Belize Plays a Major Role in Information Sharing in “Operation Martillo”

By Dialogo
May 15, 2013

Interview with Rear Admiral John Borland, commandant of the Belize Coast Guard

Almost 18 months after launch, “Operation Martillo” (Hammer”) has proven to be a big hit (no pun intended) if you ask the personnel involved in this huge effort to counter transnational organized crime in the waters of the Caribbean. Among these countries is Belize, which has been a key player when it comes to information sharing. To talk about this and other topics, Diálogo interviewed Rear Admiral John Borland, commandant of the Belize Coast Guard, during the 2013 Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) that took place in Panama, last April.

DIÁLOGO: How do you see Belize’s participation in Operation Martillo?

Rear Admiral John Borland: Belize’s participation in Operation Martillo has been limited to information sharing with our regional partners and with JIATF-S. That information flows both ways, where we receive any inbound tracks, either maritime, surface or air tracks that we would deploy to our forward positions. The Coast Guard is pre-positioned along our littorals, straddling our territorial seas. We have a barrier reef that extends up to fifty miles off our coast, in some cases, so we are out there maintaining a forward position trying to intercept any tracks that we get flagged of from the information sources from Operation Martillo. We do not have any physical assets or personnel assigned to Operation Martillo.

DIÁLOGO: Do you see illicit trafficking as the biggest threat to Belize?

RADM Borland: It continues to be. Even though illicit trafficking has diminished considerably over the last five years or so, and we would like to give credit to the stance of our security forces, both the Defense Forces and the Coast Guard provided the deterrent that has forced the trafficking away from areas that are more vulnerable. The government of Belize and our partners from SOUTHCOM and by extension the government of the United States, have done tremendous work in improving the capabilities of our Defense Force and Coast Guard, and allowing us to be well prepared in our territorial seas, strategic locations where we can observe and conduct surveillance, and share information, making a difference in forcing the drug-trafficking organizations elsewhere. However, having said all of that, it is still an issue for us. For example in 2012, we can account for at least three shipments of drugs that made it into the Belizean coasts along our littorals or airspace. The drugs that are left behind have a residual effect, and whatever compensation we know is left behind in the form of drugs or weapons is what is plaguing us in the streets of Belize City, and actually acting as fuel for not only the drug users but the gangs and the small-time drug lords. So we have developed a problem now with gun warfare in our society. As long as there are readily available drugs and illicit weapons, it is a problem for our society. Our youth is being severely impacted. Our crime rate has increased; our status in the region isn’t what it used to be, so we as the security forces now have our work cut out for us. As I said earlier, our government remains committed, SOUTHCOM remains committed, the security forces –meaning the Defense Force, Coast Guard, and Police– are committed. We are receiving a lot of support and resources, so this is certainly our number one priority.

DIÁLOGO: Do you foresee Belize being affected by the cuts in the U.S. defense budget?

RADM Borland: In the short term, no. Because a lot of what is due to be delivered in [terms of] infrastructure, in resources, in assets, is already forecast and allocated for, and if SOUTHCOM support diminishes to such a point where we indeed see a reduction, our forces will be equipped, trained and capable enough by that time to adequately secure our land and our maritime borders. Our airspace remains a challenge. We have to rely on our agreements with the United States, Mexico, Colombia… to pursue aircraft into our airspace, hand off operations and then we really have to focus on regional cooperation with our neighbors: Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and the rest of the region. It’s a force multiplier; it’s a catalytic effect that will develop if we work more closely with our partners.

DIÁLOGO: What is Belize doing to counter the issue with youth and gangs armed by passing traffickers?

RADM Borland: Belize is doing a whole lot. If I may be precise, the government has established a lot of programs in trying to address, trying to reduce crime and violence; in trying to provide alternatives for our youth, trying to create education, employment, sports. There are several programs under the Restore Belize program, which is a government of Belize program. Even the Armed Forces, the Defense Force, the Coast Guard, the Police are supporting us by taking some of these youths and trying to teach them discipline and give them some life skills. So it’s a problem, but it’s not going unaddressed. It requires financial contributions in these times of diminishing budgets. It gets more cumbersome on the government to do this, but I clearly see the commitment. I see the efforts. The public information campaigns. The programs to even rehabilitate first-time offenders, juvenile delinquency, the new reform center is being setup for people that commit minor crimes, put them through something that resembles a boot camp to teach them discipline, to be organized, give them life skills, provide some value to their lives so that when that sentence is over they can successfully integrate back into society and not come right back and be a burden to society again.

DIÁLOGO: Do you think that the Belize forces are prepared to handle transnational organized crime?

RADM Borland: Belize’s security forces have come a long way. When I started 23 years ago, we were nowhere near where we are today. A lot of credit is due to the leadership of the Defense Forces; the support of the government of Belize; SOUTHCOM, for understanding or helping and without any constraints, supporting our programs. Are we completely competent right now to do that task? And is it a daunting task? It is a daunting task and at this present moment we are conducting a defense strategic review. We are looking at all these challenges. We are looking at the evolving threats. We are looking at our strengths, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities… We’re shaping our forces. We’re resizing, we’re restructuring because we understand that there are huge gaps that still need to be filled. Are we there yet? No, we’re not, but we will be, and we have a plan; we have a strategy that we work off. We’re not just out there operating haphazardly. Will our forces be competent in five years? I would like to go out on a limb and say I believe we will.