The cancer continues to spread throughout Central America
Belize Falling Under the Drug Cartel Influence
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In 2011, Belize was added to the USA’s “blacklist” of nations considered to be major producers or transit routes for illegal drugs as it became further enmeshed in the cocaine pipeline from South America up to Mexico and the United States.
Approximately 10 tons of cocaine (with a street value in excess of half a billion dollars) passes through Belize each year. The increasing presence and influence of the drug cartels in this Central American country continue to wreak havoc on government institutions and public safety. Between 2000 and 2011, the intentional homicide rate in Belize more than doubled up to a level four times that of Costa Rica (which is also suffering under the cartels), three times that of Nicaragua, twice the rate in Panama, and even higher than in Guatemala. Only El Salvador and Honduras had higher murder rates than Belize among the Central American group in 2011, but Belize’s rate was increasing far faster over the past decade. According to just released 2012 data, Belize’s homicide rate has now passed that of El Salvador to take possession of second place behind Honduras. The murder rates in Belize’s most populous cities are higher than all other Central American nations except Guatemala, and Belize is barely behind Guatemala’s homicide capitals.
As expected, the cartel influence in Belize is linked directly to that of neighboring Mexico. Larger shipments of cocaine are now being transported into Belize from the South American pipeline, rather than sent directly into Mexico, and subsequently broken up into harder-to-detect small packages that can be sent across the Mexican border. Despite millions of dollars each year in policing and military assistance from the USA, and more recent assistance from Canada, Belize’s security forces remain woefully under equipped. As the Washington Post reported, the country lacks basic radar systems to track unauthorized flights, the military doesn’t even have helicopters, and cellphone communications cannot be intercepted. The Minister of Police acknowledges the deficiencies, claiming that “we’re operating in the 1960s in terms of tools and technology.” Limited financial resources are instead being devoted to social programs, a shortsighted approach that sacrifices long-term national security for short-term political benefits.
Corruption is on the increase as well. In late 2010, a cocaine shipment valued at almost 10 percent of Belize’s annual GDP was intercepted. But an investigation revealed local police had attempted to help the traffickers. Trafficking of drugs through the country isn’t the only problem anymore. As has been reported in Costa Rica, Belize is now also becoming a producer. Mexican drug cartels—notably the Zetas—are involved in marijuana grow operations on Belize territory. The Sinaloa, Pacific, and Gulf cartels are present, as are El Salvador‚Äôs MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. Many members of Guatemala’s El Mendozas and El Lorenzanas drug and contraband trafficking organizations are also believed to be active in Belize.
Security officials attest to the rising concerns over increasing cartel influence and corruption, saying that “we are in a phase of facilitating the cartels ... We do not actively support them, but we don‚Äôt stop them, either.” Anti-corruption laws in Belize are widely known to be weak and ineffective. International rankings of regulatory quality, political stability, rule of law, and government effectiveness show Belize on the decline. The nation’s police force numbers only 1,000, all for a nation of 23,000 square kilometers, a population of 335,000, almost 2,000 km of coastline, and 516 km of land borders—of which the border with Mexico makes up 250 km, with the remaining 266 km adjoining Guatemala.
John McAffee, the founder of the McAffee Antivirus program, was caught up in a bizarre case of apparent government corruption when his Belize residence was raided by the Gang Suppression Unit and Belize Defense Borders, a raid thought to have been orchestrated by a disgruntled politician whom McAffee failed to donate to.
While the South Americans are exporting their cocaine to, and through, Belize, the United States is exporting its gangs there. Belize City has Bloods vs. Crips gang wars between American deportees originally from Belize, and even police stations are under direct attack. The nation’s Mennonite community also appears to be working for the traffickers, similar to the recently reported links between Mennonites in Alberta, Canada, and the Mexican drug cartels. The Mexican interactions with Belize travel in both directions, and are expanding the scope of the drug movements. Two well-known Belizean businessmen were arrested during February 2013 in Mexico City as part of a drug raid at the home of one of the Sinaloa cartel leaders that uncovered forty-five kilograms of crystal methamphetamine brought up from Belize. Links are also emerging between Belize, Hezbollah, and illegal international arms trafficking, which will undoubtedly be exacerbated by the drug cartels ongoing weakening of Belize’s institutions. Belize’s authorities tried to stem the drug-induced gang wars by paying members to stop the violence, but the government money ran out in late 2012.
In early 2014, senior officials from Mexico and Belize met to discuss transnational drug trafficking and related issues. But Washington is clearly growing frustrated with Belize’s apparent lack of effort in fighting the cartels. As part of its most recent International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the State Department indicated that “Belize’s counternarcotics efforts are hampered by corruption, deficiencies in intelligence gathering and analysis, an antiquated judicial sector, and a lack of political will.” According to this report, although 10 tons of cocaine transits Belize each year, during the first ten months of 2013, authorities had only seized three kilograms of the substance from traffickers.
Like other nations in the region, Belize is often portrayed as a tourist paradise with few problems from international crime. The reality is far different as the drug cartels continue to tighten their stranglehold on Central America.