Youth Advocacy Through Arts helping to heal fractured communities in Belize

Helping to bring a sense of hope to children who live in difficult neighbourhoods in Belize

Brent Toombs
28 September 2019
Mayflower Street, AKA “Ghost Town”, Belize City.
UNICEF/2019/Brent Toombs
Mayflower Street, AKA “Ghost Town”, Belize City.

March 25, 2018 was no ordinary Sunday in the Mayflower Street community of Belize City. The mood on this day was extremely tense. The area, also known by it’s eponymous nickname of “Ghost Town” for the gang that controls this neighbourhood, was about to one of bury one of their most notorious citizens. Kendis Flowers, 26-years old and a leader of the Ghost Town Crips had been shot and killed one week earlier. Police said members of a rival gang were responsible but some relatives of Flowers had doubt with the official version of events. Only nine months prior to his demise, Flowers had been charged with shooting at the police check-point on Mayflower Street. So despite the arrest of two suspects, many believed there may have been a much more sinister angle to the death of Kendis Flowers.      

14-year old Chrisvoy Domingo lives in Ghost Town. Flowers was her cousin. The events that would unfold on the Sunday afternoon of his funeral would be one of the most frightening experiences of Chrisvoy’s young life.

When the church service for Flowers’ funeral ended a large parade of mourners began walking towards the cemetery. Following the horse drawn carriage that carried the gang bosses’ coffin, many in the crowd were dressed in white and blue. White to symbolize peace, but blue to show their allegiance to the Ghost Town Crips.

When the procession stopped at the intersection with Mayflower Street to release a bouquet of balloons, gunfire rang out. The first salvo was somewhere in the distance, but then a second staccato blast came from the immediate vicinity. “Twenty-one-gun salute! Twenty-one-gun salute!” a woman in the crowd yelled jubilantly. Others in the procession cheered and raised their fists into the air to pay tribute to their fallen comrade.

The few police in the area that had been monitoring the convoy of mourners attempted to intervene. Quickly a bottleneck formed as the throng of people were halted while officers scanned the crowd looking for the shooter, or shooters. Fueled with grief, their anger exacerbated by alcohol, the situation rapidly turned volatile. One spark could start an inferno.

Fortunately, within a few minutes the police allowed the procession to proceed onward to the cemetery. Flowers was laid to rest and, as is the custom in Belize, relatives and friends returned to the family home for the post-funeral repast. Playing in the alley nearby was Chrisvoy Domingo.

Chrisvoy Domingo at home with her father, Denvoy.
UNICEF/2019/Brent Toombs
Chrisvoy Domingo at home with her father, Denvoy.

Shortly after people began gathering in the family yard at #5 Mayflower Street, heavily armed members of Belize’s paramilitary police unit - the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) - entered the property. Officers claimed a young man in the yard was responsible for discharging a firearm in public earlier that day. Immediately a crowd surrounded the GSU trying to prevent an arrest. A heated verbal exchange between civilians and law enforcement quickly escalated into a melee. Rocks and bottles began to rain down of the police.

Then the gunfire began.

No one was sure who shot first, whether it was a warning shot from police or a civilian shooting at the cops. But suddenly gunfire seemed to be coming from everywhere.

The ruckus spilled back out onto Mayflower Street and for several frightening minutes a full on shootout between police and residents took place. In the yard where the confrontation began it was complete chaos. People were scrambling for cover. One woman fainted. Children could be heard crying, screaming. Chrisvoy had wisely ran home as soon as the shooting started and took shelter in her house. But she was still much too close to the action to go back outside.

When the dust finally settled, two police officers had been injured. Miraculously there were no civilian casualties. Both sides blamed each other for starting the battle. Belize’s Ministry of National Security later issued a statement saying that actions of police was justified and that law enforcement officers exercised “great restraint”.

The wounds in the Mayflower community from that day have not yet healed. Certainly not for Chrisvoy. “It was a war”, she remembers. “They didn’t care if children were on the street, (the police) just started to shoot back at them.”

The events of that day have left Chrisvoy with conflicted feelings about who she can trust. “I like the police because they are there to protect us” she says, “but I am afraid of the police because of what happened”.

An armed police check-point near the scene of the March 2018 shootout on Mayflower Street..
UNICEF/2019/Brent Toombs
An armed police check-point near the scene of the March 2018 shootout on Mayflower Street..

Helping to bring a sense of hope to children who live in difficult neighbourhoods like Mayflower is Youth Advocacy Through Arts (YATA). Founded in 2013 by Joseph Stamp Romero, YATA uses artistic disciplines such as drama, singing, and dance to engage at-risk youth in Belize City.

“There is a lot of hurt and pain. There is a history of violence that has happened to these communities” explains Joseph. “There is a lot of talk about death, not hope. Some of the children speak about losing loved ones who have been caught up in gang culture in their community.”

YATA performing arts camp in the Mayflower area of Belize City.
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs

This past summer YATA hosted a series of performing arts camps.  At the camp in the Mayflower area, held very near to the scene of the shootout, Chrisvoy was one of the participants. “I wanted to get involved because in my neighbourhood a lot of crime happens”, she tells me. “If we have something to occupy our minds we won’t pay attention when something bad happens in our neighbourhood and that will keep us from getting involved.”

In addition to the camps, YATA also put on a series of fun days for communities that have become so dangerously divided due to gang violence that children no longer feel safe going outside to play in their own neighbourhoods. Dubbed Walls Down, the objective was to create a space for young people to have fun together. “We go into communities and we allow children to interact”, explains Joseph.  . At each Walls Down event youth enjoyed entertainment such as skits designed to teach life-skills and violence prevention, as well as games, trampolines and bouncy houses.

Young people from St. Martin de Porres neighbourhood in Belize City having fun at Walls Down.
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs

YATA’s work in these communities has been supported by UNICEF Belize through their Community-Based Partnerships for Violence Prevention programme, along with government agencies such as Restore Belize and the Department of Youth Services. Joseph, himself a product of a violent south-side Belize City neighbourhood, has personal experience with just how transformative programs like YATA can be for young people.

“It could be a word that you say, or encouragement that you give that really extends beyond the life of the program. That’s how I began to do what I do. One day a teacher said something nice and I began to see my possibilities as a human being. So what you say in one moment could change a child’s life forever.”

YATA founder, Joseph Stamp Romero
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs
YATA founder, Joseph Stamp Romero

One of those children will hopefully be Chrisvoy Domingo. She now imagines a life free from the gang violence that grips her fractured neighbourhood. When asked where she sees herself in the future, Chrisvoy says with confidence “I am going to be an actor”.

Chrisvoy Domingo acting in a skit at the YATA performing arts camp in Mayflower.
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs