The Belize Coast Guard is responsible for maritime law enforcement, search and rescue, hurricane response preparation, and disaster relief, among other duties. The Coast Guard was part of the Belize Defence Force, but in 2005 became part of one of the three branches of Belize’s national security structures.
Rear Admiral John Borland, commandant of the Belize Coast Guard, assumed command in 2009, focusing on modernizing the institution. Diálogo spoke to the officer during a visit to the Coast Guard’s headquarters in Belize City, where he talked about their new capabilities and interagency work, among other topics.
Diálogo: When you assumed command of the Coast Guard, in August 2009, your main goal was to modernize it. Have you accomplished your goal? If so, how?
Rear Admiral John Borland, commandant of the Belize Coast Guard: We have accomplished many of the goals that we set out to achieve in 2009 and even before that time. I was the vice commandant in 2005 and at that time, my objective was to develop a modern Coast Guard, one that will be on par with our partner forces in the region. We have achieved our goal by working with our government through an interagency approach and with our regional and international partners. We have modernized our institution with technology, assets, and training of our personnel. Our modernization was possible through regional and international partners, primarily with the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and also our partnerships with the Canadians, the British, and the Mexicans.
Diálogo: What are Belize’s most important maritime border security concerns?
Rear Adm. Borland: Our primary focus is transnational organized crime, which keeps me up at night. Belize is located right smack in the middle of many transshipment zones. Drugs come from South America trying to make its way up to North America. The effects of transnational organized crime are profound on the Belizean society. Unfortunately, illegal drugs end up in our streets and cause a serious rift; they cause danger to the society as they fuel the local gangs in their fight to control the market.
Diálogo: How does the Coast Guard support the national effort to counter security threats?
Rear Adm. Borland: The Belize Coast Guard is one of three arms of the country’s security enterprise as we have the Belize Defense Force, the Belize Police Department, and the Belize Coast Guard. We are directly responsible for maritime security as every one of our members is a law enforcement officer with full authority to arrest anyone at sea—internal waters, territorial sea, or exclusive economic zone. We have this responsibility in collaboration with other agencies such as the police, Defence Force, immigration, and customs departments.
Diálogo: What efforts does the Coast Guard conduct with Mexico and Guatemala to protect their borders?
Rear Adm. Borland: There’s a lot going on with Mexico. We do a monthly combined operation with the Mexican Navy on Hondo River and Chetumal Bay, and we extend it to our territorial sea waters. We embark our ship riders into their platforms, and they do the same with ours in our monthly operations to counter illegal drugs. We also have quarterly commander meetings either in Mexico or Belize, where we conduct information exchanges. With Guatemala, we work jointly with the Belize Defence Force and in combination with the Guatemalan Navy on the Sarstoon River. In addition, the Coast Guard has been invited to the quarterly commander’s conference between the Guatemalan and the Belizean military authorities.
Diálogo: SOUTHCOM contributed equipment for Belize’s counter narcotics program. How does this donation improve the Coast Guard’s capabilities?
Rear Adm. Borland: Prior to the formation of the Belize Coast Guard, our maritime area of responsibility was almost controlled by drug traffickers to the extent that we used to come across between 15–20 go-fast vessels per year. Since the Belize Coast Guard stood up in 2005, we saw a profound effect, where the amount of illicit traffic by maritime means has been diminished. The deterrent effect of having a Coast Guard—equipped and capable to respond—has pushed maritime drug traffickers away from our littorals. We now see the use of illegal airstrips on land, or wet drops” coming back on offshore communities.
SOUTHCOM’s contribution has been second to none. SOUTHCOM’s cooperation and support with equipment, infrastructure, and training has helped us to modernize the force. The Belize Coast Guard fleet as it exists right now is probably based on a 70 percent contribution from SOUTHCOM, so we are grateful for it. Their contribution extends to equipment and technology, which allows us to conduct longer surveillance. The majority of our officers are trained under the auspices of the partnership with SOUTHCOM, either with the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, or even U.S. Army. We look forward to grow and strengthen our partnership with SOUTHCOM.
Diálogo: Belize is a key information-sharing partner in Operation Martillo (Hammer). What is the main lesson learned from this multi-national operation?
Rear Adm. Borland: The main lesson we have learned from Operation Martillo is about the information sharing mechanism, which works both ways: we get to know what happens during the operation and understand the new patterns and the modus operandi of the cartels, and at the same time, we are informed about what happens within our areas of operation. We benefit from Martillo by being able to create a better operating picture of what is really going on, not only in the region but even on the Pacific coast, so we can have a better understanding of the common operating picture to help us do a better job of planning and cooperating.
Diálogo: What kind of exchanges does Belize conduct with the Louisiana National Guard through the State Partnership Program?
Rear Adm. Borland: Our partnership with the Louisiana National Guard started 10 years ago, mainly with leadership development, technical, and tactical courses. One of the critical areas of development is the disaster response and relief training. They send subject matter expert exchanges to Belize to teach a variety of courses. The Louisiana National Guard plays a vital role in our development overall and helps at a time when the Belize Coast Guard continues with its upward mobility and trends.
Diálogo: What’s the importance of regional partnerships to combat criminal and illegal actors?
Rear Adm. Borland: It’s absolutely important that regional partnerships continue to be developed and sustained because none of our countries are sufficiently equipped, have the technology, the resources, or the assets to combat criminal activity on our own. It will take the whole of government, interagency, and regional approaches to work together to defeat crime. We need each other; we have to rely on each other with technology, surveillance, and communications to make a strong network.
Diálogo: What progress has the Coast Guard made on gender integration?
Rear Adm. Borland: The Coast Guard has a policy that fosters equal opportunity. Ten percent of the Coast Guard is female, but we look forward to seeing the numbers grow. We believe, in fact, that there’s not a single job in the Coast Guard that a woman can’t do equally well or even better than a man. We have seen women come to the Coast Guard being well educated, ambitious, and keen to developing themselves. Females are involved in every single aspect of Coast Guard work. We are a relatively young unit, and only a few women have made it across from what used to be our former organization with the maritime wing. We have two senior enlisted leaders and three commissioned officers among us.