L.A.'s Third World Export: Gangs : Belize: From California to Central America, chronic unemployment cuts a deep wound in young manhood.
A Mayan ruin called Ux Benka in Belize has an obscenity scrawled on its 1,500-year-old face, signed “Bloods.”
I had escaped Los Angeles to visit these ancient sites, but it seems you can’t get away from L.A. and the issues of gangs, crime and immigration, no matter where you are.
Belize is the least-populated place in Central America. With about 225,000 residents in an area twice the size of Los Angeles County, it sits peacefully on the Caribbean, bordered by Mexico and Guatemala.
The elders at Ux Benka, which means “big city,” are shocked by the graffiti. But there is a deeper indication of L.A.'s troubling impact. The big connection is that 40,000 Belizeans are in Los Angeles--nearly 20% of Belize’s total population.
They work mostly at sub-minimum wages. Many are illegal; others came here illegally and received amnesty. They send back $20 million yearly to their families in Belize, 15% of the country’s gross domestic product.
Half of the people in Belize are under age 16; most of the rest are over 50. Those in their productive working years have left their children and their country in search of jobs in the States.
While Belize exports people to Los Angeles, it imports Bloods and Crips. Some Belizeans become gang members in Los Angeles, then return home in their new colors. They become a new “family” option for many street youth whose parents have gone to Southern California. Some act as couriers for cocaine flown from Colombia to Los Angeles. Crack cocaine addiction is prevalent for the first time. Guns are shipped from Los Angeles to the streets of Belize City. Shootouts and funerals follow, unprecedented in Belize history. Television, which came to Belize only 12 years ago, amplifies the violent beat.
Belize is too beautiful for anyone to leave gladly. It is not like Haiti in the 1980s, where thousands fled persecution and violence. With relaxed people, a 90% literacy rate, awesome Mayan relics, spectacular cayes, forests and wildlife, it is a traveler’s gem but a hard place in which to eke out a family wage. For the jobs that do exist, the average wage is 60 U.S. cents an hour--less for women.
Belize also has its own Proposition 187-style crisis. More than 30,000 Salvadorans escaped to Belize during the war in El Salvador, many of them entering the country illegally. Now they are virtual wage slaves in citrus fields where black Belizeans once worked in unionized jobs.
As a result, there are jitters among English-speaking Creoles that Belize will become Latino-dominated because of this alien influx.
It gets truly tangled. There are about 400,000 Salvadoran refugees in Los Angeles, more than 7% of El Salvador’s population. Many will return home when their war-extended residency permits expire this year. When they do, they will depress the Salvadoran economy, stimulate more migration to Belize and further encourage the Belizean exodus to Los Angeles.
This is not some uncontrollable anthropological phenomenon but a political and economic one. Several decades of economic development strategies have failed to lift the fortunes of a billion people who live like the children of Belize all around the globe.
Rather than adopting whatever alternative model creates the most jobs and stems the need to migrate, official aid economists stick with what some Belizeans call “international monetary fundamentalism.” The International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development insist on “structural adjustments” as a condition of foreign aid, which means devaluations, lower wages, cuts in government programs and steady conversion of old-growth forests into more citrus fields.
This aid dogma, which has promised a “capitalist takeoff” in the Third World ever since Walt W. Rostow wrote “The Stages of Economic Growth” in 1962, has fostered instead the anarchy of illegal immigration. In “The Heart of the Sky,” a 1993 book on the Maya by Peter Canby, planners in Mexico City talk of a need to “modernize” their economy by reducing agricultural workers from 30% to 10% of the labor force. Where will such displaced workers go, in the end?
“My guess is that they’re thinking Los Angeles,” Canby quotes a political scientist.
One wonders what Gov. Pete Wilson knows or would suggest we do next. Promoters of Proposition 187 and of tough anti-gang measures have been strangely silent on the massive unemployment crisis that is tearing at families, feeding the growth of gangs and ensuring the rise of immigration wars.
If creating jobs in Belize seems wildly internationalist, we could return to the task of rebuilding L.A. In cultures from California to Belize, chronic unemployment cuts a deep wound in the manhood of the young. Until we change that, more Mayan ruins will be graffiti sites for the gang madness of a global lost generation.