And while law enforcement may never be able to stop those airborne cocaine cargos - they are using their own air capabilities to snuff out another illicit drug, marijuana.
Yes, our next story is about weed, and PUP party leader John Briceno may frown when he sees it - because it’s about destroying the same weed plant that he wants to legalize, tax and export.
But, the current national security directive is to detect and destroy marijuana plantations.
That’s exactly what Belize’s Joint Intelligence Operations Center along with their squad did in Punta Gorda earlier this month. It is part of an annual countrywide weed field destruction operation called “Operation Caracol”. The team started out in the south in the Columbia Forest Reserve where they burnt thousands of marijuana plants. 7News’ Courtney Weatherburne and cameraman Codie Noralez tagged along to get an exclusive look at this operation - enhanced now with helicopter support. In the story you will see that we blurred the faces of the soldiers as best as we could to protect their identities. This is because after previous operations, they have been threatened by these same marijuana cultivators. Here is the story.
It might seem like a relaxed day at the BDF Fairweather camp in Toledo, perfect for an evening jog around the block.
But it is anything but relaxed inside this dome shaped zinc hut as the team discuss Operation Caracol.
Lt. Col. Alvin Amoa - Director, JIOC “It is 6:25 and we have settled in at the Fairweather camp which is 2 miles outside of Punta Gorda Town, as you can see BDF, police and coast guard officers have gathered to discuss tomorrow’s stealth marijuana field destruction. It might seem like a simpleoperationbut the team has to be prepared for anything as the possibility of a hostile encounterlooms.”
But the team can’t be distracted by that ominous possibility – even if it has materialized in previous operations.
So, at daybreak the next morning, the team gathered all their equipment and weapons
I got suited up with my bullet proof vest and we all assembled by the BDF choppers for a safety briefing. There was the first leg of the annual countrywide operation led solely by Belize’s Joint Intelligence Operations Center.
Lt. Col. Alvin Amoa “We have divided the country in three sectors, sector south, west and north. So, the first part of this operation is being held in sector south where it is part of Dangriga and the Toledodistrict.This is the first year that Belize has done this operation without the support from joint task for Bravo. In the past, Joint Task force Bravo has been very instrumental in bringing in their choppers in order to do this operation, but this year is the first year that, with the help of the Ministry of National Security, that we are able to conduct our own operations with our own assets andtroops.”
And after thoroughly inspecting the choppers…We took off, soaring above the lush canopy.
Lt. Col. Alvin Amoa “Right now we are heading to an area within the Columbia Forest Reserve which is just Northwest of Punta Gorda Town. It is a prime location for marijuana cultivators because of its fertile land and hidden and remote location. Based on intelligence, there is a cluster of plantations in the area but the team has to find them first, which could takehours.”
Fortunately it didn’t take that long for the troops to spot this clearing – the first weed plantation for this fly over. We hovered as the pilot on the other chopper lowered to let the men off to start cutting and burning.
The team on the ground gathered the plants, doused them in kerosene and lit them - standard procedure for this operation. But this was just one of many plantations.
We set out to hunt for more… And we hit the jackpot when the team spotted this thatch house. We landed and the officers secured the premises, then we trekked through the dense, un-cleared jungle to this golden find.
The men had their work cut out for them – ripping out all these marihuana plants, So I tried my hand at it……
Lt. Col. Alvin Amoa “So we are here with the team at one of the biggest marijuana plantations we have seen so far today. The team members are clearing the land and uprooting the marijuana plants. The chopper is waiting for us at a distance, it could not land in this area. So the marijuana plants will be up in flames in just a matter ofminutes.”
And there was fire and the aroma of ganja in the air…
Back on the ground JIOC director put everything into perspective. It would be easy to point the finger on Guatemalans as the ones responsible for cultivating these plantations but that is not the case.
Lt. Col. Alvin Amoa “For sector south yes, it is mostly done by Belizeans who are clearing the area in the Columbia Forest Reserve and other areas to plant marijuana within thissector.”
It is part of the lucrative in-country and cross-border drug trade – one that LT. Col. Amoa and his team are trying to disrupt.
Lt. Col. Alvin Amoa “The people here would grow the marijuana to sell locally and sometimes they sell over to people coming from Guatemala so that is what we have observed so far and hence the reason we try to plan one of these operations in order to target these specific areas and in order to reduce the drugs in ourcountry.We are also seeing sometimes it is being grown in Belize then it is sent over Mexico because what happens on the other side of the border between Mexico and Guatemala, they conduct these same types of operations so once the supply has been destroyed they look for other areas to get that supply so once it happen they will look towards Belize from the people growing inside Belize to help fill that vacuum that was created on the other side of the border by the Mexican authorities and the Guatemalanauthorities.”
But it is a tough, almost impossible task to disrupt this drug trafficking network – one that has worked in secrecy for decades, keeping the supply rich and the demand high. So as one field is destroyed, another is being cultivated elsewhere in Belize, and sure enough these troops will have their choppers ready to swoop in from above, searching for them.
After Punta Gorda they went out west but found no plantations there, but they did find several in the North. In total, the team destroyed 5 million dollars worth of marijuana plants up from last year’s 1.5 million dollars. This countrywide operation began 4 years ago.
So as to not compromise the security of the mission, we had to wait two weeks - until the operation was all finished - to air our story….