Diverse ecological jungles, high mountains, pine forests, exotic rivers, and sandy beaches attract tourists to Belize year round. While visitors enjoy the beautiful landscape, drug smugglers look for ways to carry out illegal activities in the thick rainforest or along the coastline.
The Belize Defence Force (BDF) works around the clock to stop drug traffickers from using its territory as a transshipment point. They’re aware that criminal networks could undermine the tourist industry and fuel violence inside the country.
“Belize is a transshipment route for drugs,” said Brigadier General Steven Ortega, commander of BDF. “Gangs are fighting to be in charge of moving the drugs through Belize. Drug trafficking is one of the catalysts that fuels violent crime, weapons smuggling, and human smuggling, among other crimes in our country.”
According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, Belize is susceptible to the transshipment of illegal drugs due to its position along the Central American isthmus, its relatively uninhabited terrain, and hundreds of cayes (small islands) off its coast. “Drug-trafficking organizations predominantly use maritime and air routes through Belize,” said the report.
BDF is not alone in this fight. With two infantry battalions, a support battalion, and air and maritime components, the force works with interagency units and international partners to try to dismantle criminal transnational networks and their illicit trades.
“We do interagency work with the Joint Intelligence and Operations Center, which coordinates the operations, deployment, and movements of the troops. If there is a drug operation, we work together with the Coast Guard, police, and other agencies,” said Brig. Gen. Ortega. “We also coordinate with partner nations in the region, mainly with the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala.”
As part of the effort, participants share information to communicate about any suspected aircraft flying into Belize or the region. The shared information results in counter narcotics successes.
“We’ve had success seizing several aircrafts,” said BDF Major Adran Claude Ramírez, commander of the Air Wing and Special Boats Units. “On September 2018, we caught a Cessna 2010 single-engine plane that landed on a dirt road of the Orange Walk district, located in the northern part of the country; the plane was loaded with drugs and five people were arrested.” Authorities found 1,225 pounds of cocaine inside the plane, worth $7 million.
“In the same district, we found a Hawker Siddeley 225 jet that landed on a dirt road in April 2018. The plane had traces of drugs,” said Maj. Ramírez. The authorities found the jet without passenger seats, possibly to be used as space for cargo, and speculated the pilots set the aircraft’s wings on fire. “We are working diligently to get as many seizures and drug busts as we can. We have a crew ready to move—fixed wing, rotary wing, or the boat unit—at any time and location.”
According to BDF Captain Jasmine Elliot, an officer with the Special Boats Unit, BDF’s focus is on stopping criminal organizations from hiding marijuana or cocaine in small boats that travel through the jungle, where rivers facilitate a corridor for illicit trafficking. “We have been able to deter people from trafficking, usually small amounts of drugs and contraband to Mexico.”
Belize and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) are partners in the fight to counter transnational organized crime in the region. The United States supports BDF by providing training, humanitarian assistance programs, and combined exercises.
“SOUTHCOM helps us in the fight against transnational organized crime,” said Brig. Gen. Ortega. “They provide resources and support such as equipment, technology, and training.” As part of their combined operations, the U.S. Embassy Military Liaison Office and Joint Task Force-Bravo collaborate in marijuana eradication operations.
“The partnership between SOUTHCOM and BDF is a positive and mutually supportive relationship that’s growing, and it will persist throughout the future,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Eldridge Singleton, the Security Cooperation officer at U.S. Embassy, Belize. “This is a long-standing relationship that provides great partnership, opportunities for training, share lessons, learn from each other, and improves security for the region.”
The partnership between BDF and SOUTHCOM goes beyond counter-narcotics operations. “The government of Belize and BDF show their willingness to be involved in disaster response and assisting regional partners in dealing with crisis, whether it be a natural disaster, man-made disaster, or illicit threats from bad actors,” added Lt. Col. Singleton.
State Partnership Program
The Louisiana Army National Guard and BDF are linked under the U.S. National Guard’s State Partnership Program (SPP), since1996. During the 23-year partnership, they built military capabilities and coordinated interagency operations, among other efforts.
“[The partnership] started out as strictly military-to-military exchanges—from personnel matters, logistics, advanced training—to helping in their training to be infantry men, engineers, or aviators; now we work with the Coast Guard, have new training exercises, and are involved with things like health and the Youth Challenge Program,” said Major General Glenn H. Curtis, adjutant general for the Louisiana National Guard. “Our strong relationship with Belize helps us as a nation to train and build allies that we can help to keep democracy around the world.”
BDF’s leadership highlights the importance of regional bonds to defeat organized crime. “It takes interagency efforts and regional cooperation to turn the tide of the increasing transnational threat,” concluded Brig. Gen. Ortega. “It’s the only way that we can succeed in deterring and putting a lid on the transnational threats that come into our country.”