The news on Friday that four top soldiers of the Belize Defence Force (BDF) (Belize’s Air Force, essentially) had been found dead in a lagoon north of Gales Point Manatee, has Belize reeling. In the wee hours of Thursday the soldiers had gone on a mission with others to intercept a plane that was suspected of transporting cocaine from South America, and the next day the wreckage of their helicopter and their lifeless bodies were found.
Two pilots and two corporals perished in the ill-fated operation. BDF Commander, Brig. General Steven Ortega, told the media that the deceased were Major Adran Ramirez, the commanding officer of the BDF Air-Wing, who had been flying for about fifteen years; Major Radford Baizar, the second in command, who was the BDF’s top helicopter instructor pilot; and crew members, Corporal Yassir Mendez and Corporal Reynaldo Choco, who had done extensive engineering courses and were both trained to assist the pilots.
Usually, when drug planes land in Belize we wake up to hear that a burnt plane, or an empty plane, was found in the north or south of the country, but on Thursday morning we woke up to the satisfying news that our law enforcement authorities had carried out a very successful operation, and that’s the news that stayed with us all through the day.
No one was caught, but our authorities had the plane, and cocaine that was worth an estimated BZ$100 million on the streets of the USA — the drug’s destination. It is quite a lucrative trade, with the cocaine picking up value, as much as 1,000 percent, as it makes its way from South America to satisfy the appetite of the streets of New York and Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Not all Belizeans favor this drug war that the Americans are fighting. Many Belizeans believe that the war on drugs should be fought with education and taxation, that Alcohol Prohibition in the US in the 1920’s and 1930’s proved without a doubt that the strategy of outlawing such products is a cure that is worse than the poison, but we are happy when our authorities come through, because we don’t want the drug runners to use our country.
When we woke up on Friday morning we were still savoring the success of the day before, then Belizeans got the very worrying news that four soldiers who were in a helicopter had not returned to base after the exercise, and their whereabouts were unknown. Friday mid-afternoon it was like a bomb dropped on us when it was announced that the helicopter was down in the lagoon and all four soldiers were found dead at the site. The news was shocking, and Belize is still in a state of shock, today, Tuesday.
The top brass at the Ministry of National Security held a press conference on Friday afternoon to notify us officially of the men’s deaths and to explain what they knew of what had transpired: they gave minimal information about what they found at the scene, and they said they were setting up an investigative team. They couldn’t satisfactorily explain why it took them so long to find out that the helicopter and men were missing.
There is a lot of speculation about what really happened during this drug operation that saw us suffer such a great loss, and this is natural. It is in the nature of human minds to ask questions, to make conjectures. It doesn’t help that our political leaders have little or no credibility after disrespecting the Belizean people and trampling on transparency and accountability for years.
On the matter of what happened to our soldiers, it is possible that they were killed by enemy fire. If they weren’t, then they were victims of bad weather conditions, mechanical failure, and/or poor equipment.
The National Meteorological Service had a small craft warning out for Thursday, February 27, with north to northwesterly winds gusting to 25 knots, hardly the type of weather for a pre-dawn maneuver of this sort.
The helicopter the men were in was a gift from the people and government of Taiwan, one of two UH-1H (Huey) military helicopters that joined the Belize Defence Force Air Wing in April 2016.
The helicopters were to be used for emergencies and military rescues, and to reinforce (back up) our capacity in the fight against drug running and human trafficking. At the time we received the gifts, then BDF Commander David Jones remarked that it would be a challenge to keep them in good working condition.
As recently as December last year the BDF had to charter a private helicopter to rescue a soldier who had reportedly been bitten by a poisonous snake at a military post, Cadenas, on the Sarstoon River, because BEF helicopters were grounded with serious mechanical problems.
The soldiers attached to this vital arm of our defence force were not equipped with night vision goggles, even though they sometimes do night flying along the coast. Attorney General/Minister of National Security, Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, told the media that the helicopter would veer coastally to see if there were any incoming boats or fly over land to see if any vehicles would be leaving the area that they had under surveillance. Obviously, our crew in the helicopter would have been able to do a far better job if they were better equipped to conduct operations at night.
The media was locked away from the crash scene, but a number of photographs have surfaced which seem to show holes in the fuselage of the helicopter that might have been made by bullets. The UH-1H is not a stealth helicopter; if it came in from the sea to scout the lagoon it would have been heard by any men running drugs in the area. They, the drug runners, would most likely have had night vision goggles. Our soldiers didn’t. They would have seen our soldiers before our soldiers saw them.
On the matter of the failure of our authorities to explain satisfactorily why they didn’t know the men were lost until after many hours had passed, all the information indicates that this was a super top secret mission. A number of the top officers at Price Barracks must have known that something was going on, but they most likely had little or no details. The officers who would have done routine checks on the soldiers who were on the mission did not check because they didn’t send them.
The people of Belize are demanding a thorough investigation into this tragic incident, and the Ministry of National Security has announced that Coast Guard Admiral Borland has been tasked to carry out the job. Borland told the media that the investigative team will be assisted by the US Southern Command and the Mexican military. Belizeans will appreciate the input of friendly countries not only because of their expertise, but because we don’t believe they will be subjected to interference by our local authorities, who have little credibility in Belize.
It’s a steep price Belize pays for being on the route between the production sites of cocaine in South America and its destination, the United States of America. Our “wages” for cocaine being shipped through our country is corrupted government and law enforcement officials, murdered youth, and instability. On Thursday the cost for us got even steeper when we lost four of our most highly skilled soldiers.