The body was found on August 11, buried in a shallow grave on a beach in remote Ambergris Caye, an island off mainland Belize near the border with Mexico. The 57-year-old man's throat had been slit and his body had multiple stab wounds. Police said he also bore signs of torture.
The victim, identified as Santiago Trapp, reportedly lived in a wooden shack that was burned down during his murder. This building was once known as a fishermen's camp but, according to police, it had recently become a base for playadores, or beachcombers.
Yet these beachcombers don't hunt for shells or buried treasure, but rather for parcels of drugs dropped into the ocean by traffickers. This makes Trapp another likely casualty in an ongoing narco turf war that is plaguing San Pedro, the island's only town. Meanwhile, Ambergris Caye was ranked Tripadvisor's number one island in the world for the second year in a row in February.
Beachfront property in San Pedro, Belize. Locals affectionately refer to the island as La Isla Bonita — The Pretty Island. Photo by Engee Jay
"The crime that we're facing right now is all drug related," San Pedro Mayor Daniel Guerrero, speaking with hints of Belizean Creole, told VICE News. "The people that have been killed, it's because of two different gangs."
Those groups are the Bloods and the Crips, named after the notorious Los Angeles street gangs that they descended from. Like in the US, the Bloods wear red while the Crips wear blue. Their criminal activity has been exacerbated by the drug parcels that often wash up on the beach here, a byproduct of the trafficking routes along the Atlantic coast of Central America.
"Colombians drop drugs across the reef, but those drugs sometimes drift into areas on the far north of the island. So they have these people combing, trying to find the drugs," Luis Castellanos, police superintendent for Ambergris Caye, told VICE News.
The Belizean police are not entirely sure when the phenomenon began, but authorities and residents agree that South American drug traffickers are "wet dropping" — leaving large parcels of cocaine in international waters at select drop points, where they float until being picked up by Mexican associates who then smuggle them north to the US.
When the packages are washed ashore in Ambergris Caye by changing tides and weather conditions, they are known as "sea lotto" or "white grouper," Mayor Guerrero said.
The playadores are stationed by the gangs to patrol the beach and retrieve the parcels, which often leads to violent encounters with rivals. Finding shallow graves, like the one where Trapp's corpse was discovered, has become a common occurrence here and Trapp's death marks the sixth murder in the area this year. However, the current violence goes beyond a simple Bloods vs. Crips color war — instead stemming from the hunt for sea lotto.
A man walks through an alley in San Pedro, where the walls have been tagged by the Bloods. Photo by Engee Jay
But locals and police are most troubled by the fact that the violence is increasingly spreading south, toward San Pedro. "That problem happening up there is trickling down here," confirmed Superintendent Castellanos. "It's becoming a turf war."
The town became infamous for John McAfee (the millionaire anti-virus software tycoon and bath salt enthusiast), his run-in with the law, and subsequent international manhunt.
This year, San Pedro has seen a spike in drug-related shootings and murders. And much of the violence in Belize — ranked by the UN as the sixth most violent country in the world, with a murder rate of 44.7 per 100,000 in 2012 — is attributed to the gangs.
The emergence of the Bloods and Crips can be traced back to the 1980s and 90s, when Belizean nationals who were members in the US were deported back to Belize, along with their acquired gang culture and affiliations. For years, they were primarily concentrated in Belize City on the mainland, but sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s both Bloods and Crips began appearing in San Pedro.
Walking around San Pedro, the different cliques are easily spotted by their colors. If a guy is wearing solid red or blue, it's highly likely he's affiliated to a gang. Locals know it would be dangerous to wear those colors otherwise. In alleys around the city, the words Bloods and Crips can be seen spray-painted on walls.
A Crips tag sprayed on a wall in San Pedro, accompanied by a Crip-blue handprint. Photo by Engee Jay
For years, northern Ambergris Caye has apparently been controlled by the Campos Crips.
VICE News spoke to a local drug dealer, who requested that his name be omitted for fear of reprisal. "The big fish is Moses Campos," he said. "He's got guys walking the beach for him every day."
Trapp is believed to have been a playador for Campos. His family claimed he was a caretaker of the shack where he lived, found burnt to the ground about half a mile away from where his body was buried. The owner of the shack was reportedly Moses Campos.
The picturesque beachfront is less plagued by garbage than it is by drug violence. Photo by Engee Jay
Known to locals as La Isla Bonita — yes, in reference to the Madonna song — San Pedro is a town of less than 20,000 people, where coconut trees sit picturesquely next to crystal clear blue water, and golf carts are the main mode of transportation on the island's few roads.
Until recently, it had not been known as a violent place, but rather as a premier travel destination. Located along the world's second largest barrier reef, it has been transformed over the past decade from a small fishing village to the tourism hub of the country.
'A man who would not normally commit a crime is driven to desperate measures because he can't make an honest living.'
"The stretch of beachfront on the entire island has been sold out to foreign investment," Mayor Guerrero told VICE News. "The big hotels, the big condos, the big restaurants are all owned by foreigners." This has led to large discrepancy in wealth between foreigners and locals, leading many impoverished Belizeans to turn to gang life, and fishing the sea lotto.
While poor Belizeans from the mainland still see San Pedro as a land of opportunity, the influx of mainlanders and a lack of locally-owned businesses have created a workforce that far exceeds the available jobs.
"They bring a hammer, a skill, but there are so many laborers available fighting for that same job," an American restaurant owner who only employs local people told VICE News anonymously. "So a man who would not normally commit a crime is driven to desperate measures because he can't make an honest living."
The few locals who do own small restaurants or groceries proudly advertise "Belizean owned" on their signs to try and encourage customers to shop there.
A local store advertises that it is not a foreign-owned business. Photo by Engee Jay
"Young people coming out of college, or high school. They're going to the drug dealers, and asking them for a job," David, a security guard who requested anonymity due to his close connections to the gangs, told VICE News.
David works 12-hour shifts, six days a week, for $700 a month, protecting a housing community that caters to foreign timeshares. However, before he worked here, he too was a gang member in San Pedro. He left his family and school on the mainland and moved to Ambergris Caye at the age of 12. He got by through dealing drugs and said that he could make half a month's salary in a single night.
"I was a skeleton. The same way I was selling it, I was consuming it," explained David. He believes the gang life would have left him dead. "It's messed up. If I didn't have enough people watching my back I would have been killed by now."
At 18, his mother came to see him in San Pedro. "She started crying, she said I was a mess. I said I know I'm a mess," David recalled. "I asked her to take me home. She was waiting to hear that. That minute I started packing my stuff."
David returned to his hometown on the mainland for a year, working on construction sites for as little as $10 a day. Struggling to get by and support his mother, he was soon forced to return to San Pedro in search of work.
'They kill you because nobody looks, nobody will find you at all, until a couple of months later in pieces, decayed already.'
He said that he still sometimes needs to "bleach out" — working construction by day, in between nightshifts, without sleeping — to get by. He has also begun selling some weed on the side, to foreigners at the community he guards.
David said the gang members he once called his friends still loom on the island, making more money than him but risking their lives in an escalating turf war.
Residents told VICE News that in this tourist hub the amount of murders that actually get reported are well below the actual number and disappearances are more common than authorities let on.
"They kill you because nobody looks, nobody will find you at all, until a couple of months later in pieces, decayed already," said David.
A fishing dock falls into ruin. Newer piers for tour boats have become increasingly more important for the local economy. Photo by Engee Jay
Norman and Susanna Eiley are well-known San Pedranos and have seen the island's transformation firsthand — from fishing, to tourism, to gang violence.
"Everybody knew everybody, then it slowly started to shift. More tourists started to come, and more fishermen became tour guides," Norman told VICE News. "All I knew was the sea, so I became a tour guide."
His son, Jeffrey, shared his love of the water and became a tour guide as well. "He was a fish," said Norman. "He always said behind the reef was his playground, and the reef was his white picket fence."
Everything changed for the Eileys on March 6, 2014. "We heard blasts of gunshots and it threw me out of bed," Norman said. "Someone rolled up and said it was Jeffrey. That was the worst feeling."
Norman and his wife Susanna rushed outside to find their son lying on the street, riddled with bullet wounds.
"They shot up his entire arm — both arms. I tried to cradle his body, then he bit me here. This is the scar," said Norman, pointing to a place on his forearm where Jeffrey clenched his teeth to try to ease the pain. "I play with it all the time to feel his presence. He died shortly after that, in my hands."
'When you're a parent, and a child dies there's nothing — there's no name for it.'
Jeffrey, who had no drug connections or gang affiliations, allegedly got into an argument with a well-known associate of Moses Campos, named Rafael Juarez. Witnesses say that Juarez threatened Jeffrey's life and allege that he followed up on that threat at around 2am. Police have named Juarez as a person of interest in the case, but he is believed to have left Ambergris Caye and, almost six months later, has not yet been tracked down.
"We're not used to anyone coming to kill our kids," Susanna said. "Growing up we didn't see what we're seeing now. I didn't even know what a gun looks like. How come this Campos, no one can catch him? He has been in this island for so long. We all know what he does."
After Jeffrey's death, hundreds of San Pedranos marched through the town demanding peace. But this symbolic gesture amounted to little more than that. The Eileys resent that their hometown is being destroyed by drug trade and gang violence, but the loss of their son has obviously been the hardest blow. "When your husband dies, you're a widow. But when you're a parent, and a child dies there's nothing — there's no name for it," Susanna said.
Jeffrey Eiley´s parents, Susanna and Norman, hold up a photo of their son, and hold hands in remembrance. Photo by Engee Jay
Even the head of the local Crips is not immune from gang violence. On April 25, rivals reportedly tried to kill Campos and his sons. They were reportedly sitting in a golf cart on their property by the lagoon when six masked men came by and unleashed a barrage of bullets. They were not hit, but this was just the most recent attack on Campos' control of San Pedro.
Sources close to the Campos Crips told VICE News that they still do not know who was responsible for the attack. Yet in the weeks following the incident, two men believed to be small-time drug dealers were apparently murdered by the Crips in the San Juan area, just to the north of San Pedro, allegedly in retaliation.
"They are just trying to show their power over the island," an anonymous drug dealer told VICE News. "We got two guys dead and nobody cared how they died."
"The police know who killed them and don't give a [#%!]," he said. "I don't know who is next. Something bad is gonna happen to someone. I hope it doesn't happen to me."
The government of Belize has begun to take the violence and gang presence seriously. In June, experienced police officer Henry Jemmott was brought in from Belize City and given the post of deputy coastal officer in San Pedro. He's brought in his own team — a combined special force of officers from the Quick Response Team and Anti-Drug Unit.
"I was slated to go with the GSU [the Gang Suppression Unit], but things change, and now I'm here in San Pedro," Jemmott told VICE News.
"We've embarked on a big operation called Clearwater, where we have targeted specific people — the drug dealers," he added. "My purpose in San Pedro is after that little [crime] spike, to send it back to normal."
An empty pier in San Pedro for tour boats to dock. Photo by Engee Jay
An eerie calm has come recently over the Ambergris Caye. Rumors swirl about the imminent arrival of the mysterious GSU, which was created in April 2010 to address Belize's increasing gang-related violence and is known for its extreme tactics in fighting crime.
In a well-reported incident in 2013, four high-ranking members of the George Street Bloods in Belize City, including the second in command, were found dead in an apartment with their throats slit, after apparently being tortured. Although the GSU has repeatedly denied involvement, it is widely believed that it was responsible.
The government's only response in Belize City has been the continued threat of the heavily militarized GSU.
"People are afraid of the GSU," Mayor Guerrero said. "If I decide that I need a GSU cleanup, I call the central office, and the government will send them. But they never give you a date. When they come its one, two, three, four, BAM! Then they're out of here."
"They're not coming to guess where you are, they've done their homework," the mayor confirmed. "I think it's good for the country to have something like that, because at some point the people get out of hand, you know? You have to get everything under control."