Committed to Border Defense

Committed to Border Defense

By Dialogo
October 01, 2012

Geography is a challenge for Belize when it comes to securing its 251-kilometer
border with Mexico, a landscape of thick jungles with sparse population and multiple
crossing points. To the east, drug traffickers store their supplies in the dense vegetation
of Ambergris Caye, on the southernmost tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. To the north, only the
narrow Hondo River divides the nations, creating a porous border where smugglers may see
security forces approaching.
“It is very difficult to be there without the locals noticing our presence,” said
Captain Roberto Beltran, chief of military intelligence of the Belize Defence Force (BDF).
Belize is a transshipment point for illegal drugs en route to the United States and has
limited resources to combat well-financed drug traffickers. But Belizean and Mexican
military leaders say improving their communications infrastructure, acquiring equipment and
increasing training will help improve control over the porous border.
In May 2012, military leaders from both nations met in Belize City to discuss joint
security initiatives. Officers from Canada and the United States also attendedthe Belize and
Mexico Cross Border Workshop, organized by U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and U.S.
Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).

Major Charlton Roches, BDF operations and training officer, said coordination of
security efforts in the region is important to win battles against transnational criminal
organizations. The Belize Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies have been working
closely with their counterparts from Mexico and Guatemala to combat illicit activities.
Commanders meet monthly, quarterly and annually, Maj. Roches said.

Operations with Neighbors

Belize and Mexico currently carry out joint operations, which have resulted in
large cocaine seizures, according to the International Narcotics Control Board. “Foot
patrols in the northern west area of Belize, river patrols on the Rio Hondo, and the Coast
Guard conducts blue water patrols in the Bay of Chetumal and the region of Bacalar Chico,”
Maj. Roches said.
In mid-2012, an unauthorized aircraft landed in Belize near the Mexican border.
Belize informed Mexico about it, and Mexico responded with information about a suspicious
helicopter in the area. “It is unfortunate that we didn’t catch anyone other than seizing
the aircraft,” Maj. Roches said. “However, this effort shows the clear communication link
that we have with Mexico.”

The BDF believes that completion of a Joint Operations Center in Ladyville in early
2013 will improve information exchange with Mexico to a 24/7 capability. Security forces
from the BDF, the Coast Guard, Customs, Police and Immigration will plan and direct
operations from the center. In addition, Belize plans to open forward operating bases near
the Mexican border to support tactical operations.

Three Fronts Make One

At the workshop, a high-ranking Mexican Marine who concealed his identity for
security reasons told attendees to be agile in protecting the air, land and sea borders. In
Mexico, combining X-rays with other nonintrusive equipment, such as the GT-200 remote
substance detector, and pairing sniffing canines with Soldiers have been effective at
checkpoints and naval security posts. “The combination of the three allows us a high degree
of certainty,” the official said.
“Monitoring the air domain for us is crucial,” said Brigadier General Dario Oscar
Tapia, commander of BDF. “A lot of these aircraft will come under the cover of darkness,
landing along the border areas where they can quickly get their cargo into Mexico.”

Drug traffickers use the Belize Barrier Reef, which is roughly 300 kilometers long,
as a guide for the maritime route. Unauthorized aircraft use the same reef as a landmark. To
stay ahead of the traffickers, security forces move quickly to destroy clandestine
airstrips, which they estimate to number in the hundreds, Capt. Beltran said.
With the flags of their nations serving as a backdrop, senior officers carefully
listened to the conclusions reached during the workshop. The recommendations that emerged

Increase air and maritime surveillance.
Conduct joint exercises.
Establish secured communications channels.
Improve exchange of information, as well as cooperation in technology and

“We really promoted different ideas that weren’t there before and the
accomplishments of some of the goals from the previous meetings,” said Lieutenant Colonel
Steven Ortega, second in command of the BDF. “Belize is committed on all fronts.”