Suspected drug planes landing in Belize over the course of the 2018 and 2019, they were a frequent item in the evening news. The story had similar themes with different details for each instance.
The narrative was often that an illegally landed aircraft found in a remote part of the country, and law enforcement arrived to find it either burning or completely burnt. In many of those instances, the occupants, and whatever illicit cargo they brought on Belizean soil, were long gone.
In September of last year, the cops caught narco-traffickers who landed a plane on the Coastal Road, carrying just over 60 million dollars of cocaine. It was a combination of good intelligence, quick police response, and good coordination between joint law enforcement teams.
As viewers are aware, however, instances like that one are the exception and not the rule. And that's why it's news that, Belize is about to make a major upgrade in its ability to catch international drug smugglers in the act.
In 9 months, the Department of Civil Aviation is going to acquire a 12 million-dollar radar, which will strengthen the ability of local authorities to not only track legal, but also illegal planes traveling into Belize's airspace.
This morning at the PGIA, the civil aviation authorities signed an agreement for the acquisition of a primary radar. They invited the press to observe the ceremony, and our news team attended. Daniel Ortiz reports:
This morning, The Director of Belize's Department of Civil Aviation signed an important agreement with representatives of COCESNA and Indra Systems for the acquisition of a state-of-the-art piece of equipment which the nation has always been in dire need of.
In about 8 or 9 months from now, Belize will become the owner of a primary radar. Once that is installed, it significantly boosts the civil aviation's ability to monitor the country's aerospace domain.
Linsay Garbutt - Director of Civil Aviation "Having a primary radar gives us in the Department of Civil Aviation the redundancy to ensure that if there is an issue with one of the radars, the other takes its place. Therefore, it provides more consistent and secure surveillance of the Belizean airspace. It also allows us to have more safety for our pilots, airplanes, and the more than 200,000 movements that we have per year in our airspace. It allows us to be able to guide them around weather conditions, something that the secondary radar does not provide."
"It strengthens the national security element, apart from what it adds and provides to civil aviation, it strengthens the ability of the national security forces to detect those force that we did not invite into our airspace."
"It allows us to interconnect with the rest of Central America. So, if one of their radars go down we can provide support, and vice-versa."
According to the Director, Belize is getting access to this primary radar through the facilitation and aid of COCESNA and Indra Systems.
Lindsay Garbutt "I would like to thank Indra, who has worked with us for years. I would also like to thank COCESNA and in particular the executive president, who was able to negotiate this. Belize should not have benefitted from this until 2022, but through the work and hard work that the executive president and the Board of Directors of COCESNA have done, we'll be able to get this system in place 2 years before it would normally have come."
Perhaps the most important improvement that this primary radar will bring for the nation is that it will finally empower local law enforcement to detect and track the movements drug planes trying to land on Belizean soil. Transnational narcotics traffickers will no longer be so far ahead of the police and BDF that they are able to routinely treat the country like a rest-stop on the way to the final destination of their illicit cargo.
When the radar is installed, Belize will gain the technological capability to keep a watchful eye on the borders of its airspace.
Lindsay Garbutt "We are all very familiar with the fact that the secondary radar that we have only detects legal flights, that have their transponders on. With this primary radar, we'll be able to detect anything that comes within its area of operations, whether they have their transponders turned on, or they don't."
Ret. General David Jones - Security Consultant, Department of Civil Aviation "It's a piece of equipment on they would turn on so, whenever they have a flight plan that comes into Belize, it is to be registered. So, we would know which aircraft is coming into Belize illegally. But, if an aircraft is coming into the country illegally, they would turn that device off. And we would not be able to pick them up with the secondary radar. Now, with the primary radar, even if that is turned off, we'll be able to pick them up. So, that information now is going to be shared with our Joint Intelligence and Operation Center. They'll be able to have real-time information with regards to all aircraft that are coming into the country."
"They'll get a feed from here. It will be sent direct. So, the Joint Intelligence and Operation Center will have the view that our air traffic controllers are seeing, right in their center. So, based on the information they're receiving, they'll be able to react to it immediately."
So, since the nation has been struggling with the issue of drug planes for several years now, why did it take so long for the authorities to make this important acquisition a priority?
Lindsay Garbutt "Twelve million dollars is not something you just find standing up, and you don't just pull it out of your pocket. COCESNA's primary responsibility is to provide aviation service, which is generally provided by a secondary radar. Being a member of COCESNA, and recognizing the total importance of going beyond just the needs of aviation, but looking at national security interest, we were able to successfully negotiate the provision of this primary radar, going beyond just the aviation needs of Belize."
Reporter "Sir, do you believe that it will discourage the passage of these illegal flights or planes coming in?"
Lindsay Garbutt "I don't know if it will discourage them, but it will allow us to detect them, and take positive action against them."
The director said that Belize was supposed to get access to this 12 million dollar radar under COCESNA's development plan, but under the normal course, it wouldn't have arrived in Belize until the year 2022.
With the cooperation of COCESNA and the cordial working relationship with Indra Systems, Belize is getting the radar 2 years earlier than was planned. The technical team estimates that it will take 9 months to be fully operational, but the Director is hoping that they will get it ready 1 month earlier.