Belize, a diverse and multicultural country with English, Belizean Creole, and Spanish as official languages, has strong ties with Central America and the Caribbean. Like its regional neighbors, Belize faces traditional and non-traditional security threats.
Brigadier General Steven Ortega, commander of the Belize Defence Force (BDF), is watching these threats very closely and countering them by cooperating with neighboring nations to disrupt the drug trade as well as control and diffuse internal gang violence, and strengthen intelligence gathering.
Brig. Gen. Ortega attended the 16th annual Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC), held in Georgetown, Guyana, from December 6-7, 2017, where attendees analyzed regional actions to dismantle transregional and transnational threat networks (T3N). During the conference, Brig. Gen. Ortega spoke with Diálogo about CANSEC, the narcotrafficking businesses that are influencing other criminal activities, and how BDF is working to bring better security for the Belizean population.
Diálogo: What is the importance of Belize’s participation in CANSEC?
Brigadier General Steven Ortega, commander of Belize Defence Force: As a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), we’re a part of the region that is affected by the transnational threats that are out there. It’s good to attend these conferences in order for us to share our ideas and to come up with plans and strategies to actually move the region forward in an effort to counter these threats.
Diálogo: Does Belize face any terrorist threats?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: We don’t face terrorist threats that we are aware of currently. I pray to God that it remains that way; however, we are prepared and have kept the Belize Special Assignment Group (BSAG) trained in this area to deter or prevent such activities. It’s our specialized unit ready to deal with counter terrorism and narcotics. BSAG is a Special Forces unit trained by the United States and Canada.
Diálogo: What are the most important security concerns in Belize?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: We are facing, as with most of the Caribbean, transnational threats, natural disasters, economic—those are the overarching ones, but breaking it down a little further, the major threat is crime and violence—so, transnational crime.
Diálogo: What are the specific transnational crimes you are referring to?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: It’s really narcotics and weapons trafficking. Drugs come in and there’s an exchange of drugs for weapons or drugs for money. Internally, gangs are fighting for this type of illegal activity to be in charge of moving the drugs through Belize. This situation results in us having gunfights and internal crime and violence.
Diálogo: Is narcotrafficking related to gang violence?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: The gangs are local; however, they do have international connections as they are moving drugs south to north or weapons north to south.
Diálogo: Are there any youth programs to curtail gang activity?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: Yes. The Belize Police Department has many different programs for crime prevention and the BDF partners with the Ministry of Human Development in terms of a citizen protection program under the Youth Challenge Program and Youth Cadet Corps. Both programs focus on youths, be it 11 to about 17 years old, to keep them out of the gangs.
The Youth Challenge Program, a two-year program, focuses on youths who are out of school for whatever reason, either their parents couldn’t afford it, they believe they didn’t have the aptitude for the academics, or just decided to stop because of wanting to join a gang. In the first year, it’s in-house, sort of like a school, but they’re confined to the camp.
The Youth Cadet Corps targets children who are in school, providing a safe-haven for them, discipline, leadership, and the aspects of being a good citizen to ensure they stay on the right path growing up through school. I believe that is the key to the younger generation learning to be good citizens. If you learn to be a good citizen, you will not venture into the aspect of criminal ideology or anything like that.
Diálogo: How does Belize criminalize illegal narcotics?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: We have the criminal code, the Misuse of Drugs Act, in addition to terrorism and money laundering legislations that the Police Department, Financial Intelligence Unit, and BSAG utilize whenever they’re doing specific operations.
Diálogo: How is BDF working together to counter violence and criminal activities?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: Our main activity is to defend the country, and we do this by primarily patrolling the borders, but we also give support to other agencies, mainly the Belize Police Department.
Diálogo: How does Belize collaborate with countries in the region to counter transnational threats?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: We have a 35-man team in Dominica giving humanitarian assistance and restoration efforts to our sister CARICOM state after the devastating Hurricane Maria damaged most of the country’s infrastructure. Additionally, we have two neighboring countries, Guatemala and Mexico, which we do quite a bit with, especially in terms of border patrols—combined and coordinated border patrols. We do planning, preparation, radar communications, and so on; therefore our combined operations are planned for the final details of patrolling. We also exchange information with Guatemala and Mexico.
Diálogo: How does Belize cooperate and work jointly with the United States?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: We have a memorandum of understanding that allows us to work with them in terms of training and activities. We actually have an annual marijuana destruction operation, where we use their helicopters, coming from Soto Cano Airfield Base in Honduras. This drug operation is done along with our troops as most of the marijuana fields are in remote areas and it’s not easy to access by foot or vehicle.
Diálogo: Do these international efforts with the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala help Belize counter illegal trafficking?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: It does because there is a broad aspect of exchanging information and joint patrols. It also shows the population that more countries are out there patrolling on both sides of the border.
Diálogo: Does Belize share information in real time?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: Yes. We have radio, phone, and internet communications with them at all times, so we can share information in real time.
Diálogo: How do BDF and the police work together and collaborate with each other?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: The police are the primary law enforcement agency in the country. The military is there to support them in whatever aspects they need in terms of operations and support. If the police requires our assistance, they will reach out and together we plan the operation and maintain our mandate of support to our sister agency. We offer extra manpower, such as to cordon off an area or to help hold people that they have detained. The military doesn’t conduct the law enforcement aspect. We’re just on the outside providing support to the police.
Diálogo: How does the BDF partner with military forces in the region to counter international threats?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: We do joint training together. We have just finished the Tropical Dagger Joining Military Exercise, a Special Forces exercise between Canadians, Belizeans, Jamaicans, and American Special Forces. This exercise counters the threat, be it drugs or terrorism.
Diálogo: What is BDF’s goal for 2018?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: We are working on our Security and Defense Review that will be submitted to the National Security Council, which will decide the direction forward for BDF in terms of strength or furthering our capabilities. If they approve it, BDF will be growing. I can see BDF growing in 2018 and improving our capabilities and capacities.
Diálogo: What is your message to the chiefs of defense in the region?
Brig. Gen. Ortega: Let’s work together with what we have and collaborate in terms of strategizing how we can maximize the use of the limited resources we have. We can do quite a lot more than what we are presently doing with our resources.