Although Belize City has its fair share of crime, it’s mainly muggings and hold-ups (with the occasional murder!), much of it opportunistic and most of the rest of it gang- or drug-related, and mainly located in the south side of town. So for me, living in the north side, not going out much at night, not going out all in the south side, and not involved in any of those nefarious activities, I’ve not had any direct contact with anything dangerous, and the closest I get to it is hearing about it on the news, or from my colleagues the next day. And the rest of the country is about as laid-back, easy-going and safe as you can get. But in the space of one week, two ‘incidents’ occurred that were national headline news and made me realise that Belize has some way to go before its levels of public safety and corruption approach those in the UK.
The first incident involved what’s become known as ‘the drug plane’. A propeller-driven light aircraft landed on the Southern Highway (one of the country’s main roads) in the middle of the night, apparently making some kind of drug drop-off. Belize has long been an important link in the shipment of drugs from producers in South America to consumers and distributors in North America. And with only Guatemala sharing this portion of the Central American isthmus, if something has to come overland from South to North, there’s a good chance it’ll come through Belize. The perpetrators had blocked off the road to other traffic with logs, and were waiting in a van for the plane on a deserted stretch of the highway. As crazy as this seems to me, apparently it used to happen all the time – the highways of Belize were the drug planes’ unofficial runways. It got so bad that upright metal poles were erected along the length of the highways to stop planes from landing! According to the news, a fuel truck was also found at the scene, so the plan seems to have been to unload the drugs, re-fuel and take off again. But local villagers, suspicious of the circling plane overhead, called the authorities and the drop-off was intercepted by the Belize Anti-Drug Unit. After a brief exchange of fire, the suspects either ran off into the jungle or drove off in the van. When the plane was searched, no trace of its illegal cargo was found, but later, about ten miles away in the forest, police found two thousand kilos of cocaine, valued at forty million dollars! Soon after that, police arrested five suspects in what they think is the missing van, all of whom are suspected in assisting the operation. The suspects are four police officers and a customs officer! The arrested policemen are all from the Anti-Drug Unit, naturally! Another three police officers from the local station have now also been implicated.
Now I realise that the pay in countries like Belize is so bad that people often ‘supplement’ their income, and in some low-level ways it’s probably a harmless way for someone to make extra money to feed their family. But the trouble with corruption is that it’s corrosive, the more it spreads the more damage it does to the society that it’s in. And if it’s left unchecked (particularly if it’s happening all the way down from the people at the top, which seems to be the case in Belize), it becomes so normal that eventually it’s an accepted part of life. Want your children to go to a good school or university? Pay the teacher to give them good test results. Want to get rid of that speeding offence? Have a word with the policeman. Don’t want to go to jail? Find the right person and pay a ‘fine’ instead. If you have money and influence you can break the rules and get away with it. If you haven’t, you’re at the mercy of those who have. Can’t afford to pay that fine? If you’re a young woman, maybe the policeman will suggest other ways to ‘pay’. When it happens at the top, where there’s millions of dollars at stake, with contracts given to friends rather than to the best people for the job (Lord Ashcroft’s name usually pops up here), or politicians looking the other way for their business colleagues (Lord Ashcroft again), it can affect the development and financial future of the entire country. And when it happens in the police force, the very people who are supposed to protect the public end up doing the very things they’re supposed to be stopping and protecting the public from. As one Belizean said to me recently, ‘The only difference between a criminal and a policeman here is that one of them wears a uniform’.
The second incident occurred at Belize’s only prison. Late one night an SUV drove up the road and parked across from the guard tower. Several masked and camouflaged men jumped out, the vehicle sped off and the men then proceeded to open fire on the tower with automatic weapons! A volley of shots was exchanged between the guards in the tower and the men on the highway, before the men ran off into the bushes. Whilst they were presumably calming down, the prison officers may have assumed that the men had disappeared. What they didn’t assume was that the men didn’t leave at all, but might be hiding in the bushes. Which they were. And a few hours later, the SUV returned to pick up them up and they had another go at the guard tower! More gunfire was exchanged before the shooters jumped back in the vehicle and sped off for the last time. They’re still at large. And no-one seems to have any real idea as to the motive. With several high-profile prisoners inside (including a few gang bosses and the aforementioned four policemen from the drug plane), could it have been a break-out attempt? Or a test run by some drug cartel or other criminal organization to expose weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the prison? Whatever it was, the prison officers don’t seem to have done anything or called anyone after the first attack. Maybe if they’d given the army a ring, they might’ve found the men hiding in the bushes. Or at least scared them away so they didn’t come back and have another pop! I only hope if the gunmen are ever caught it turns out that they really are criminals, and not other prison officers moonlighting in their second jobs!