BELMOPAN, Belize, Thursday September 16, 2010 – With the number of murders so far for 2010 just five away from surpassing last year’s total figure, authorities in Belize have announced a witness protection program to convince people with information on these crimes to come forward.
Minister of Police and Public Safety Doug Singh said the initiative was put in place because the country is now in a “desperate” situation. The program kicked in from Wednesday, September 17 and Singh explained that protection would be provided for those people who give information that leads to a conviction or those who may have to testify in court and feel their safety is at risk.
“There are strict guidelines that will be adhered to,” he said.
The announcement follows public outrage over six murders last weekend alone and calls this week by Opposition Leader John Briceno, who lamented the lack of a clear anti-crime strategy, for government to do something about the murder rate. Up to last weel, there were 93 murders recorded for 2010 – compared to 71 for the same period last year and 97 for all of 2009.
“I am aware that there are members of the public who may be witnesses to some of these crimes who are intimidated, who feel threatened especially in light of rumors of what may have happened to some witnesses in the past,” Singh said. "I understand that people have gotten to a position where snitching is a bad thing to do, sometimes for their personal safety, sometimes for the safety for other members of the family. But if this becomes the status quo, then we are not going to go anywhere."
He said he had spoken with the Guatemalan Ambassador about two months ago about the possibility of engaging in a cross border agreement in which each country could protect witnesses in the other. However, he said Belize could no longer wait for that to come through.
“He has promised to look into the matter but these things don’t happen overnight and the situation in Belize now is desperate. We have decided to put in place a witness protection program,” Singh announced.
The National Security Minister said that hand in hand with the witness protection program would be a purging of the police force.
"We are moving strongly at identifying some of the officers within the department for removal within the next 30 days. I am not going to say who those people are, but we are looking at that,” he said. “It may not be a huge amount, we may not be able to convict these individuals but, just in the effort of trying to move forward, individuals will be removed from the department."
The police force will also be pushing to get illegal guns – the weapons of choice in more than half the murders committed over the last eight years – off the streets.