The most important topic discussed during the Caribbean Nations Security Conference, hosted by the United States Southern Command and Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, from February 23-24, was countering illicit trafficking, a trans-national challenge which requires trans-national cooperation and partnerships. Diálogo spoke more in depth about this and other subjects with the Chief of Defense of Belize, Brigadier General Dario Oscar Tapia, one of the presenters at the event.
Diálogo: In your opinion, what are the main concerns when it comes to national security for Belize currently?
Gen. Tapia: Certainly many would argue that border security is of prime importance to our nation, and it’s supposed to be the prime responsibility for defense, but while that remains true, for us the times require focus on counternarcotics. We assess that in Belize criminal violence emanates from drug trafficking. Corruption of public officials is also of concern because if we have corruption, our public offices tend to weaken our governments. So in short, border security is an overall concern, but locally we have high criminal violence, drug trafficking, corruption and money laundering. I think those would take over as the main concerns to our nation because of what it tends to do, and that is to undermine our system.
Diálogo: How does the tri-border security initiative with Guatemala and Mexico work?
Gen. Tapia: We had an initial meeting at U.S. Southern Command in January of this year, where we met with Mexican and Guatemalan officials to see how we can advance in tri-border security initiatives that we want to achieve. Whilst it was discussed initially at the U.S. Southern Command, there are going to be subsequent meetings in Guatemala and in Mexico to be able to lay out exactly what we want to achieve. It’s a brand new initiative that has not been put at work as of yet.
Diálogo: Do you believe that the three countries will agree on a combined surveillance system or something similar to that?
Gen. Tapia: We are hoping that it will be information sharing, combined surveillance and other partnership actions. It would be great to also have joint operations. What we want is to develop those particles and see where we can better communicate. So we’re hoping that whatever is laid out in the next meetings, that then we move ahead in implementing them and not have the bureaucratic process take over and prevent us from putting forward the doables.
Diálogo: What do you think is lacking in the Defense Force in Belize?
Gen. Tapia: Resources. Human resources and also equipment because without those we can’t move forward in anything that we are in, with what we have we can’t do anything more than what we are already doing. We have been working hard with the U.S. Southern Command, with the U.S. MLO in Belize in getting a lot of equipment support for the Belize Defense Force, but I think there’s much more to be done and much more can be done. And if you’re going to take this tri-border initiative forward, certainly there will be the need to have the allocation of additional resources, because what we don’t want is for there to be a weak link within the three countries. Because some, like Mexico, will probably have more equipment than us, so we’ll probably either have to rely on them or we’ll (have) to seek to be on par with them. Certainly the communication equipment has to be compatible. Otherwise it is pointless that we have the initiative if we can’t take it forward because of lack of the same equipment compatibility.
Diálogo: How about the U.S.? What is the participation of the U.S. in this initiative or others?
Gen. Tapia: Well, they’re aware the countries are within two different commands, Mexico being in the Northern Command and Belize and Guatemala being part of the Southern Command. So it is a challenge, but I am sure that where there’s a will, there’s a way. So I’m confident that once we can remove that (issue of territoriality) then we can achieve many things, but if we still draw those lines and think that those lines are not able to move, then we’ll have big problems. I think that there is a resolve between both commands to be able to –within themselves- work it out and be able to take forward this initiative.
I can tell you that even before this initiative, we have been in communication with the Mexicans, we have what is called the Border Commanders Meeting, where we were recently hosted by the Mexicans in Mexico at the Border Commander level to deal with the issue of narcotrafficking and other illicit activities that go from Belize to Mexico and vice-versa. We do have that at the same level with Guatemala as well.
Diálogo: What is Belize doing to try to curb the intra-gang killings and to reduce the number of weapons that stay in the country due to illicit trafficking?
Gen. Tapia: What we have developed is a strategy to combat things of that dimension, and (we want to) bring all of our security forces on land together. And the intent is to have a joint operating center where we can jointly plan with all our security forces, including customs and immigration and the Coast Guard, and be able to plan operations and execute them jointly. In addition to that, the intention is also to be able to have an intelligence agency center where we also have liaison officers from all the law enforcement and security forces there to bring intelligence to this regional center, and then execute intelligence-led operation from all joint operating centers. Certainly there is a human dimension to this, the government has launched what is called the Restore Belize initiative, where it intends to address poverty, intends to address the youth’s problems, intends to see what are the means of providing additional jobs for the young fellows that are all involved in committing crime. There is also the intent of making sure that kids that belong in school are in school. This is the big picture and so eventually all of this will come together and we’re hoping that we’re able to bring down crime to a manageable level. That’s key; we won’t be able to eliminate it, but at least try to bring it down to a manageable level.
Diálogo: How about Operation Jaguar? Is there a plan to extend it or have an Operation Jaguar II?
Gen. Tapia: What occurred in May of last year, because the murder and violent crime was getting out of hand in Belize City, is that the National Security Congress authorized us to deploy additional soldiers in Belize City in support of the Belize Police Department, and we called that Operation Jaguar. It reduced a little bit the violent crimes, however it wasn’t doing enough, and so we launched what we called the Expanded Operation Jaguar, where we brought in additional troops in October. I don’t know if we will have another operation like that implemented soon.
Diálogo: Any future operations in mind?
Gen. Tapia: We want the Police to take the lead because it’s their job and we want them to be able to do their job, so we as the Military don’t want to take over their job. Unless we are authorized by the National Security Congress, we will not be going in there.