Los Zetas Draws New Smuggling Routes Through Belize

In the coastal town of Punta Gorda, a white, twin-engine airplane — larger than the planes usually used for domestic flights in Belize — landed right in the middle of Southern Highway.
Iris Amador | 7 November 2011

Fishing boats crowd the main port in Belize City, where several loads of pseudoephedrine, a chemical used to make crystal meth, have disappeared in recent years. [Larry Luxner]

In the coastal town of Punta Gorda, a white, twin-engine airplane — larger than the planes usually used for domestic flights in Belize — landed right in the middle of Southern Highway.

Uninhabited Geoff’s Caye, a favorite of scuba divers and snorkelers, is one of about 450 islands and keys off the coast of Belize often used as dropoff points by drug traffickers. [Larry Luxner]

Authorities discovered a nearby truck with about 500 gallons of jet fuel. The plane had stopped in Belize to refuel, but since its wings were slightly damaged upon landing, the Beechcraft Super King Air wasn’t able to take off and the crew abandoned it, police said. The crew left behind a cargo of 2,600 kilograms of Colombian cocaine. Local police said it was the biggest drug bust in Belize’s history.

That was back in November. Since then, things have only gotten worse for Belize, which once enjoyed fame as the world’s top diving spot. Homicide rates are skyrocketing, and Los Zetas is making Belize its smuggling route of choice, police said.

“The open waterways pose many challenges for Belize’s small population and meager resources,” said Police and Public Safety Minister Dough Singh.

With barely 330,000 people inhabiting a country larger than El Salvador, Belize has a chronic need for aerial support and radio detection equipment, he said. “The result is that large amounts of drugs may be traversing Belize en route to the United States.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in a recent study on murder rates, noted that “Mexico’s struggle has attracted a lot of attention, with much less falling on an area far more threatened: Central America. As maritime interdiction has increased and Mexico itself has become far more contested, a growing share of cocaine headed northward is passing through northern Central America, including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.”

Last year, the country reported a homicide rate of 41.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the UNODC study. Singh said police and the Belize Defense Force are planning to establish a Joint Operation Center and an Intelligence Fusion Center to better coordinate their activities and the flow of intelligence. Another initiative consists of opening forward operating bases near the country’s border with Mexico.

“We recognize that we face a regional challenge,” Singh said. “As such, we must engage with our regional partners in finding a regional solution.”

Los Zetas operates in Belize

Recent drug and weapons seizures near Belize’s northern border with Mexico show that Los Zetas and other Mexican and Colombian drug-trafficking organizations are drawing new smuggling routes through the sparsely populated nation.

In November 2010, Guatemalan drug lord Otoneil Turcios Marroquín, with alleged links to Los Zetas, was captured in Belize and turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He had been sought by the United States since 2003 for allegedly smuggling 1,600 kilos of cocaine, which were subsequently distributed on the streets of New York.

Souvenir shops crowd the main street of San Pedro, a tourist attraction where foreigners are routinely arrested for possession of marijuana and other illegal drugs. [Larry Luxner]

After Los Zetas perpetrated a massacre in a farmhouse in Petén, Guatemala, earlier this year, Guatemalan authorities reported that a four-wheel-drive vehicle with Belize license plates had been used by its members and found in the ranch. Police said the diplomatic vehicle had been stolen from a Guatemalan driver assigned to an outpost of the Organization of American States along Guatemala’s border with Belize.

Stories of drug-toting tourists are not uncommon in Belize. More than a few backpackers have been found with packs of cannabis in their pants pockets. “Many have been arrested for openly smoking marijuana on the keys such as San Pedro and Caye Caulker,” said Belize News 5 analyst José Sánchez. “They think it’s OK.”

The biggest concern, of course, is for the larger amounts of hard drugs that are passing by undetected. Belize has 450 keys, most of them uninhabited.

Belize, a hub for meth

Belize not only has seen increases in cocaine trafficking, but also in marijuana and in precursor chemicals en route to Mexico as well. In 2010, Belize seized 97 metric tons of marijuana, in comparison to the 291 kilos confiscated the year before.

Noteworthy, said Sánchez, are the recurring attempts to introduce loads of pseudoephedrine in the country. “It was relatively unknown until 2008,” he said. From that point on, port authorities regularly found shipments coming from China and other Asian countries via Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Spain.

In Belize, it is illegal to import any medicine that contains pseudoephedrine, which can be chemically combined with other substances to produce methamphetamine or crystal meth.

Several loads of pseudoephedrine have disappeared from the port in Belize City. All attempts to hold somebody accountable for the theft have failed, said Sánchez. In early October, three Customs officers were acquitted of two counts of forgery in relation to the disappearance of a container of pseudoephedrine tablets in September 2008.

The Comptroller of Customs also has been under attack for cracking down on drug trafficking. In March 2009, a live grenade was thrown onto the third-floor balcony of the home of Gregory Gibson, who had earlier received several death threats.

“It is widely speculated that because the Customs Department was determined to halt pseudoephedrine shipments, neighboring cartels hired local thugs to throw a grenade at the Comptroller of Customs as a warning,” Sánchez said.

The influx of illicit substances has meant an increase in the country’s crime rate. “Murder is at an all-time high,” said Singh. “Drug activities have certainly contributed to this increase.”

The UNODC report corroborates Singh’s statement, noting that “the murder rates in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Belize are three to five times higher than in Mexico, and both the economy and the state are far less robust and resilient.”

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