU: Bigger Guns, More Force, But Is It More Effective?

And stories like that are what turn many in war-zone communities against police. While we can’t vouch for Welton Usher, in the eyes of his community he’s not any kind of player in the gang world, or any dabbler in criminality, they say he’s just an innocent bystander who police have chosen to harass.

And so today, when we went in the area, we heard all kinds of stories about how the GSU kicked open his gate, and charged in like they were looking for bin Laden.

Indeed, that’s the reputation this unit has earned in many of the city’s hot areas. Tonight, we’ll look at the contrast between how we saw the unit operate and how the public says they operate, and beyond that examine the effectiveness of their hard charging techniques:…

Jules Vasquez Reporting
We’ve gone on patrol with the GSU, and indeed all their actions were professional and restrained – even exemplary, but our cameras were there – and the tales from the street when our cameras weren’t give a very different account:

Concerned Citizen
“All of them had on masks; they don’t need any masks. Why are they putting on masks for? It’s just because they want to chance the boys them and want nobody to see their faces. If you continue to harass and harass a man, and that man is doing nothing, you know what will happen? It will just irritate those young boys’ minds.”

Resident accosted by GSU
“He ran outside and got a taser gun out of his vehicle, came back in and started to shock me up. He shocked me on the right side of my back and two times on my left arm.”

“Sambula got one of the Taser and shocked me here. When he shocked me and i felt what it felt like I drew back and he pushed it on me again. It was more than one of them and they crowded me and shocked me all over.”

“When Sambula grabbed her and started to hold her by the neck. He shocked her and slammed her ground; she told them, ‘You will not take me anywhere; I’m not going anywhere.’ It was then that she started to resist, after they had already started to Taser her. When Sambula shocked my cousin, she fell to ground like she was knocked out.”

Thelma Castillo, Zane’s Mother
“Before I could even talk to him some more, he started to tase Zane, and when I tried to hold his hand to tell him not to tase my son or to explain to me what is happening, he just tased me on my hand. So up to now my hand still feels kind of numb. He continuously just started to act badly; he cranked up his gun; he tased up who he could tase up. He tased up Zane until he fell to the floor; he handcuffed Zane and still continued to tase him.”

And while those visceral complaints and images have gained traction in the public discourse – and how could they not, the GSU is undeterred – at their headquarters we found that all those searches are reduced to data which informs and guides the unit’s forward planning:

Jules Vasquez
“So information is a big part of this?”

ASP Mark Vidal, Officer Commanding GSU
“It has to be otherwise we would just be an unit out there without any kinds of guidance. We are reactive as opposed to being proactive.”

And precise operations target high crime areas

Mark Vidal
“This is not a patrol unit; this is a suppression unit, right. So we look at areas that are affected by. We look, based on the analysis that is done by the team, at the areas that we need to focus. What is the trend showing?”

And if we look at the trend from the gang suppression unit – the George Street Gang is the most frequently targeted for searches – more than a quarter of the searches:

Mark Vidal
“29 percent of the operations, since inception of the operation is concentrated on GSG.”

Each search is documented and the aggregate is collated in charts such as these -but you cannot statisticate chaos – and whatever the gang unit’s numbers say – the streets are more dangerous than they’ve ever been and the gangs are more intimidating.

But the unit is determined to dictate the terms of engagement, if necessary meeting force with force:

Mark Vidal
“We must understand, first, that we are dealing with violent criminals; we are not dealing with your day-to-day common thief etc. We are dealing with people who are planning crimes or planning murders; they are going out there and executing some of these heinous crimes which is not just limited to murder. It’s robberies and all the major crime in Belize City. Most of the murders in Belize City are attributed to the gangs, and these personas have no regard for their own lives, much less your or mine. So there has to be a level of training that meets that kind of situation.”

And that training brings us back to the MT-9, the GSU’s weapon of choice – which is basically a machine gun version of a 9 millimeter pistol, is a fine piece of work.

I took a turn in that weapon’s training, and didn’t do badly – and while the feel of the machine gun is powerful – I wondered what kind of message does all this weaponry send.

Jules Vasquez
“You all are using the MT-9, the weapon of choice on the streets. We always hear 15 expended shells, 9mm pistols. Well you all, being in the same theatre of conflict with the gangs, have escalated on them. You all have a 9mm, which is not a pistol, but it is a machine gun, So how would you respond to a criticizm that you all are trying to show them that “unnu think unnu bad, I badda dan you.”

Mark Vidal
The MT-9 rifle is for close combat areas so that it will not create the kind of damage like if you use a M-16 for that matter. But certainly the rifle that we use and the firearms that we use, are used by people that are professional — that are responsible. We have not had a single incident that we have resorted to the use of that rifle so far.”

Jules Vasquez
“You all have it as a sort of talisman, a symbol of your strength, your efficiency, your apartness; because nobody else in the department has this, or do you have it because it is purposeful to have such a weapon.”

Mark Vidal
“It is purposeful; we know that these gangs have a cadre of weapons that are not limited to 38 and 9mm’s. We know that they have high powered rifles, which are much more powerful than we have.”

Jules Vasquez
“You will appreciate that these are urban environments. There are always children around; there are always innocent people around in the midst. In fact you know that often-times organized criminals use the homes and properties of innocent person to conceal their illicit items — whether it be weapons or drugs. You accept that there is a civilian risk?”

Mark Vidal
“Right and that is the reason why we have continuous training.”

Having participated for a day in that training, they are highly motivated and to bond, build teamwork and toughness they subjected themselves to full exposure to tear gas in a closed room, breathed it in for as long as they could, and in short time, the suffocating smoke sent everyone running for the exit …

I was in intense pain, unbearable burning in my eyes and throat – while they were cheerleading… But if the murder rate continues to go up – particularly gang related murders – they might not have much to cheer about.

Jules Vasquez
“Isn’t there a legitimate concern that if we see, again, 130 plus murders, they’ll say, ‘You know that Gang Suppression Unit was really a waste of time. It was misconceived,” and send Mr. Vidal back to intelligence, reassign those officers to ADU or somewhere that it’s just a feeling — a hope that this will work. And if it does not work, at the end of the year, will it mean that the Gang Suppression Unit, for all its great sound and fury has failed?

Mark Vidal
“Well I don’t think so. The Gang Suppression Unit is just one component in all the other components put together.”

But it is the most well funded, most visible component, which begs the question: is government putting the hammer before the ham?

Jules Vasquez
“Now specifically, in the Gayle Report, it advocate against the use of paramilitary-type operations, saying that it only becomes a contest of force. Because you become like a rival gang for the — actually GSU is not far from the GSG.”

Mark Vidal
“Right, only in acronym. Well I think that the meet-and-greet aspect has been on for as long as the gangs have been formed and functional. That has not worked; rather we have seen over the years an increase in crime, particularly murder. There is not that community policing component has not given the desired results.”

Of course, critics would say it’s never been given the desired resources…but this effort has, and so the gang suppression unit, well funded, well outfitted, well-led, is an experiment in policing and social alchemy – one more attempt to try and deal with the hydra headed monster called crime – it’s only in its 6th month of operation, too early to say if it is working…

And as we end our series, a clarification. Most of the material for that story was collected a few weeks ago, before last weekend’s frightening upsurge in violence. So when – in last night’s interview – you saw ASP Vidal referring to idle threats form gangs that had been harassed, he said that before those threats were made terribly real.

Now, the terms of the gang war has changed dramatically, and – we gather – police – all units – are scrambling to try and contain the violence before it spirals further…..

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