In the fight against organized crime, Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras grab the headlines—but politicos and analysts neglect to mention Belize.
This Central American country of 330,000 bordering Mexico and Guatemala is fast becoming fertile ground for organized crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and piracy. At 39 murders per 100,000 persons Belize is the fifth most dangerous country in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Honduras is the most dangerous with 86 homicides per 100,000, and Venezuela registers fourth at 67 per 100,000.
UNODC also adds that “intentional homicides” have doubled in Belize City, the country’s coastal commercial capital, since 2004.
Gangs working for Mexican cartels are to blame: according to the Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB), 43 percent of youth aged 14-24 are unemployed, while 46 percent of the total labor force is illiterate. Moreover, only 12 percent of the total labor force has completed high school.
Poor education quality and lack of economic opportunity are variables that push youth into environments of crime. Initiation into a local gang could lead to contract work for Mexican cartels that promise anything a young man could ever want: money; drugs; status; and power. Aside from routine murders and robberies, these same gangs are also responsible for the 2011 raid of the Belize Defense Force (BDF) armory in Ladyville, taking M-16 and M4 military issue riffles, 9 millimeter handguns, and grenades.
Gangs are, however, only part of the equation. Belize’s topography supports the growth and transportation of illegal substances. Jungles provide natural cover for drug laboratories. Cocaine is easily brought to Belize through unguarded air strips and exposed waterways; along the coast, speedboats deposit uncut cocaine. Airstrips alongside the northern border with Mexico and the western border with Guatemala allow criminals to introduce loot for passage through Mexico and into the United States.
There are also signs that police forces are involved with narcotraffickers—especially with Mexico’s elite Zetas hit squad. In 2010, police stopped traffic and lit a highway to allow a night landing for a twin-engine Beechcraft crammed with $130 million worth of cocaine. The cargo was seized by national authorities with aid from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) after the craft clipped a wing.
A meeting between Mexican and Belize officials under the auspices of the Mexico-Belize Binational Commission took place in August. Relaxed chemical import laws in Belize and drug smuggling were central to the meeting. The group has met seven times and is in the process of boosting intelligence sharing, coordinating border patrols and modernizing border infrastructure.
The United States is also demonstrating its concern. The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) blacklisted two associates of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for operating in Belize. In addition, the White House placed Belize on its Majors List for uncontrolled transit of illegal substances through its territory.
Moreover, Belize’s military lacks the basic hardware and training to intercept air and water shipments. Helicopters, boats and updated radar systems are lacking despite increased U.S. technical and tactical assistance through the Mérida Initiative.
Another issue of concern is Belize’s level of corruption and frail rule of law. Here, Belize shares its current fate with the remainder of Central America. Poor training and low pay for civil servants leaves the system vulnerable. Bribes are common as are case dismissals for lack of evidence in the justice system. Training in forensic science, crime scene protection and legal protocols are just some of the basic training needs for the country’s police and judicial officers.
All of this, unfortunately, presents a golden opportunity for narcotraffickers. Belize’s institutions are weak, police corruptible and unemployed population aplenty. Cartels appreciate the fact that the U.S. and Mexico give this nation little attention—allowing them to cultivate, package, transport and sell everything from cocaine to prostitutes and child workers to anyone willing to pay the price.
It’s time for North America to reverse course and act on the deepening crime rate and narcotics activity in Belize.
*Juan Manuel Henao is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a consultant based in Mexico City and former Mexico Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based not-for-profit democracy promotion organization.