Random Notes on Belize
By Joe Bageant
Hopkins Village, Belize
In the Caribbean, the gears of the machinery of justice somehow never quite seem to engage, probably because they were toothless to begin with, but mostly because nobody knows they are supposed to. Crime and punishment are for the most part, completely unrelated elements here on the Garifuna coast of Belize. Whether something is a crime or not depends more or less upon whom it was committed, whether it is a "white fella," a tourist, a neighbor or a stranger. And punishment, well, that's something that happens by the unfettered caprice of sheer fate, an impenetrable mystery in which the police and judicial system somehow play a part, though no one seems quite sure just what part.
Take my buddy Griggs, who was awakened at midnight by the dark form of someone rifling through his bedroom. "Hold it motherfucker!" he yells, switching on the light to find a young man, a local well known in this small seaside village where everyone is well known to everyone else. The young man goes by the nickname of Skankin', after the stoned groove Caribbean dance style, or Skank for short. Skank jumps back out the window he came in through and Griggs, a pepper bearded man in his late forties, owner of a small group of rental cabanas and in good enough shape not to be fucked with, is mad as hell. "Get the police!" he yells to his wife, Rhoda.
But it's useless to go to our lone village cop at such an hour because, as he is quick to remind us while standing in his doorway in his undershorts, he is off-duty. So what you do if you want at least a vocal response from law enforcement is wait until morning and go to the district capital at Dangriga, about 15 miles away. I say vocal response because, for the most part, there is no such thing as active official response to anything here in our completely passive world. For instance, as I write this, a house is burning at the other end of town. No fire department, no heroic neighborhood fire fighting effort. Just a growing crowd of onlookers as word passes through the coconut telegraph and clusters of spectators, some riding two to a bicycle, slowly drift toward the fire, picking up more spectators as they go. The house burns. Then everyone goes home.
Anyway, next day, after a long frustrating effort with the cops in Dangriga, a harangue of the type only Third World residents can grasp, Griggs manages to bully and wheedle the Dangriga police into coming down and taking fingerprints, a new police enterprise here. What the hell, a little ride over to the beach in the police truck would be nice. Maybe get a little fishing in. Later, after a few implied threats by Griggs' bordering on horsewhipping, the Dangriga police match them up to Skankin, a miracle in itself since it takes perhaps a half hour of attentive effort to accomplish. And finally, after all but death threats on Griggs' part, the police pick up our young man and take him to the police hangout in 'Griga for questioning. The police chief calls Griggs. "OK, we got Skankin. What you wan we do wid him?"
Griggs, a longtime American expatriate, is still under the misimpression that the police should know what to do with a perp, once he is in the hands of law enforcement.
"What the fuck? Ask him what he was doing tiefing (or thieving -- everybody succumbs to the local dialect after a while) in my bedroom, goddammit!"
Police chief hangs up, then calls back a few minutes later: "He say he tink it was de cabana rental office."
Griggs: "Office? My ass! Godammit, the lights were out, it was midnight! The fucking room had a bed in it for christsake."
Police chief hangs up. A few minutes pass, then he rings back. "He say he not know de office wuz closed."
Griggs, enraged red scalp showing through his thinning buzz cut: "OK then, ask him why the hell he was coming in through the fucking window instead of the door!"
Police chief: "Hmmmmmmm…. Mebbe we shood arres' him."
Griggs: "Maybe? Godammit! Maybe?"
But given that Skankin had not actually stolen anything, he was released, a failed burglary evidently not being a crime here. Shortly afterward though, Skankin was caught red handed and his ass was sent up to Hattieville Prison, one of the worst pissholes in this hemisphere, a relic of the British colonial period so overcrowded that butt fucking is unavoidable, whether standing up or lying down, awake or asleep. Nasty place, Hattieville. Last year in one of its occasional lunges toward efficiency, the government moved to eliminate overcrowding and staff workload. Simple. Execute the prisoners on Hattieville's Death Row. Free up some cots and cut down on the chow bill. Although it sent Amnesty International and a dozen other NGO's from the posher nations into apoplexy, Belizeans generally applauded this direct approach.
While theft here is on the increase, it's still a fairly new thing. Fifty years ago there was no theft in Hopkins because there was nothing to steal. Everybody owned pretty much the same thing, which is to say nothing. A few tools, some bowls, cups, fish nets, dugouts, all those fixtures of a world off the grid. Fishermen fished. Women cooked and swatted at kids. Farmers farmed small plots across the bay, rising at two AM to cultivate plantain, rice, arrowroot, cassava, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, citrus, and sailed to Belize City to sell produce for what little cash they needed. Back in the village pigs ran in the street and ate up any trash, most of which was natural such as fish bones and coconut husks. And while the pigs were at it, they ate up any human excrement they might run upon, meaning that which was not excreted into the sea, thereby constituting the village's sanitation service. And a fairly efficient one too, according to comparative sanitation studies of now and then. In then old days when you went to shit back in the palmetto scrub you took along a big club because the pigs regarded you as a human fudge dispenser. I've done it. Back in the early seventies. But the water was drinkable and health officials tell me that the pigs were even edible, though you'd never get a white man to test that assertion. What little the pigs did not clean up, the chickens scratched into oblivion or devoured. When I look back I wonder that I never saw any pig shit. I suppose the chickens, bugs and other wild things got that.
Today well water is undrinkable because the 1000 residents crap into modern toilets which drain into septic tanks in the sand called soakers, concrete boxes of filth that make the sandy yards of the villagers hotbeds of E. Coli, staph, and one shudders to contemplate what else. Two days ago I had a couple of tiny sand flea bites on the ankles that I scratched – right now they are infected, big as dimes and oozing. But my original point here was that there was little to steal, things were a little rough around the edges but you could leave your doors unlocked and your bikes in the yard all night, neither of which is advisable today. .
Getting back to Griggs and Skankin. Today Griggs was plugging down the Pampers and beer bottle littered mud strip that passes for a street in our village, and who should he see but Skankin, lounging around the schoolyard and sucking down beer with a bunch of rough looking characters.
Griggs: "Skankin, what the hell you doin here?"
Skankin: "Vacation, mon. We on vacation frum de prison."
Thanks to world pressure from the NGOs and human rights groups, every worthless criminal asshole from Hopkins, and we have them the same as the rest of the world, was vacationing in his hometown. "It's supposed to be a demonstration of rehabilitation efforts on the government's part," sighed Griggs. All I can think about is my unlocked cabana and the two guitars and computer therein. I headed home to lock up.
Walking toward the south end "bakkatown" where I live, I thought it might be a good idea to mention the Hattieville prisoners to one of the break-in victims of these felons, Big Lilly, who was sitting in a cheap plastic chair in front of her cabana drinking soursop juice and reading "Sports Psychic," which advises us regarding this week's lucky Boledo lottery numbers. Remember, 2008 is a leap year, so read Psalms 115, 72, 91 and 75.Keep your eyes on 25 and 89 and watch out for Ibanyi and Sugar Boys the playoffs.
"Big Lilly," I said, "the prisoners from Hattieville are released and drifting around Hopkins today, including the guy who got caught carrying your TV down the street when the power went out. The prison gave them a vacation."
"Das nice," says Big Lilly. "Everbodee need de vacation now an den."