SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mexico's brutal drug war is having a worrisome spillover effect. U.S. officials say that 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States now passes through Central America. For traffickers, a growing entryway for U.S.-bound drugs is through the region's least-populated and most vulnerable country, Belize. With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Nick Miroff brings us this story from the mountains of western Belize.
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NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: On a bad road near Belize's disputed border with Guatemala, a team of eight Belizean special forces troops are rumbling through the jungle in a huge Ford F-350 pickup.
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MIROFF: The truck was a donation from the U.S. government. But it's Belizean soca music and dancehall tunes that are playing on the local station, LOVE-FM.
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MIROFF: This is a Belizean counter-drug patrol, heading into an area where troops exchanged fired with alleged cartel gunmen a few weeks earlier. Suspected drug flights bringing South American cocaine have also been spotted landing in the area, but Belize's military has no radar, no helicopters, and not even a reliable communications system. It does have this brand-new pickup truck, bouncing and fishtailing up the trail until it sticks in the mud.
UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Jerk it hard.
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MIROFF: When the truck can't climb any further, the patrol continues on foot up the hot, swampy trail, with iridescent blue morpho butterflies loping by. The soldiers walk without a word.
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MIROFF: At the sound of someone approaching on the trail, they crouch down in the foliage, rifles ready.
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MIROFF: Today there are only farmers and their sad-faced burros on the trail, and fortunately for them, their cargo is corn. Sgt. Marcos Villagran, the patrol unit's tall, lean commander, wears a floppy bucket hat and carries a shiny American M4 rifle, another U.S. donation. He says farmers from the Guatemalan side have been coming over and clearing protected forests.
SGT. MARCOS VILLAGRAN: Here in Belize along the border it is over land. Because they think the land they live on is Guatemala, they come and they destroy our forest. There are times within one kilometer square you will find 30, 30-odd trees, all different types of logwood, cut down.
MIROFF: Some farmers plant corn and beans, others grow marijuana, and carve messages into the trees for the soldiers like, we are watching you, signing them with a Z, for Mexico's Zetas drug cartel. Belize covers a landmass the size of Massachusetts, but has just 320,000 people. Its jungles, long Caribbean coastline, and hundreds of uninhabited islands make it an ideal entry point for smugglers' flights and powerful fast boats racing north toward U.S. drug consumers.
On September 15th President Obama added Belize to the so-called blacklist of states considered major drug producing nations or transit countries. Douglas Singh, Belize's top police official, said he hopes it'll lead to more assistance.
DOUGLAS SINGH: Many Belizeans look at the drug transshipment problem as not our problem. They look at it as a problem for the Americans or for the Mexicans or somebody else. But I think we certainly are shortsighted in doing so, because if we look at the Mexican experience, the impact of transshipment, being a country along that route makes us extremely vulnerable.
MIROFF: Belize has not had the kind of brutal cartel violence now tearing apart Mexico and pushing into Guatemala next door. But drug-fueled gang killings are soaring in gritty Belize City. Russell Vellos is the editor of Amandala, the country's largest newspaper.
RUSSELL VELLOS: The criminals have gotten so brazen that actually just some months ago they attacked a police station. In the past, that was unheard of, attacking a police station. You crazy? But this is what has happened. Then what's next? What are you afraid to do next? Nothing.
MIROFF: The U.S. has given Belize about 15 million dollars in security aid in recent years, mostly vehicles, equipment and training. It's a sliver of the roughly $600 million in drug war funding that has been provided or promised so far to Central America, whose weak governments are considered especially vulnerable to the corrupting powers of Mexico's billionaire crime gangs. Captain Ian Cunha, a Belizean military commander along the Guatemala border, said his country is still too complacent.
CAPT. IAN CUNHA: We are still sleeping, where everyone else is fighting for dear life on all our fronts. The threat is overwhelming, in that our country could be simply overrun in a very short instant.
MIROFF: On this particular day, the special forces soldiers patrolling near the border didn't find any Zetas or pot fields. But they also couldn't find the other patrol unit they were supposed to meet up with, unable to make radio contact. So they walked back down the mountain, got in the truck and cranked up the '80s pop tunes for the long ride home.
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MIROFF: For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff.
SIMON: You can see photos of Belize and the drug fight there on our website, npr.org.