Even when a government has carried out the most assiduous narcotics control law enforcement measures, a country can be placed on the United States Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries list. This is exactly what happened to Belize for Fiscal Year 2015. Major drug transit or illicit drug producing countries are placed on the list due to the combination of geographic, commercial, and economic factors that allow drugs to be produced and transported within its boundaries.
Because of its geographic location – right next to Guatemala and below Mexico – and its proportionally small population – slightly over 340,000 people to an area close to 9,000 square miles–, the country has morphed into a type of storage location for drugs being transported to the lucrative U.S. market.
Diálogo talked about this and other issues affecting Belize’s national security with Brigadier General David Jones, commander of Belize Defence Force, during the XIII Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC), held in Nassau, Bahamas, from 20-23 January 2015.
DIÁLOGO: We don’t hear enough about Belize when it comes to issues with drugs or gangs, but we know they are present. Why is there a perception outside of Belize that everything is peaceful and tranquil in your country?
Brigadier General David Jones: Perhaps because it is not displayed much in the international news, but locally we do have the same problems as the rest of the region. Gangs have manifested themselves in Belize, and we are within the top ten, perhaps the top six countries with the highest murder rates in the world, because our gangs have been killing each other for years now, at least over the last decade. We’ve had close to 35-to-40 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants during last year, and that is pretty high for a former British Commonwealth country, which was always known to be peaceful.
DIÁLOGO: So much so, it used to be called the Jewel in the Caribbean…
Brig. Gen. David Jones: Exactly! However, there are some problems behind that apparent tranquility. Gang violence has manifested itself. The police aren’t able to control the situation. The Belize Defence Force, our military, has had to step up and assist the police in trying to curb the issue of crime, and apart from that we have narcotrafficking, which is the reason why we are here for this conference, because a lot of drugs pass through our country by land, sea, and by air. So apart from the gang problems, we also have the issue of narcotrafficking that is passing through, and that perpetuates the problem, because with that comes more money to fill the gang activity, and then arms and ammunition trafficking passes through, and then human trafficking as well. A lot of drugs are passing through Belize on their way up to United States.
DIÁLOGO: What does the Belizean Constitution say when it comes to the Belize Defence Force supporting the police in these situations?
Brig. Gen. David Jones: The Belize Defence Force is formed primarily for the defense of the country, but part of our mission is to also provide aid to the civil authorities, which means that assisting the police department is actually mandated. We hope that it’s not on a permanent basis as with many of the other Caribbean islands. However, last year, for the first time in 23 years, the Belize Defence Force had moved off the streets from working with the Police. The police are now in the capital city, where most of the gang problem is. We are trying to move away so that the Police are definitely the face of the steel and not the military. We prefer not to have our military aiming our weapons at our own citizens. We discussed that at the National Security Council level and agreed upon it, and we have taken the step to get the military off the streets. The police seems to be in control of the situation, and we always stand ready if they need our assistance. We will go back and assist, similarly to the rest of the Caribbean islands.
DIÁLOGO: Belize is part of the Caribbean, but geographically it’s part of Central America, meaning that it’s pretty close to the region located in the eye of the storm, so to speak, when it comes to drug trafficking. Is Belize working together with its neighbors to gather and share information?
Brig. Gen. David Jones: Yes. Geographically, we are located in Central America, but traditionally and in reality we are a Caribbean country. We were a British Commonwealth. It is an English-speaking country. It’s the only country in Central America that is English speaking, so we have close ties with the Caribbean because we share a similar culture, and fortunately, we also have those close ties with Central America and South America, because we share a lot of the same problem of narcotrafficking. We have conferences with the other Central American countries, and we share a border to our north with Mexico and to our south and west with Guatemala. Those countries have the same problems as ours, so we have to work with them. As a result, we pledged to work not only with the Central American countries but also with the South American countries because we have a regional problem that affects every country in that region, including us. The only way for us to fight and curb the issue of narcotrafficking is to fight together as a network and share information. We’ve started to do that and these conferences are ideal for that, because I personally get to meet the heads of the various countries. There’s a similar conference in Central America [CENTSEC], and I’ll get to meet the heads of the delegations, heads of the military from Central America there as well, so we can discuss how we can share information and work with each other to achieve our common goals.
DIÁLOGO: How do Belize and the United States collaborate and work together?
Brig. Gen. David Jones: Belize has been getting substantial support from the U.S. They are our greatest supporter and they are helping more than other countries around the world. They have seen the strategic importance of Belize’s role in the efforts to counter narcotrafficking and apart from pledging their support; they have proven that they are willing to assist us. So they have made substantial donations to us to improve our capacity building for military and for our police, and they have sent troops into Belize to conduct training and to do repairs and maintenance of some of our vehicles or aircraft and also on our boats; and they work closely with our Coast Guard. I have seen a significant increase of support from the U.S. government and U.S. Military last year, and that is expected to increase even more this year and beyond, which is promising news. We are glad to receive their support and we are willing to play our part to combat organized crime and narcotrafficking in this region.
DIÁLOGO: What is the Belize Defence Force’s biggest challenge?
Brig. Gen. David Jones: The biggest challenge is our lack of resources. There is also a need for more training for our troops, but most of all I think we need to increase the size of our Force. We know what the problem is. We’re aware of it and are sure where the narcotrafficking is passing through, but we don’t really have the resources, in particular, air support. Air support is critical to curbing the issues that we have because sometimes we have the aircraft that come in from Venezuela, Colombia, or somewhere else in South America. It goes directly to Belize and lands here. We don’t have the air capability to pursue any aircraft at all, so they come in and they leave almost as they please because we don’t have that air capability to interdict these aircraft when they come in.
DIÁLOGO: What type of collaboration is there with other countries?
Brig. Gen. David Jones: We should have a closer collaboration with our Mexican and Guatemalan counterparts, because we share a border with each other. We are working closer with each other, but there is more to be done, we need to cooperate more, but I believe we are moving in the right direction when it comes to Mexico and Guatemala, and with continued conferences like this that open the doors to more collaboration between the governments of the three countries and the rest of the Central America. I can see great progress in the future for Belize working with the rest of its Central American neighbors.