B.D.F. blows up clandestine airstrip used for narco-trafficking
In the fight against drugs, last year News Five joined the Belize Defence Force as they destroyed a marijuana plantation in a field in the Orange Walk District. While those burning buds were for local use, narco-traffickers use Belize as a transshipment point. But the anti-drug war is being fought by security forces on all fronts, including in the jungles. News Five’s Jose Sanchez accompanied the B.D.F. today for the destruction of a clandestine airstrip in a northern reserve.
In November 2010, a Beechcraft Super King Air landed on the Southern Highway with two point six tons of cocaine from Colombia bound for the U.S. But not only highways are being used to land drug planes, local contacts for the cartels have been building their own airstrips. This morning the B.D.F. launched an operation from five a.m. that would take them through four hours of off-road driving to a site ten kilometers south of Sarteneja in the Corozal District in order to destroy it. We entered the Shipstern Nature Reserve that prevents logging; however, we came across an illegal logging site. And closer to the field, we unexpectedly had to leave the vehicles behind.
“Five hundred meters before we reached the illegal airstrip, we’ve reached a literal roadblock in our journey. Two weeks ago, the B.D.F. was out here on a reconnaissance mission and this area was clear. Now they are saying that two days ago loggers came, people who built this airstrip, and put these logs in our way so that no one can reach the airfield.”
Lt. Col. David Jones, Chief of Staff, B.D.F.
“Last week, the guys came here to look at the airstrip because we had an area reconnaissance of the airstrip which confirmed that an airstrip was here. We checked with Civil Aviation, we checked with our ministry as well as National Security Council and we got the feedback that this airstrip was illegal. It’s on crown land; no one owns it. Subsequently we were tasked to come and destroy it. The guys came in last week. On the reconnaissance, they drove all the way on to this airstrip. Today when we got here, we had an obstacle about five hundred meters prior to the airstrip—intentionally put across the road so that we couldn’t drive in. So it delayed our task somewhat. We still were able to achieve our mission. When we came in here we noticed these leaves on the actual airstrip it is probably to camouflage it from the air so we may not be able to notice. It is a clear indication that this airstrip was going to be used shortly.”
When the all clear was given, we all pitched in to carry the explosives down the path and into the clearing. Lieutenant Colonel David Jones, B.D.F.’s Chief of Staff, is the demolition expert who has been supervising airstrip destructions for fifteen years.
Lt. Col. David Jones
“Starting with the destruction for each of these craters. We used a cratering charge, which has pilot hole and a main charge. We use the pilot hole to create a main little hole that is about two meters in the ground and about one foot wide. Then we put the main charge in. when the main charge goes in, that is about eighteen kilograms of granular explosion which goes into the earth and when we detonated that, the effect of the crater is what you see behind. There is quite a number of airstrips here. Normally, once we are in the area, since we passed through the village of Maskall and the other houses that we passed, whenever we do that, when we come to the area and do a covert observation and patrol they do not come in here again. The villagers saw us on the way in, so that is a clear indication, they know what is going on. So this is the modus operandi. We had reports of low lying aircrafts last week, previous weeks before which is why we came in here so we strongly believe that this one is used for illegal transshipment of drugs.”
At the end of the airstrip, a drum of water and evidence on the ground suggests that they ate sliced ham. Headlights with connecting wires suggest that they attached a battery when they needed to signal. And the field, according to the soldiers, did not have palms when they last visited the site.
Lt. Col. David Jones
“There is very little that we can do to stop these guys from stopping and filling these holes. Obviously with heavy equipment they can come in again and refill it as has happened in the past. But what happens now is that we continue aerial reconnaissance to confirm that this airstrip is not being upgraded. So whenever we do a cratering like this, we come in with the aerial reconnaissance confirm it is not being upgraded. If it is being upgraded, we come in and then we set up a covert op and then we come in and challenge anyone to land here and then take them out. It is a reserve and coming in here, we also noticed some logs that were cut. Obviously the signs were there; logging is prohibited in this area. So apart from the illegal clearing here, there is also logging that being done in this area that is illegal.”
But there is one more unfortunate effect of the clearing in the reserve. Upon a mound we could pick up obsidian flints, shards from broken mayan pottery and vases, one of which still had the paint markings visible. Essentially an undiscovered archaeological site was also destroyed by locals working for the narco traffickers.
Lt. Col. David Jones
“Having such an operation requires detailed coordination. It requires someone with good organizational skills and it requires a lot of money because those heavy duty equipment it is expensive. It is expensive to get them here, fuel is expensive, they need to pay manpower and probably over fifty-sixty guys were employed in working on this airstrip because first they had to clear the land. And if you can see, it is a big area to clear because all this area were trees. After they cleared the trees then they had to grade this area so that an aircraft could actually land. So it is quite expensive and I surely believe that they have local assistance and there is also foreign assistance, I believe, that is involved inth e illicit business of drug transshipment here. It looks narrow, but an aircraft of good size would have landed here. Judging from the length of the airstrip, I believe something really large could have landed here because normally for the smaller aircraft, they wouldn’t use about a kilometer of runway—they would probably use about six to seven hundred meters the most. But this one has at least about a kilometer so they were expecting something large here.”
“The destruction of the airfield has been very successful; however, it’s only one day in three hundred and sixty-five days of the B.D.F.’s fight against narco-trafficking. Reporting for News five, Jose Sanchez.”