By Michelle Sutherland
The female population at the Belize Central Prison has increased steadily over the past five consecutive years, with approximately 60% of the residents being incarcerated for Immigration-related offenses, suggestive that the sexual exploitation of Central American women continues unabated.
While our investigation of the issue has revealed that no one has ever been incarcerated for the offense of prostitution in the history of the Belize Central Prison, CEO Virgilio Murillo informed that undocumented women between the age of 18 to 30 would usually surface in the system for ''Immigration-related offense'' and would either be remanded to the facility or convicted for that offense.
look at the data that CEO Murillo provided showed that in the year 2016 a total of 45 women were remanded to the facility for immigration-related offenses. In 2017 and 2018, there was an average of 98. The highest amount of incarceration, which stood at 121, occurred in 2019, while 2020 saw a considerable dip to 52. While the figures compiled for the five-year period stood at a staggering 414 women, Murillo said that it had been anticipated that the numbers would have continued to climb if it wasn't for the pandemic and lockdown in Belize as well as Central America.
“Yes, I would certainly say that the pandemic had a part to play in it because not much movement was taking place, so it was highly impossible to catch anyone trying to cross the borders or being in the country illegally. I will say that the pandemic certainly had something to do with that,” explained Murillo.
But what is the driving force behind Central Americas' prostitution epidemic that is steering these women to the tiny Central American Country of Belize? Murillo explained, “It definitely has to do with prostitution because a lot of these women are taken out of these little bars and so forth, so that is pretty much what is causing their situation.”
Murillo added, “Things like immigration offenses we know it has a lot to do with the economics of these Central American countries. Like I said, among the women, it is the Honduran women, followed by the Guatemalan women, who top the charts, and who are known to work in these little bars and brothels and so forth. As when it comes to the males, it is the Salvadorian, because the Salvadorian males tend to be very good masons and Belize tend to use them to build houses in our country.”
According to Murillo, the porous borders of Belize as well as the lack of enforcement among officials do little to deter the women from entering the country. In some cases, they would go undetected for many years before they are picked up during police raids at the various bars and brothels across the country.
In fact, these undocumented women account for 60% of the prison population, according to Murillo. He revealed that between the years 2016 to 2020, a total of 693 women were either convicted or remanded to the Belize Central Prison for various offenses. Of that number, a total of 414 were incarcerated for immigration offenses, with 85 % of that figure being convicted.
Murillo said that in some cases he would see repeat offenders, who would usually be tagged in the system as “prohibited immigrants,” which simply means that they were charged prior for illegal entry before being dubbed a prohibited immigrant. In terms of the charges in the first instance, the women would be charged for “illegal entry,” which range from a $1,000 fine, or a six-month prison stint. In the second instance, the fine would double or a one-year incarceration. The penalties continue to double from there. In the majority of these cases, Murillo said that 65 to 75 percent of the women would usually pay their fines as opposed to serving their time. For the period January to October, a total of 70 women were incarcerated at the facility for various offenses, with 22 of them who were there due to immigration offenses. Of that number, 13 paid their fine and went home while nine decided to serve their sentence.
“We just have to cater to the women a bit different than we cater to the men because of the difference in gender but they do recreate together. I don’t have much physical altercation or violent behaviors among women prisoners. We engage them in programs such as the ‘journey to freedom,’ we have yoga, spiritual programs. They do arts and crafts often and counseling. Other than them getting involved in little quarrels here and there, we don’t have much problem with our women population at all,” exclaimed Murillo as he reflected on the lives of these female inmates that currently stand at a population of 17.
Overall, data gathered as it relates to the female population at the prison for the past five years has shown that 64 women were incarcerated for minor offenses, while 57 were incarcerated for violent crimes, followed by 48 who were incarcerated for crimes of dishonesty and 45 for firearm offense, while 22 were there for drug trafficking offense. Only six women were imprisoned for the crime of murder, while 20 found themselves behind bars for sexual crimes including rape.
According to Murillo, the compilation of data at the Prison assist himself and other officials to closely monitor the types of crimes that persons are being sent to prison for and allow them to tailor the right programs and interventions to assist inmates.