Word spread like wildfire after dawn this morning that another drug plane had landed. And while you might expect this case to follow the all too familiar narrative of a burnt plane with all the contents spirited away by narcos, this one provided a sharp twist in the storyline.
Law enforcement got the plane and the drugs in an impressive show of readiness and cross border cooperation.
Cherisse Halsall went out to the Coastal highway to find the plane this morning. Here's what she saw.
"It's here off mile 16 on the Coastal Road that a G2 jet packed with 70 bales of cocaine landed at about 4:30 this morning."
Inside the jet the bales of cocaine were tightly packed and secured by ropes and bungee cords.
This 500 foot runway was probably well suited to land the jet. The soil is dense pine ridge flatland in a completely deserted area where you won't see anyone for miles.
And on the margins of the runway, we saw the rusted remains of another plane - probably another drug plane.
"Belize Police working with their Mexican counterparts tracked the plane to its landing site off the Coastal. They swooped in made the seizure and reportedly an arrest, the 70 bales of cocaine on the plane weigh more than a ton."
That ton load was transported under heavy guard to the Racoon street police station for storage at around 10:00 this morning. Police and BDF wore masks and blocked the streets, guarding the perimeter with heavy firepower. Dozens of law enforcement personnel were and will be deployed to this mission to intercept, recover, safeguard and eventually destroy this cargo estimated to be worth well over 20 million Belize dollars.
May Be Biggest Bust Ever
That's right, as much as 100 million Belize dollars!
Yes, indeed, today's bust amounts to one of the biggest - if not the biggest in Belize's history. It hasn't all been weighed and tallied yet, but based on the preliminary figures given by the commissioner of police today, it is not over one tonne as we originally estimated, but over two tonnes. Here's more from the commissioner as he gave an outline to the press this evening - setting alongside his Deputy and Commander of Operations - both of the senior officers nicely outfitted for the occasion in their battle Dress Uniforms:
Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police "This morning early around 12:15, 12:30 thereabout a track was observed leaving Venezuela heading our way. Based on the tracking we mobilized as we would normally do and the tracking was followed closely by an air asset of another Central American country all the way into our airspace. When the tracking arrived in our airspace sometime around 4 this morning, one of our neighbouring country air assets was deployed and again it kept monitoring for us. The plane landed at approximately 4:05 AM this morning and the team comprising of police and BDF quickly responded to the area where we got the information the plane had landed and upon our arrival at the location, we found the plane, which is a G2 Jet and inside the plane was 69 bales of what we suspected to be cocaine. Those 69 bails amounted to 2,070 parcels of suspected cocaine. We also found in the area, two M-16 rifles and some masks. We believe that those person who were involved in the plane landing might have seen us coming into the area from a distance and by the time we got to the location, they had disappeared. We still have teams in the area searching with the hope that we will find person or persons."
"The drugs were subsequently moved from the location and unfortunately one media house stood in front of the Racoon Street Police Station and broadcasted live how the drugs were being unload into the Racoon Street Police Station, putting the officers and the station at risk and so we have relocated the drugs from Racoon Street and it will be taken to an unknown or an undisclosed location until we're prepared for its destruction. Your innocent action could cause mayhem in the sense that our police station could be attack. We know that these drugs are valued in the tens of millions and the traffickers may want to do whatever needs to be done to regain control and therefore you'd bring the police station and the officers and anybody who may be at the police station at the time at risk. I would ask that in the future that we just be a bit more cautious in how we do our reporting. I also saw that same media reporting that they were saying that drugs and monies let me say that there were no monies being moved, it was only drugs. No money was found on the plane or within the area of the plane. The investigation into the plane landing with a view to ascertain who the players are continues. Fingerprints were lifted from the plane and those prints will be sent to the AFIS as well as to Interpol to see if we can make a match, either locally or internationally. We believe that the print might be for the pilot, so we'll see if there is anything on the pilot on Interpol Database because Interpol does deal with fingerprints as well."
Drug Cargo Was Going To Be Moved By Water
So there was no firefight, and all that may have been caused by close tracking of the plane by "air assets" from neighbouring countries. Commissioner Williams says the pilot and his ground counterparts probably knew that the plane was being tracked in the air, which forced him to make a landing and quick escape.
But, what were they going to do with those tonnes of cocaine? Surely, moving all that weight by road would have been impractical. Williams says they were probably going to push the cargo out through the sea:
Jules Vasquez "Is it your belief that it was intended for maritime conveyance or that it was intended for land transfer? Because it's very difficult to move that volume of cocaine without being detected."
Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police "The trend we have seen recently is the maritime especially when it comes to if they have to move within the country for an extended period of time, they run the risk of being caught as opposed to using the maritime domain. So we believe that they would have moved from the coast of that location to a maritime location and then get it out."
Coastal Clandestine Runway Was Used Before
Indeed, the pilots and ground crews of these narco planes are believed to have multiple contingencies in place depending on what law enforcement is doing. That means they likely have more than one possible place to land their narco planes. And, as we showed you in our first story, this airstrip has apparently been used before. We asked the Commissioner if they plan to destroy it:
Reporter "There's also the burnt remains of another aircraft right next to the runway. Wat there no effort made in the first instance? Perhaps to destroy this particular airfield?"
Chester Williams - Commissioner of Police "Not to my knowledge. We still need to ascertain the owner of the airstrip because while yes there are number of these makeshift runways that we want to destroy but they are on private property and we cannot just go and destroy people's land just like that. From what we are made to understand, the owner of that land may not be in Belize and if it is that we can contact the person, then we might be able to solicit that person's consent to see what can be done to destroy the makeshift runway."
Reporter "Sir does the owner of the land where the airstrip was constructed, does he come under suspicion or is he brought into questioning at this time?"
Chester Williams "We don't think that he is involved any at all."
Jules Vasquez "So it was used without his knowledge?"
The latest plane seizure was made with assistance of the Fuerza Aérea Mexicana (Mexican Air Force) who detected the illegal jet over Belize territory. The Belize Department of Defense headed to the Coastal Road where the located the jet carrying a drug shipment.
Re: Narcojet Lands on Coastal Road
#540891 03/05/2006:09 AM03/05/2006:09 AM
Less than twenty-four hours after Belize Police Department intercepted one of the biggest drug cargos on record, the deaths of the four Belize Defence Soldiers were reported and that tragedy continues to play out and dominate the news. And so when the press caught up with Commissioner of Police today, we inquired about the drugs seized. As you’ll recall, two thousand seventy parcels of suspected cocaine were found. That shipment is estimated to be valued at roughly one hundred and twenty million Belize dollars. ComPol Williams says that they have weighed the parcels, and are now awaiting test results of the products found and arrangements will be made to destroy the bales.
Chester Williams, Commissioner of Police “We are waiting for the test results that are being done by the national forensic service and as soon as that is done, we get the results and we apply to the court for the order of destruction and we go through with the destruction.”
Reporter “Weren’t the results supposed to be done by today?”
CHESTER WILLIAMS “No. It can’t be so quickly. It is a number of samples.”
Reporter “Do you have a final weight yet, sir?”
Chester Williams “I think it is five thousand and eighty four pounds.”
Reporter “So, then the 2005 one still has the record, because that was five thousand and three hundred.”
Chester Williams “If that is it, then that would have the record then yes.”