Belize is grappling with reports that corrupt officials have been facilitating the nation's use as a transit point for cocaine.
Earlier this year, the driver of the commander of Belize's defense force, Brigadier Steven Ortega, was arrested along with two police officers after trying to flee the site where a plane carrying cocaine had landed.
Authorities from Belize and Mexico had intercepted the suspicious plane, which had been carrying around one ton of drugs, coming from South America, media outlet Amandala reported.
The nation's police commissioner, Chester Williams, told the press that nine suspects in total were arrested while attempting to flee the illicit landing site in a boat. They were later charged with drug trafficking, after being found with around 70 kilograms of cocaine between them.
Drug planes are a frequent event in Belize. Last December, police revealed how a suspected drug plane had crash-landed close to the nation's southern border with Guatemala. And two months earlier, media outlets shared how authorities had found a suspicious aircraft destroyed and buried, close to the country's northern border with Mexico.
Authorities in Belize have been making frequent attempts to intercept such aircraft, often rushing to hot spots where illegal flights have disembarked to await clandestine arrivals, but often arriving too late to catch anybody.
Belize has also relied on cooperation with security forces in neighboring Mexico, who face similar challenges. Last year, media outlet La Verdad shared how security forces in Belize, the Mexican military, the state government of Quintana Roo and local police intended to develop coordinated efforts to detect drug flights.
InSight Crime recently shared how such flights have been increasingly landing in Quintana Roo, which sits just across Belize's northern border.
The US State Department classes Belize as a "major transit country for drugs coming from South America", recognizing the nation as vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers due to its central location, porous borders and sparsely populated landscape. In its 2020 report, the State Department detailed how traffickers typically refuel or offload drugs at illicit airstrips in Belize, for onward transshipment by land through Mexico, toward the United States.
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This is not the first time corrupt police officials have been implicated in facilitating drug flows through the nation.
In 2018, local media reports claimed a police constable and superintendent had been charged with conspiracy to land a plane on an authorized aerodrome and helping to import cocaine into Belize, after a Cessna jet carrying over 500 kilograms of the drug was intercepted near the nation's northern border with Mexico.
And back in 2010, members of the nation's armed forces were embroiled in a scandal, as they were implicated in the discovery of an aircraft laden with 2.6 tons of cocaine. The soldiers were acquitted in 2012 but subsequently faced retrial in front of the country's Court of Appeal.
A Belizean security official, who spoke with InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the case, stated that corrupt officials in Belize share inside information with traffickers who attempt to land planes carrying drugs in the country. Corrupt individuals may warn traffickers of law enforcement operations, encouraging them to divert their projected journey.
The official added that members of security forces also offer protection to traffickers transporting illicit substances through the country.
The most recent International Narcotics Control Strategy Report from the US State Department shared how Belize lacks laws to address corruption specifically linked to drugs. It added that the nation currently has no air defense systems, no primary radar capable of monitoring illicit air traffic and no maritime radar.
In 2019, the country's Ministry of National Security revealed authorities have been relying on a regional network which generates tracking information on suspect aircraft leaving South America. According to the ministry, once data on a suspicious plane making its way toward Belize is received, security forces in the nation are deployed to as many potential "landing sites" as resources allow for, as they attempt to intercept it.
However, possible landing sites are wide-ranging. And they may even include public roads or highways in some cases, ultimately giving traffickers and corrupt police the upper hand.