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Where’s the promised radar? Belize still unable to detect ‘drug planes’

This article was originally published in The Reporter May 30, 2021, issue.

Though Belize remains a major transit country for drugs originating out of South America, towards its destination in the United States, it is still without a primary radar system that would enable authorities to detect any illicit air traffic coming into the country, despite signing a $12 million agreement over a year ago for the acquisition of a state of the art radar system.

The agreement was signed by personnel from the Department of Civil Aviation and representative of COCESNA and Indira System which stipulated that the primary radar system would have been acquired and installed within five months.

Fast forward to over a year, with a total of about 20 drug planes landing in the country last year and five so far for this year, there is still no update on what happened with the radar and if, in fact, the deal had gone through.

This week with the arrival of another drug plane that crash-landed off the Coast of Placencia early on Saturday morning we reached out to the Director of Civil Aviation Nigel Carter for comment.

“So that project we did a lot of the paperwork necessary to have moved ahead with that project, however, due to COVID, the project was postponed indefinitely due to funding matters that were impacted,” Carter explained. “Right now, with the new administration, we are taking a multi-agency approach.”

Carter elaborated on this multi-agency approach. “When I say this, I mean that the Police involved, the Coast Guard, and the BDF are involved with us in ensuring that the radar that we will get moving forward will suit the need of all of the involved agencies. We are actively engaged with all these agencies to create a new blueprint for the project meaning that we want to identify exactly what needs the primary radar would be addressing. So we are in the planning stage; we want to make it better so we are revisiting it. After we are finished then we will be contacting the service providers to see how best they can suit the needs of the country. We currently don’t have any definite timeline for this.”

We tried to get Carter to comment on how these drug planes keep landing in the country and how the acquisition of a primary radar system would be able to deter such activities and he explained that currently the country only has a secondary surveillance radar system which is a passive system that relies on information coming to it, to detect an aircraft.

 According to Carter, usually an aircraft is equipped with a transponder that, once activated, sends a signal to Civil Aviation Radar to alert them of its current location. However, usually, in the case of illegal aircraft coming into the country, they would usually switch off their transponder when entering the country’s airspace.

Carter explained that in contrast, the primary radar system is an active system that sends out a reflection and relies on the signal coming back to identify an aircraft in the air and does not requires a transponder to pinpoint its exact location but would be able to automatically detect any aircraft coming into the country.

Currently, Belize relies on a regional network that generates tracking information of suspected aircraft leaving South America. When that information is received locally security forces are deployed to several potential landing sites throughout the country, as the resource allows in an attempt to intercept the said aircraft. In the majority of these cases, however, officials often arrive too late to intercept any cargo or crew members.

The US State Department classes Belize as a “major transit country for drugs coming from South America”, recognizing the nation as vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers due to its central location, porous borders, and sparsely populated landscape.

In its 2020 International Narcotics Control report, the State Department detailed how traffickers typically refuel or offload drugs at illicit airstrips in Belize for onward transshipment by land through Mexico, toward the United States. The report additionally stated that Belize currently does not have any air defense system. It does not have any primary radar capable of monitoring illicit air traffic, and no maritime radar.

The report concludes that such significant equipment gaps, limited law enforcement response capabilities, and systemic investigative and prosecutorial limitations inhibit Belize’s ability to interdict shipments and prosecute traffickers.

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