Many things stood out when reading the Gizmodo piece on John McAfee, the eccentric pioneer of anti-virus software who is now wanted for questioning about the murder of a fellow American expatriate in Belize: allegations of paranoia, his obsession with danger sports, his choice in young partners. (Read the whole piece here – it came out just before the murder was discovered)
But, as a correspondent based in Mexico City who has covered police reform across the Americas, one part of the story made me do a literal double-take:
“In the wake of his arrest, McAfee was nervous enough about the police investigation that he sent two employees to solicit an officer for inside information. Both were arrested for attempted bribery. McAfee then sent another Belizean on the same mission. He, too, was arrested.”
Mr. McAfee, who apparently kept company with wanted criminals in Belize, at least according to Gizmodo, and was under investigation, had dispatched associates to the police station to try the get an inside scoop. All three of those attempts were thwarted.
The success of bribery, anywhere in the world, depends on the situation, and particularly who is on the receiving end. But it struck me as particularly salient that in Central America, a place where paying bribes is a way of life, three individuals would be arrested for it.
Is Belize different? One woman who answered the phone at a development NGO in Belize City explained (she declined to talk on the record because of the nature of the case) Belizeans stand out from their neighbors in their trust of the police.
“We do have our share of corruption in the police department, but they come out in the news as being investigated,” she says. The police are not, in other words, avoided as they are in other parts of the Americas, such as Mexico.
McAfee might disagree. His next-door neighbor, Gregory Faull, was found shot dead at his own beachfront home in Belize over the weekend. McAfee is now on the lam, contacting Wired magazine this week to proclaim his innocence but saying he fears for his life if he is brought in for questioning.
“Under no circumstances am I going to willingly talk to the police in this country," Wired reported him as saying. "You can say I'm paranoid about it but they will kill me, there is no question."
But a 2010 AmericasBarometer poll does not seem to reflect evidence to support that sentiment. In fact, Belizeans have one of the highest levels of trust in their police. Only Chile and Haiti have more faith in their police than Belize. For comparison, Guatemala ranks the worst, with 65 percent of those surveyed saying they believe their cops are often involved in crime. In Mexico the number is 54 percent; in El Salvador, 48 percent; and Honduras, 47 percent.
Another analyst based in Washington who has studied the police in Belize, and who also did not want to go on the record for this story, said the levels of police corruption in Belize, a former British colony, come nowhere close to levels in neighboring countries, such as Honduras.
“The standards of policing and rule of law and application of justice are similar to what you would find in a British commonwealth,” he explains.
Belize does not just stand apart when it comes to their cops. It’s also been the outlier in Central America both culturally and linguistically. It is a parliamentary democracy. English is the official language. It is often overlooked when trends about Central America are analyzed. “Central America Lite” is how one CNN travel piece put it.
But in some unfortunate ways it does share similarities with the rest of the isthmus. A tiny country bordered by Mexico and Guatemala, Belize sits at a crossroads of the illegal drug trade and has dealt with spiraling homicide statistics. In a 2011 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) global homicide report, Honduras and El Salvador had the highest murder rates in Central America. But Belize came in third, slightly above Guatemala. It’s much higher than the rates in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and even Mexico.
Belize recorded 125 homicides in 2011, a decrease of five percent from 2010. Prior to 2011, homicide rates in Belize rose at least five percent every year since 2000, with the exception of 2009 when homicide rates again decreased slightly. With a population of only 312,698 according to the 2010 country census, Belize’s per capita homicide rate of 39 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 ranks it as the sixth highest in the world. While the country’s per capita homicide rate is still lower than that of other Central American countries, such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, its year-on-year increase is of concern.
And while Belizeans may have more faith that their cops are clean, they seem to have little faith when it comes to their efficacy. “I think the biggest concern for Belizeans is not necessarily corruption as it is lack of convictions,” said the woman in Belize City when I asked about perceptions of the police.
With a tiny population, and a small police force, the country has little to spend on security, allotting just 2.8 percent of gross domestic product to security measures, according to this report.
That means it may have few resources to deal with the spiraling McAfee drama. Already, police may have missed their best shot of capturing fugitive McAfee. He told Wired magazine that when police came to his mansion to bring him in for questioning but couldn't find him, he was actually right there –buried under sand on his property with a cardobard box over his head.