Belize Cited as Fast-Growing Drug Producer
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Tiny, impoverished Belize has rapidly become the most important center of narcotics trafficking in Central America and the fourth largest supplier of marijuana to the United States, a House panel was told Thursday.
Formerly British Honduras, Belize is about the size of Massachusetts with only 160,000 inhabitants, mostly farmers who have turned to marijuana cultivation in a big way since their country gained independence from Britain in September 1981, said officials of the State Department and the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration.
Marijuana acreage has increased sixfold since 1982, and net production last year totaled 1,100 metric tons, enough to supply 8 percent of total U.S. consumption, said Judith E. Bertini, the DEA’s chief of operational intelligence.
The bulk of processed marijuana grown in Belize is flown 800 miles north to the United States in light planes from at least 52 airstrips throughout the country’s remote, sparsely populated countryside, she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee task force on international narcotics control.
Only Colombia, Mexico and Jamaica outrank Belize as leading U.S. suppliers of marijuana, she said, and ″the importance of Belize ... lies in its capacity for rapid expansion as a major marijuana source of supply.″
The DEA official said Belize is vulnerable to exploitation by international drug traffickers because of its closeness to the United States, a sparse population, a national police force of only 500 officers and two interdiction aircraft and a gross national product of less than $200 million annually.
″Belize is considered the most important country in Central America from the standpoint of narcotics trafficking,″ she said.
She and John R. Thomas, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters, said U.S. officials are negotiating with the newly elected government of Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel for a resumption of aerial spraying of marijuana fields in Belize with herbicides.
Aerial spraying, using Mexican planes and crews, was suspended last year because of the election campaign in Belize, where environmental damage from spraying was a political issue, and only 7 percent of the marijuana crop was destroyed.
Previously, aerial spraying in 1982 and 1983 resulted in destruction of about half of total production each year, the task force was told.
Thomas said that in Nicaragua, there was ″very probable involvement″ in illicit drug traffic by senior officials in the Sandinista government despite their denials.
The State Department official, replying to a question from Rep. Larry Smith, D-Fla., the task force chairman, said ″I’m not free to say″ whether American fugitive Robert Vesco is involved in a ″Cuban-Nicaraguan connection″ in drug trafficking in the region.
Thomas said there is ″evidence of a significant recent increase in cocaine trafficking through Costa Rica,″ chiefly from Colombian producers.