The sleepy port towns, mangrove swamps and jungle airstrips of poorly defended, tiny Belize are becoming prime gateways for drug trafficking as Mexico’s billionaire mafias carve out new smuggling routes through Central America.

Using light aircraft and ultra-fast boats, traffickers are moving more and more South American cocaine through Belize into Mexico, U.S. narcotics agents and Belizean officials say.

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.

But escalating gang violence in Belize City has put the country’s homicide count on pace for an all-time high, with more than 100 killings so far in 2011. Belize’s per-capita homicide rate was even higher than Guatemala’s last year, and the fifth highest in the hemisphere, according to U.N. data. Police say the bloodletting is driven partly by the abundance of cocaine on the streets, as foreign traffickers pay their local contacts in raw product, rather than cash.

Already there are signs the country’s security forces have been co-opted. Last November, Belizean officials working with agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency seized 2.6 metric tons of cocaine after a twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air 200 clipped its wing while landing on the country’s southern highway. Crooked police had blocked traffic and laid out lanterns to mark a midnight runway, according to investigators. It was the largest drug seizure in the country’s history, worth $131 million — equal to nearly 10 percent of Belize’s annual gross domestic product.

Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize is Central America’s youngest and only English-speaking nation. It has enjoyed peaceful, democratic rule since gaining independence in 1981, but U.S. officials worry that those gains will erode if cartel operatives continue to burrow their way into the country by buying off political and business elites.

The country also faces an unemployment time bomb, with 50 percent of its population younger than 20, according to Vinai Thummalapally, the U.S. ambassador to Belize. “Poverty and the lack of opportunities for young men here are a major concern,” he said.

U.S. officials say they do not believe that the drug syndicates have established a significant physical presence in Belizean territory, but Singh, Belize’s top police official, said Mexican businessmen thought to be working for Mexico’s Gulf and Sinaloa cartels have recently been detected in the country.

The language difference is no obstacle to the Mexican traffickers, authorities say, because waves of Spanish-speaking migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala have settled in Belize’s northern and western districts — areas that are now trafficking hot spots.

In October 2010, Otoniel Turcios, a Guatemalan trafficker with ties to Mexico’s Zetas drug cartel, was arrested in the town of San Ignacio in western Belize, then put on a DEA flight to New York to face federal drug-trafficking charges.

Elsewhere around Belize, there are signs of a booming narcotics trade.

In the northern Orange Walk district, an agricultural area known for sugar cane, citrus and large farms run by prosperous German-speaking Mennonites, Belizean officials say drug flights have been landing under cover of darkness near the Mexican border. Belize’s deputy military commander, Col. Javier Castellanos, said rogue members of the otherwise lawful Mennonite community appear to be working for the traffickers, smoothing out illegal airstrips that were destroyed by the army.

Farther north, in the port town of Corozal, just south of Mexico, a former dockworker said he has personally helped unload multiple boatloads of cocaine in the past year, including one shipment whose worth he estimated at $40 million.

And in Caye Caulker, an island resort famous for its sand streets and laid-back Caribbean lifestyle, residents say fast boats can be heard racing up the coast in the middle of the night several times a week. At dawn, beachcombers search the water’s edge for washed-up treasure — shrink-wrapped packages of uncut cocaine.

Tensions with Guatemala

Tensions have been especially high along Belize’s disputed border with Guatemala, where Guatemalan squatters have long been clearing patches of protected Belizean forest to plant corn and beans. Only now, the farmers are growing marijuana, under protection — or orders — from the Zetas drug cartel, according to the Belizean military officers who patrol the area.

“They carve messages for us in the trees with machetes that say, ‘We are watching you,’ signed with a ‘Z,’ ” said Capt. Ian Cunha, commander of a unit that exchanged fire with two alleged cartel gunmen in August, wounding one of the attackers.

“These guys used to be poor farmers, but now they’ve got
AK-47s and brand-new dirt bikes,” he said.

Belizean officers said their remote surveillance stations have also spotted light aircraft landing near the Guatemala border, but one commander said he didn’t think his superiors were interested in truly challenging the traffickers — either because they were paid off or intimidated.

“I personally think we are in a phase of facilitating the cartels,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. “We do not actively support them, but we don’t stop them, either.”

“It’s shortsighted,” he said. “We may get money now, but we’ll be dead tomorrow.”

Correspondent William Booth in Mexico City contributed to this report, which was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.