BELIZE CITY, Belize—A discarded bicycle lay on a dimly lit side street near a pool of blood, surrounded by around a dozen bullet shells in Belize’s biggest city.
Local cops surveyed the scene, moving the body of 17-year-old Gerald Tillett Jr. into the back of a pickup truck as onlookers gawked at the most recent victim of a long-simmering Bloods and Crips gang war that started in the U.S.
In Belize City, Tillett Jr. was gangster royalty. Both his father and uncle, also murdered in 2016 and 2012 respectively, were leaders of an infamous Blood clique known as the George Street Gang, named for the street that traverses the rough-and-tumble Southside neighborhood where the gang is based.
Only a few blocks from where he grew up, Tillett Jr. was riding his bike on May 7 in hostile territory reportedly run by a rival Blood set known as the Taylor's Alley Gang when he was ambushed and shot to death.
Such gang violence has become all too common in Belize City, explained Police Senior Superintendent Gualberto Garcia, since “the gangs started way back in the 1980s, when we started having the influx of deportees [from the U.S.], and they started the Crips and the Bloods.”
“As years progressed, these two gangs splintered,” said Garcia. “So, we have a very big number now, maybe 20 to 25 different gangs, scattered throughout the city, small factions with their own little affiliation to the Crips and the Bloods.”
Now, Bloods fight Bloods and Crips fight Crips, with loyalty mostly boiling down to the block you were raised on, and longstanding beefs being handed down from generation to generation.
The murder of George Street Gang member Tillett Jr. was especially worrisome.
“We are already expecting retaliation from his side,” Garcia told VICE World News as he rode through the Southside in a police van.
It didn't take long.
Roughly 48 hours after Tillett Jr.'s murder, radio chatter alerted Garcia to shots fired on the corner of Church and George streets—only a few blocks from where the teenager was murdered. Police arrived to a gruesome scene.
Blood-covered domino pieces lay strewn throughout a one-room hovel; one man dead, two others wounded, one of whom would die later at the hospital. Gunmen riding a motorbike had arrived at the small dwelling, well known locally as a place for dominoes betting games, and opened fire indiscriminately. As police quarantined the scene, family members of one of the men came to identify the body. They couldn't believe that 51-year-old Raymond Garcia, a successful bank manager and loving father, could be a victim of a gang war.
Garcia, no relation to the superintendent, had been the valedictorian of his class. He didn't have any gang affiliation. Days later his mother, Natividad Rita Garcia, told VICE World News that he had one vice: Dominoes.
“He said, I love my dominos and that is a part of my life,” said the elder Garcia, claiming she'd tried to get him to stop visiting the Southside domino spot off George Street. “He has been playing in that area for quite some time, for many years before the guns ever started.”
But after his death, she also heard the rumors of how his love of dominoes led to his death.
“Those men had been playing dominoes with him for a very long time, but according to what I heard, one of the men, his children, are in the gangs,” she said.
The rumor was that a man who frequented the domino games had several sons connected to a rival clique of the George Street Gang, but after the death of Tillett Jr., he hadn't come around, knowing that he and his sons could be targets. When they couldn't find the sons, they shot up the domino den even though the father wasn't there.
As Garcia’s yellow casket was lowered into a plot in a cemetery on the outskirts of Belize City a few days later, a family member placed a cross decorated with dominoes on top.
“I couldn't believe that this would ever have happened to my family. I couldn't believe that this would happen to my son,” she said. “Not in the wildest of my dreams.”
Belize is perhaps best known as a small picturesque tourism destination roughly the size of the U.S. state of New Hampshire, famed for its beautiful islands and coral reefs along the Caribbean coast, and its dense jungles and Mayan ruins inland. That contrast has also come to represent its racial diaspora, with more of an Afro-descendant Black population along the coast and an indigenous Mayan and Mestizo culture inland.
It stands out from other nations in mainland Central America as the only where English is the first language. Its large Black population is a lasting legacy of British colonization and the remnant of the slave trade that saw kidnapped Africans forced to work for the European settlers in the logwood industry. Belize only became fully independent from the United Kingdom in 1981 and had long been named British Honduras before changing its name in the 70s.
In 1961, a hurricane decimated the country leading to a large exodus of its inhabitants migrating to the United States, and by the end of the millennium, around 30 percent of Belizeans lived in the U.S. A large swath of them settled in California, and like many migrants who came from impoverished regions, a vulnerable subsection of that population became involved in crime.
While immigrants from other Spanish-speaking countries in the region became involved in Hispanic street gangs like the Latin Kings or the Mexican Mafia, the English-speaking Afro-descendant Belizeans who chose to enter the gang life mostly joined predominately Black gangs that sprung up in the late 1960s and ’70s, like the Bloods and the Crips.
Soon after, the Bloods and Crips started appearing in Belize.
Behind the walls of the country’s central prison, Leslie Pipersburgh recalled the early days of the gangs in Belize.
Known on the streets as Pipe, the former Crip admitted he “was an infamous person” and had witnessed the rise of the gangs firsthand before going down for a double murder connected to a botched robbery in 2002.
“The deportees, from that it started, and it never stopped. Just keep at retaliation, retaliation, retaliation. One after the other,” said Pipe. “So then other guys get deported, and that just strengthens it more and men adapted like cells, more and more. Then they start to learn about extortion, robberies, selling drugs. It just got out of hand from there.”
Researchers have traced a small presence of Bloods and Crips in Belize to the deportation of members in the early ’80s. But Pipe and numerous people interviewed by VICE World News recalled a boom in gang growth after the release of the 1988 film Colors—a cop drama directed by Dennis Hopper that follows two white police officers as they investigate the Bloods and Crips, along with a fictional multiracial gang, in South Central Los Angeles.
At the time, Colors made waves in the U.S., being released before gangster rap albums like N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton and preceding other L.A. street films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. The film also gained notoriety for using real gang members as extras in the film, and became especially controversial after a Crip murdered a Blood waiting in line to see the movie in Stockton, California.
In the soundtrack’s eponymous theme song, a bass-heavy Bloods and Crips anthem, Ice-T ominously raps:
“Red or Blue, Cuz or Blood, it just don't matter.
Sucker die for your life when my shotgun scatters.
The gangs of L.A. will never die,
In Belize, that turn of phrase was prescient.
Although there may have been a few Bloods and Crips before, Pipe called the film the “branch that spread like wildfire.”
“Growing up as kids, none of them claimed red nor blue. But when the movie came out, now everyone started to claim a color.”
Around that time, the U.S. deported a Blood named Heathcliff Reyes and a Crip named Fredrick Lynch, aka Diggy Dap, who didn't get along.
“These two guys were the leaders,” said Pipe. “They were cool to their own kind, but to their enemy, they got no love for their enemy.”
Reyes founded a Blood clique near George Street, while Diggy Dap headed a Crips set on the other side of town near Pinks Alley, and “that's how the war started.”
“That is where all the O.G's (Original Gangsters) came from that really know about gangs,” said Pipe. “Then another block started to copy them and claim the color red, and some claim the color blue, and it branched out. Then the war really started.”
Belize City, and especially its ramshackle Southside neighborhood, is home to much of the country's impoverished parts of the Afro-descendant population. It’s also where the majority of its gangs fight over turf. Although Belize only has a population of roughly 400,000 and Belize City is home to some 60,000 of those, its murder rate per capita often ranks as one of the highest in the world with the majority of killings happening in the Southside.
Pipe believed the rising murder rate was tied to a criminal code that has faded as more and more of the older generation were murdered, disappeared, or ended up in prison. Heathcliff Reyes would eventually be gunned down by the police in the 2000s, and Diggy Dap is rumored to have fled the country over a decade ago after witnessing the murder of one of his close associates, another Crip leader named George “Junie Balls” McKenzie, in 2007.
“Back then in the 90s these guys didn't hurt innocent people. They only hurt who they had a problem with,” said Pipe. “Nowadays, the guys hurt anybody. They hurt brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. Anyone who they could catch, they hurt. Like this crew that is there right now, has no sense, no discipline. They’re ruthless.”
Pipe spoke with VICE World News just days after the May 7 murder of Gerald Tillett Jr. and the prison walls were buzzing with the recent arrival of 18-year-old Kalief Caceres, who police alleged had been the trigger man in the slaying. It was well known that the two teenagers had beef. They'd both been held together in the youth ward of the prison in March 2020 and grew up blocks from each other.
Clinton Harris, 33, a former Blood in prison for a 2012 murder, knew Tillett Jr. and Caceres well; he'd worked as a youth mentor in the prison's under 18 facility when the two were behind bars the year prior.
“All they did was fight and quarrel,” said Harris.
In the 2000s, the Tillett family became prominent players in the George Street Gang, led by Sheldon “Pinky” Tillett, and his brother, Gerald “Shiny” Tillett Sr. The George Street Gang had become bitter enemies with a rival Blood clique a few blocks away called the Taylor’s Alley Gang. That feud hit overdrive in 2012 when the leader of the Taylor’s Alley Gang, Arthur Young, allegedly gunned down Pinky Tillett at a gas station in a murder that went viral in Belize and is still visible on Youtube. Pinky Tillett’s death led to a series of retaliatory killings and a week later Arthur Young died at the hands of police. Tillett’s murder still loomed large over the Southside.
Harris explained that while Caceres wasn’t a member of Arthur Young’s family, the elder Blood had been close with Caceres and brought him into the gang from an early age, so in a way, while not connected by blood, they were Bloods.
“It was a shadow over those guys,” recalled Harris about Tillett Jr. and Caceres. “They believed that they had to continue that conflict.”
After the death of Pinky Tillett, his brother, Gerald “Shiny” Tillett Sr. led the gang for several years before being gunned down himself in 2016. Tillett Jr. was only 12 years old at the time of his father’s murder, but by then, he thought that the George Street Gang was his duty in life, explained Harris.
Tillett Jr. “had no intention” of trying to leave the gang because “he believed that was his place because of his dad.”
In the days and weeks after Tillett Jr’s murder, several alleged gang affiliates were murdered around the Southside, along with numerous other non-fatal shootings. But the still-unsolved murders of Raymond Garcia and Wayne Peteau in the domino den shocked the city as citizens became more concerned that the tentacles of gang violence could reach anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Belize saw a change of the guard in November 2020 when Johnny Briceño became Prime Minister and his People's United Party (PUP) won a majority government, unseating the United Democratic Party (UDP) which, had held power for the previous 12 years.
Briceño entered office facing a long laundry list of challenges, the most immediate being an economy that relies heavily on tourism for roughly 40 percent of its GDP and was decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. His government quickly instituted pay cuts across the government, authorities, and civil society, leading to large protests especially by the teachers union.
Gang violence had fallen into the background of the national discussion as a strict pandemic curfew led to a decrease in violence, but the recent uptick in violent incidents immediately vaulted the country's gang problem back into the forefront half a year after the PUP took office. May would end with 21 murders in Belize, tying with April 2021 and March 2018 as the highest monthly death tolls since 2009.
“The issue of gang violence is not something that just happened. It is something that has been coming up over the years. And it's unfortunate that the previous government did not have a well thought out plan on how to deal with it,” Prime Minister Johnny Briceño told VICE World News less than a week after the spate of killings. “And we're seeing the results, the crime is getting more outrageous, more brazen, more in your face.”
He said the killing of “innocent people” as retaliation in gang violence was “something that has rarely happened in Belize. And we are all outraged about it.”
During the 12 year reign of the UDP, the former prime minister Dean Barrow instituted a two fold policy to stem gang violence. The UDP infamously negotiated several truces between the gangs, even going so far as to create a work program that paid stipends to those who agreed to stop warring in 2011. While it did lead to a drop in homicides, the program eventually ran out of money the following year and gang violence spiked again.
Barrow also took a firm hand policy against the gangs, most notoriously with the creation of a special police force in 2010 known as the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU). Over the years, a handful of prominent gangsters died at the hands of the cops, although firm accusations of extrajudicial murders by the GSU were never proven.
Several incidents gave the unit a murky reputation.
Arthur Young, the Taylor's Alley Gang boss who died in police custody in 2012, gave numerous interviews over the years claiming that the police wanted to kill him and he even threatened GSU family members on the local news a month before his death. The following year, the corpses of four high-ranking members of the George Street Gang were discovered with their throats slit in an apartment in the Southside. Many have long suspected the GSU committed the killings.
Barrow met with family members of the slain George Street Gang members in the weeks following but claimed there were no truce negotiations. However, by 2014, the police had publicly negotiated another ceasefire. It quickly failed a few months later when old disputes led to seven murders in a 10 day period.
Briceño called the negotiations the “biggest mistake” of the UDP's time in power because “it gave the gangs legitimacy.”
Since taking office, Briceño maintains that he won’t negotiate with the gangs and promptly followed through on a campaign process to disband the GSU. Although the division did disappear, a new unit quickly took its place called the GI3, which stands for the Gang Intelligence, Investigation and Interdiction Unit. The PUP government claims the new unit will focus more on intelligence gathering rather than hard-handed tactics, but many critics believe it’s more of the same, old strategy.
Briceño said that his government is trying to “change the mindset of the police” and to get the “respect and support from the community, and you don't get that by beating people.”
Over two evenings of ride alongs with the Belize City Quick Response Team, a tactical unit that patrols the city, the police repeatedly pulled over cars and stopped young men on bikes, patting them down looking for drugs and guns, and even broke up a child's birthday party as the family screamed profanities at the officers. The prime minister believed that the strong presence in the Southside was necessary as a way to deter retaliation after Tillett Jr.'s death triggered four murders in five days.
After the flare-up in violence the now opposition UDP quickly put out a statement urging the PUP government to institute a state of emergency in the Southside, which would allow for massive sweeps of known gang members that will take them off the streets for several months without charges. Last year, during his final year in power Dean Barrow instituted two different states of emergencies in the Southside in an attempt to curb the rise in gang violence. Known gang members were arbitrarily detained and held at the Belize Central Prison for several months which, along with coronavirus curfews, led to a significant drop in homicides once again. But the results were not long-lasting. If anything, it led to the recent spate of killings.
Two people picked up in one of those sweeps were Gerald Tillett Jr., and Kalief Caceres, who were housed together in the youth ward for a month where their disagreements intensified.
The PUP remains hesitant about taking such drastic measures, which they see as ineffective and an overreach of power.
“We have to be very careful on how we infringe on the rights of our citizens, and it’s not something that we just do flippantly, we have to think very carefully before we go down that road,” said Briceño. “We just have to continue to monitor those areas, those hotspots, and it can be done by a police presence. And I think we’d rather do that before we start calling a state of emergency in certain areas of the city.”
Instead, Briceño’s government hoped to institute a number of programs to address gang violence, like creating a cadet corps for youths to instill exercise and discipline, provide free education, apprenticeships and job training. These new initiatives have been delayed by “financial constraints” related to coronavirus.
“We believe that these young kids would now have something to do as opposed to being out in the streets and have nothing to do, and the older guys prey on them, and tell them ‘Hey you want to make a quick buck? Go on and commit a crime’,” said Briceño. “But the only way we can deter that is by getting the economy going again, growing the economy, creating jobs.”
Another avenue that the government is seriously considering is legalizing marijuana, which is a primary source of income for many of the gangs.
“It's something whose time has come. But we just have to be very careful as to how we’re going to do it," he said. “Ensuring that we have the necessary laws in place as to where we are able to grow, how are you going to cultivate it, and of course, to ensure that the government gets its fair share of taxes, and then how it's going to be sold.”
On a dusty side street in a corner of the Southside, a Crip set hangs around, drinking beer, smoking weed, and keeping an eye out for intruders.
“This is a dead end, this is we hole, this is we block, nobody who ain't from around here come through here,” explained one member who heads the marijuana distribution for the clique.
“We supply all this,” waving his hands around to show that he sells to the whole neighborhood. The dealer talked about how much of the violence is related to “the weed, the beef, and the colors.”
But he didn't think legalization would calm things, “once it went legal, boy, there'll be more war, be a lot of war.”
He suggested that everyone would have weed, but also people would move into other crimes. His arguments didn't make much sense, besides explaining that the weed is “a part of everything because without the weed I think, we can't eat.”
“That's how I live, I don't gotta job. This is what I do for a living. I got my people and I try to take care of them,” said the dealer. “Me, I'm the breadwinner for my peoples.”
These gangsters aren't rich, they don't move kilos of cocaine or run large-scale extortion rackets. It's mostly nickel and dime street-level marijuana dealing that puts food on their plates. At one point, they even start asking for money for booze.
The dealer recalled the job program that Dean Barrow instituted in 2013 as one of the few times when the violence really dipped because they had opportunities, but when that ended, the killings continued.
Another member of the Crip set who works as an enforcer felt he had no other option than to join the gang because of where he was from.
“I was born around blue. If I was born around red, I'd be red,” said the clique's enforcer.
Killing became a part of life early; he had to murder someone to join the Crips and to prove “you're strong enough.” Now, he spends most days on his block, helping move weed, and protecting his “circle.”
“I sell weed, you know. We just drink, smoke, enjoy ourselves, you know and anyone wanna fuck with us, we got the tools, we got the heat, we gonna do what we gotta do,” said the enforcer. “So if you violate me, I ‘bout to kill you like point-blank right. I could meet you at the shop, home, in your yard, anywhere.”
As he speaks, a car comes peeling into the alley. A third man who claims that he's one of the bosses of the clique gets out in a huff, speaking in nearly inaudible profanities in a mix of Belizean Creole and English, shouting “baow”.
“The guys said ‘baow’, that's what we into, huh?” said the enforcer. “If you fuck with us you just gonna hear ‘baow’, it's easy.”
The enforcer careened his head to overhear the conversation breaking out among the other Crips in the yard.
“Sounds like somebody wants to bust on us right now. That's what he's saying,” said the enforcer. He gets up, ends the interview, finds a gun stashed nearby, and disappears.
The boss explained that he'd been in his car when a rival crew spotted him and unleashed a hail of bullets. He'd been able to escape unharmed, this time.
He'd been shot three times before: “My leg, my back and then my arm.” But still he didn't think about imminent death often because “too much thinking is bad for the brain.”
In Belize City, the violence always comes and goes, said the boss, “like fruits right, got the mango season. Sometimes it’s the killing season. It's like a disease, like AIDS, there’s no cure.”
Ben Solomon, Maeva Bambuck, Zach Caldwell, and Jose A. Sanchez contributed to this report.