Diálogo interview with Brigadier General Steven Ortega, Belize Defence Force commander, during the Central American Security Conference 2021 in Panama City, June 22-23.
Diálogo: What are Belize’s most important security concerns?
Brigadier General Steven Ortega, Belize Defence Force commander: Transnational crime is a concern, as we’ve been discovering that there’s quite a few suspected narco jets landing in Belize, and this is because our neighbors, Honduras and Guatemala, are increasing their efforts to deter these landings; therefore narcotraffickers are looking for a weaker point to do their illicit activities. Presently we are that weak point, but we’re trying to address the problem. Another of the major security concerns is the economic situation because of the pandemic. Our country’s economy relies quite a lot on tourism and because the tourism industry was closed for a year, our economy basically took a nosedive. In addition, the effects of climate change are also a concern as we saw last year; we had severe floods from the effects of the hurricanes.
Diálogo: What is the extent of cooperation with Mexico and Guatemala regarding international security threats?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: Our relationship with Mexico is very good. Presently, we offer Mexico overflight rights, so they can try to locate the illegal flights and try to identify where they could land, so we are in a better position to respond. We do combined patrols along the border with the Mexicans and it’s working excellently; we both provide patrols along our northern border, the river, and even the sea with the Coast Guard. Mexico also continues to support us in training and we have excellent communication with them annually. We have an operational and intelligence meeting with them where we get to share high level intelligence. Monthly or whenever there’s a need, we have direct communications with them […].
We are improving our efforts with Guatemala. For example, in June , our Prime Minister Johnny Briceño visited the President of Guatemala Alejandro Giammattei to discuss collaboration in terms of fighting transnational crime and especially the narcotics that are landing along our borders. This is something that I’m working on with the Guatemalan military to see how we can best collaborate and improve for a common fight.
Diálogo: The United States recently donated maritime and tactical equipment to the Belize Coast Guard to improve nighttime operational capabilities. What is the importance of this donation?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: This donation will assist the Coast Guard tremendously in their efforts to counter crime and patrol the waters, because at night is when the movements of narcotraffickers and other illicit activities takes place. With this donation, they will be better equipped and have the capacity and the capability to be out there at night to maximize our efforts. The equipment will also assist us in terms of humanitarian assistance or disaster response.
Diálogo: How does the Belize Defence Force work with Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South) to counter international criminal organizations?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: As of last year , we have a liaison officer in JTF South, so now we have full time representation there that can further enhance our capability to share information […]. So that has definitely improved our capacity and capability there.
Diálogo: How is the Belize Defence Force promoting gender integration?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: We’ve always valued gender integration as important within the institution. Currently, only 10 percent of the force are females, but we’re trying to improve their participation even more with specific requests, such as recruiting female pilots. We have put out requests and notices in the newspaper requesting females who are interested in joining us. We’ve had females deployed to Haiti as engineers or as infantrymen, female company commanders. In fact, our last small boat unit commander was a female, and we continue to integrate them throughout the entire force.