The White House has added Belize to its watch list of countries involved in the drug trade, bringing attention to this tiny state where violence rates are nearly as high as the crime-ravaged trio of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
In terms of security, Central America can be divided into two. There is the deadly “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, whose murder rates are higher than 40 per 100,000 people (more than twice as high, in Honduras’ case), and the calmer southern part of the isthmus, composed of Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica, where murder rates rank below 25. The oft-forgotten seventh country, Belize, is part of the north both geographically and in terms of violence, with 39 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
While the actual numbers are tiny -- 132 reported homicides in 2010 -- this represents a sharp rise over the last decade, up more than three-fold from 2000.
Belize, a former British colony, has a population of just over 330,000. It has high crime rates and a growing problem with street gangs, many of which are involved in drug trafficking. The U.S. justified Belize’s addition to the watch list by citing the number of recent drug and weapons seizures along the country’s border with Mexico.
More worrying is the White House’s statement that Belize’s authorities are increasingly concerned about the presence of the Zetas along the country’s border regions and sea ports. The Zetas were originally based in Mexico, but in recent years, and particularly since 2008, have been relocating operations to Guatemala. As InSight Crime has reported, the entry of the Zetas automatically entails a deterioration in a country's security, as the group tends to assert authority through shows of overwhelming force, rather than through more traditional means of bribery and alliances. The absence of the group is one reason why the southern half of the continent is more peaceful than the north, where the Zetas are tightening their grip.
Belize has 266 kilometers of border with Guatemala, most of it running along the lawless northern region of Peten. The border does not follow any natural feature but is a straight line, much of it cutting through the dense jungle, some through the middle of towns and settlements. Many people from both countries cross it each day to work.
A huge region, underpopulated and long under the sway of criminal groups, which borders Mexico to the north, Peten is a powerbase for the Zetas. The Guatemalan government declared a state of emergency here in May after the Zetas brutally massacred of 27 farm laborers.
This "state of siege" could have the effect of pushing the Zetas into Belize, which would prove a convenient, temporary haven. However, Guatemalan government said at a regional security meeting that they believed this was unlikely, something Belize appears to agree with. The country's deputy prime minister, Gaspar Vega, said after a one-on-one meeting with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom that his government had not confirmed the presence of the Zetas in the country, though he admitted that drug traffickers had a strong presence.
Other accounts differ. According to one analyst at Southern Pulse, sources reported that the number of Zetas camps on the border jumped from 67 to 78 between 2008 and 2009.
Belize’s government has recently expressed concern about the Guatemalan border, and talked about carrying out joint patrols with Guatemalan forces. Guatemalan kingpins have been known to use the country as a hide-out: Otoniel Turcios Marroquin, alias “El Loco,” a close associate of drug kingpin Jorge Mario Paredes “El Gordo” and linked to the Zetas, was captured in the country last year.
To some extent, Belize is damned by its geography. It is too well situated to remain free of criminal influence, sitting on a key trafficking route between Mexico and the Caribbean, where drug shipments arrive from South America. Sharing borders with Mexico, which is the primary route to the world’s biggest drug market, and with Guatemala, currently teetering on the edge of “narco-state” status, may push Belize to become the fourth member of the Northern Triangle.