By landing their lucrative cargo in Belize, the traffickers avoid detection by beefed-up Mexican army and navy patrols, marking the latest advance by the Mexican cartels into Central America’s impoverished, weak states, through which as much as 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States now passes, according to U.S. assessments.
Belize’s growing role as a smuggling corridor prompted the Obama administration to add it to the annual “black list” of countries considered major drug producers or transit routes for narcotics. The 22-state list, announced last month, now includes every nation in Central America, a sign that more and more territory is coming under the influence of the cartels.
U.S. officials estimate that about 10 metric tons of cocaine are smuggled along Belize’s Caribbean coast each year en route to American consumers, the world’s most voracious illicit drug users. Additional loads arrive on flights from Colombia and Venezuela, landing on Belize’s farm roads and highways, where the shipments can be quickly unpacked, broken down into smaller bundles and ferried across the Rio Hondo into southern Mexico.
“We’re part of the funnel,” Police Minister Douglas Singh said in an interview here. “Mexico is above us, and Guatemala and Belize are part of the funnel you have to go through to get to Mexico. That’s making a lot of legitimate and illegitimate businessmen here prosper. But it makes us very vulnerable.”
With just 320,000 people, this country roughly the size of Massachusetts has a long coastline and a rugged geography that appeals to hammock-swinging tourists and drug traffickers alike. Its security forces are tiny and ill-equipped.
Since 2008, the Belizean government has received about $15 million in U.S. security assistance, including boats and other vehicles, communications gear and training programs, part of the nearly $2 billion in counter-narcotics aid that the United States has provided or pledged to Mexico and Central America.
But Belize remains a pushover for the powerful drug barons. The country does not have a radar system that can track unauthorized flights. Its military lacks helicopters, let alone other basic hardware. Belizean police don’t even have the ability to intercept cellphone communications.
“They’re lucky if they’ve got gas to put in their cars to go out and do stuff,” said one senior U.S. law enforcement official working in the region, speaking on the condition of anonymity per security protocols.
Escalating gang violence
Belize has been spared the kind of broader mayhem raging across Mexico, Honduras and in next-door Guatemala, where Mexican cartels have laid siege to large swaths of territory and carried out terrifying attacks.