By Erica Illingworth
Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Currently, Belize is struggling with an onslaught of drug trafficking, a common theme experienced by many Latin American countries, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. You can now add Belize to the list that is now caught up in the “War on Drugs.” Geographically, Belize shares a northern border with Mexico, a western one with Guatemala, and access to the Gulf and several Caribbean countries. Its physical location and the increasing violence in Mexico and Guatemala make Belize an ideal transshipment point to the US market.
To counter the drug trafficking threat, Belize has followed the US’s policy by adopting a hardline approach and cracking-down on drugs. Belize has looked to its allies – the US, Canada and the UK – to help strengthen its military, called the Belize Defence Force, and the country’s police force. The question is whether this militaristic approach is the best option for tiny Belize because the same approach has arguably failed in Mexico and Guatemala. After laying out the facts, Belize may want to look at other options, like marijuana legalization and investing in new social programs, to combat the drug problem into which it has fallen.
Belize: A History of Drugs
Belize, with a population of 342,092, has the lowest population density in Central and South America.[i] Being so small, Belize relies to a large extent on external resources, such as remesas (remittance) and overseas trade to keep its economy functioning. This present global emergence has led to the current development of strong and close ties with its allies, but has also intensified the drug trafficking problem.
Marijuana cultivation in Belize started in the districts of Corozal and Orange Walk in the 1960s. The marijuana boom was a response to declining sugar prices in the world market, and marijuana production and sale became a lucrative and financially rewarding business.[ii] Sugar cane growers turned to marijuana production as a way to make ends meet. However, marijuana production and narcotics sales did not end there. Belize’s perfect location as a drug transshipment point, its open borders, free trade agreements, and large, unpopulated tracts of land has provided significant opportunity for drug production and trafficking to thrive.
Belize: Falling Apart
Belize’s trade suffered during the recession of 2008. Its exports before the recession were recorded at $464.7 million USD, but dropped to $395 million USD in 2009. Belize’s imports also decreased during the recession. Before 2008, its imports were reported to be $788.1 million USD, and in 2009 it was recorded to be $616 million USD.[iii] Belize’s economy has not bounced back from the 2008 recession, and since then, corruption has spread widely while drug trafficking and violence has increased significantly. The recession led to a revitalization of the marijuana production boom that occurred during the 1960s. Again, one can see that Belizean produce growers have turned back to marijuana production to make ends meet. With little economic opportunity, Belizean youth turn to drug trafficking.
The unemployment rate in Belize has increased to 12.1 percent, in 2014, from 11.7 percent, in 2013. However, this is a noteworthy improvement from 2010, when Belize’s unemployment hit 23.3 percent.[iv] Employment levels have been improving in Belize, but it has yet to be as low as it was before the recession when unemployment was at 8.2 percent.[v] Crime has also become of increasing concern and, in 2012, Belize reported 40 homicides per 100,000 habitants.[vi] The US Department of the State reports that the majority of the homicides in Belize occurred in the southern portion of Belize City which is an area that “has become increasingly violent due to ongoing gang warfare between local groups for control of lucrative narcotics smuggling routes and sales rights.”[vii] The Belizean government has responded to this drug trade-related violence by taking a stronger stance on the issue, and building up its defense and police force.
Belize Facing the Drug Problem
The US-led ‘War on Drugs’ in Mexico and Guatemala has led to a ‘balloon effect’ because of the countries’ aggressive, militarized policy towards the drug traffickers. This ‘balloon effect’ has caused the illegal drug activities to migrate to Belize from Mexico and Guatemala. In 2011, the US added Belize to its ‘blacklist’ of nations, consisting of countries that are believed to be major producers or transit routes for illegal drugs in Central America.[viii] Belize has become further enmeshed in the cocaine pipeline from South America up to Mexico and, in the US’s opinion, Belize is not strong enough to guard itself from the threat of being pulled into the drug trade, exacerbating its concerns.
According to the Canada Free Press, “approximately 10 tons of cocaine, with an approximate street value of an excess of half a billion dollars, passes through Belize each year.”[ix] The increasing presence of drugs in Belize makes crime rates and corruption more visible in Belize. In 2012, Belize’s homicide rate was second in Central America, only surpassed by Honduras. Corruption was made visible when, in 2010, it was reported that a cocaine shipment valued at almost 10 percent of Belize’s GDP was intercepted. An investigation revealed that local police attempted to help the drug traffickers.[x] Criminal gangs have also increased their activities in Belize. The Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, is involved in the cultivation of marijuana in Belize. Also, members of Guatemala’s El Mendozas and El Lorenzanas drug and contraband trafficking organizations are also reported to have spilled over into Belize.[xi]
Belizean Government Response to Drugs
Belize’s reaction to the drug problem followed in the footsteps of the US. The Belizean government took a militarized approach to tackle the drug problem it has now found itself facing. It turned to the US and Canada to train and strengthen its military and defense force. One such approach, which was instituted in 2000, was the Belize National Anti-Drug Strategy. This modest report states that it “aims to reduce demand and supply of drugs by 50 percent during the next five years, and to alleviate the consequences associated with drug use and trafficking.”[xii] Along with reducing the demand for illicit drugs, the report also states that the Belizean government wants to reduce the demand for legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.
When this report was first published, the US estimated that each operation within this strategy would cost an estimated $40,000 USD to $50,000 USD. The US, prior to this strategy, already has given the Belizean government $4.6 million USD in financial aid to counter the drug problem.[xiii] The US aid that was being given to Belize prior to this strategy shows that the US was aware of the impending doom that Belize would have to face. Once Belize was hit by the drug problem, the US quickly shifted to a militaristic approach.
Since the 2000 report, the US has increased its involvement in the diminutive country. Beginning in 2011, the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) began a series of operations in Belize and other Central American countries, called “Beyond the Horizons and New Horizons.” According to SOUTHCOM, the US military was deployed to Belize, Dominican Republic and Guatemala to conduct comprehensive humanitarian and civic assistance exercises.[xiv] The missions are continuing today, with the objective of supporting the Belizean military and police forces to intensify the fight against narcotic traffickers. United States troops are training Belizean troops how to effectively patrol rivers, destroy clandestine airstrips (normally used by drug runners), and turn over urban villages that have been seized by gangs. General John Kelly, the head of US Southern Command, told the Marine Corps Times, “What we at SOUTHCOM … are trying to do is train the Central American nations to seize as much as they can on their borders, in their littorals, or in the riverine systems while [the drugs are] still in large loads.”[xv]
Another military operation the US supports and openly backs is Operation MARTILLO. It was launched in January 2012, and it combines the military forces of ten Latin American countries, the US, Canada, the UK, France and the Netherlands. It is a multi-national operation where each of the members works together to combat international drug trafficking, enhance regional security, and promote peace, stability and prosperity throughout Central and South America.[xvi]
Despite much criticism that a militaristic approach to combat drug traffickers is markedly ineffective, Canada is fully supporting and participating in Operation MARTILLO. Due to their comparable systems of government and shared cultural ties, as members of the British Commonwealth, Canada and Belize have positive bilateral relations.[xvii] Canada is involved with Belize regarding issues that include development, defense, citizen security and climate change.
The Canadian Department of Defence is seeking opportunities to help strengthen the efficiency and capacity of the Belizean military, by providing assistance to its strategic defense and security review. One example of assistance is when the Canadian military forces donated two thousand load-carrying vests to the Belize Defence Force in 2012.[xviii] Canada’s involvement has only increased in Belize because of the increasing rate of violence and problems the drug traffickers have brought to Belize.
Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has fully supported the US in the ‘War on Drugs,’ and has put considerable focus on Belize in Central America. The commander of Canada’s operational forces, Lieutenant- General Stuart Beare, stated in an interview with CBC News, “We’re partnered with our US partners in the counter-narcotics effort on the southern flank, in Central and South America, as the flow [of drugs] goes north.”[xix] Canada has also increased its naval operations in the Caribbean Sea, which will foil drug smuggling efforts.
Particularly in Belize, Canada has engaged in several operations to build Belizean police and military capabilities. One such operation was the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program, run by the Foreign Affairs Department. Beginning in 2009, Canada has since invested more than $2 million USD to help improve Belize’s national forensic center and its defense force[xx] Canada’s involvement in Belize has been militaristic and it has only reinforced the hardline approach that the Belizean and US governments are taking to counter drug traffickers.
There have been no reports on whether this approach is effective or not, but what remains is a newly introduced presence of the United States and Canada in Belize. The US and Canada have defended their actions and military presence by saying that they are supporting its structurally weak ally, which is vulnerable to drug traffickers and the violence.[xxi]
UK Involvement in Belize
Britain has not fully embraced the militarized strategy the US and Canada are taking in Belize, despite its place in its Commonwealth. Instead, London prioritizes the development of trade, education, and health programs in Belize, including the constructive advancement of the Organization of American States and the Group of Friends.[xxii] The UK is involved in other anti-drug organizations like Operation MARTILLO and the five-year Anti-Drug Strategy plan. Thus far, the UK has been careful only to make infrastructural investments in the operations as opposed to sending military personnel into Belize.
There can be many reasons for this. Analysis shows that London has few strategic interests in Latin America and the drug problem is not directly affecting British security; therefore, the UK is taking the back seat to operations that counter the drug issue.[xxiii] However, the UK has been careful not to outwardly criticize the US government in its policies towards Central America. London’s restraint in opposing US policies indicates that the UK may intend to get more militarily involved in Belize.
British military involvement in Belize was one of the topics during Belizean Prime Minister Barrow’s visit to the UK in June 2013. Barrow met with Andrew Robathan MP, the Minister for the Armed Forces, to discuss future plans for the operation British Army Training Support Unit Belize.[xxiv] With these future plans, the UK might not be in the background in the ‘War on Drugs’ any longer.
Possible Other Options for Belize
Belize is in a very difficult position. It is a small, sparsely populated country with a weak military and police force. It has decided to take a hardline, militaristic approach to counter the drug problem, and Belize has relied on the US and Canada to train its military and police forces. An alternative is to obtain more American, Canadian and British financial support to help aid its social programs that have countered the drug problem in a non-militaristic way.
The militaristic approach the Belizean government decided to adopt has its flaws and has been criticized often. Louise Arbour, a former Supreme Court judge of Canada, stated that “building more prisons, tried for decades in the United States under its failed war on drugs, only deepens the drug problem and does not reduce cannabis supply or rates of use.”[xxv] The former Supreme Court judge may be hinting at drug legalization as an alternative and more effective approach to tackle the drug problem in Latin America, and she is not the only one who has advocated for this approach. Many countries in Latin America have advocated for drug legalization. Thus, drug legalization can possibly be a more effective strategy since the hardline, militaristic approach to counter the drug problem in Latin America has not produced any lasting, positive results.
Another possibility for Belize is to request more aid from its allies. The money can be used to continue to fund social and economic development programs already established in Belize, thanks in large part to the UK, which has thus far only contributed financially to social and development programs. Additionally, the Belizean government could promote a health care approach to the drug problem by building rehabilitation centers instead of military bases and prisons.
Unfortunately, Belize has been sucked into the drug problem that Mexico, Guatemala, and several other countries in Central and South America have fallen victim to. Though its prospects look bleak, Belize can still find its way out. Belize, however, has entered into the ‘War on Drugs’ and has taken a militaristic approach to tackle the drug problem. In time, it will become evident if this approach will be effective; it should be noted that it has failed in countries like Mexico and Guatemala. Belize may soon grow tired of the ‘War on Drugs’ and could possibly bandwagon with other Latin American countries that are advocating for drug legalization.
Drug legalization may not be the best option, and instead, Belize may want to focus on developing its infrastructure. Belize could ask for an increase in its monetary support from the US, Canada and the UK to fund development of social programs like rehabilitation centers and other social programs. That being said, there are many options Belize could exercise, and only time will tell if the Belizean government decides to maintain a militaristic program to counter the drug problem or decides to head for another path. If the militaristic path has yet to be proven successful in Latin America, it may not be the best option for a tiny, defenseless Belize.
[i] “Belize Population 2014,” World Population Review, accessed January 19, 2015.
[ii] “Belize National Anti-Drug Strategy 2000-2004.”
[iv] “Belize Unemployment Rate,” Trading Economics, accessed January 18, 2015.
[vi] “Belize 2013 Crime and Safety Report,” OSAC, May 12, 2013.
[vii] “Belize,” U.S. Department of State- Bureau of Consular Affairs, September 22, 2014.
[viii] Sierra Rayne, “Belize Falling under the Drug Cartel Influence,” Canada Free Press, April 19, 2014.
[ix] “Belize National Anti-Drug Strategy 2000-2004.”
[xiv] “Beyond the Horizon/ New Horizons 2014,” SOUTHCOM, July 7, 2014, .
[xv] Gina Harkins, “Marines Train Central American Allies to Battle Ruthless Cartels,” Marine Corps Times, January 9 2015
[xvi] Juan Cruz, “U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Decisive Offloads 1,328 Kilograms of Cocaine Seized during Operation MARTILLO,” Diálogo: Digital Military Magazine, December 22, 2014
[xvii] “Canada-Belize Relations,” Government of Canada, April 4, 2013
[xix] James Cudmore, “War on Drugs Draws Canadian Military Focus in Central America,” CBC News, February 2, 2013
[xxii] Martin Jelsma, “Introduction: Damaging Side Effects-The War on Drugs,” TNI Drugs and Democracy, April 1, 1997
[xxiv] “Belize Prime Minister Visits United Kingdom,” British High Commission Belmopan, July 4, 2013
[xxv] James Cudmore, “War on Drugs Draws Canadian Military Focus in Central America,” CBC News, February 2, 2013.
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