COROZAL, Belize — I met Bobby on my last night in Belize, the night before this Central American nation celebrated its 30th anniversary of independence.
I was standing outside a Chinese market, waiting for the town’s fireworks display to start. Most of Corozal’s 10,000 people, it seemed, were jammed into the civic center plaza across the street.
“Hey man, you OK? You look kinda scared or something.”
The question and comment came at me from a man sitting on a crate next to the entrance to the market, drinking a Heineken beer.
“Where you from, man?” he asked.
States, I told him. And, no, not scared, just taking in the scene. I’d been watching the Chinese family selling beers to young Belizean men through the market’s metal bars, wondering if there weren’t better opportunities in today’s booming China than in this sleepy waterfront town just south of Belize’s border with Mexico.
The man was well-dressed, talkative. “Bobby,” he said, extending a hand.
Bobby was from Roatán, the Caribbean island that’s part of Honduras, and he delivered small talk equally well in English and Spanish. “Three kids,” he said, showing me pictures on his cell phone. He’d been reading a lot of John Grisham novels lately since he wasn’t working much.
“What kind of work is there around here?” I asked.
Contraband, Bobby said.
Now I was intrigued.
I’d been in Belize for five days, reporting on the increase in drug trafficking through the country. Mexico’s powerful drug cartels have recently muscled their way into Central America, looking to open new smuggling routes for the multi-billion-dollar cocaine trade that runs clandestinely from the mountains of South America to U.S. coffee tables and coke spoons. A few days earlier, the Obama Administration had added Belize to the “black list” of states considered major drug producing nations or transit countries.
Earlier this year the U.S. government had pledged more than $200 million in new security assistance for Central America. But politicians in the region want more, saying sovereignty and stability are undermined by the wealth and power of the cartels.
So far in Belize, things aren’t nearly as bad as in next-door Guatemala, which, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, is the land bridge to Mexico that’s now favored by traffickers of illegal drugs. The cartel presence in Guatemala is marked by Mexico’s most-feared gangsters, Los Zetas. It is believed that in May, Zetas killed 27 people on a jungle ranch in the Guatemalan state of Peten — just over the border from Belize. Their victims were beheaded and threats and taunts were scrawled on walls in blood.
Not that Belize has been quiet through all this. In Belize City, the ramshackle port town and the country’s largest city at 70,000 people, feuding street gangs have helped drive the country’s murder count to over 100 so far this year. That’s on pace to be the highest tally ever. The city’s rough southern neighborhoods are locked in a war of Bloods vs. Crips — gang brands imported by Belizean deportees from the U.S., just like the Mara Salvatrucha — 18th Street rivalry that has spread from Los Angeles to El Salvador.
One reason for the violence, Belize’s top police official told me: big traffickers are putting more cocaine on the streets, since they’re paying their local contacts in raw product, rather than cash.
What about Corozal?
“This place is tranquilo, real calm,” Bobby said. “But there’s a lot of stuff moving through. They’re just not killing each other over it.” Bobby said he worked on the docks sometimes.
I had been talking to Belizean military officers, police officials and U.S. counter-drug agents about the country’s growing role as a gateway for traffickers. By landing drug flights in Belize or zooming across the Gulf of Honduras in fast boats, traffickers can dodge Mexico’s army and navy patrols. As Central America’s least-populated and least-defended country, the worry was that Belize could be overrun by Mexican cartels.
Belizean military officers told me that more farmers are planting marijuana, under the protection — or orders — of heavily-armed Zetas on the other side of the border with Guatemala. For years Guatemalan peasants have been spilling over the largely untended boundary into Belize's protected areas to clear forest and plant crops. Lately it’s taken a more serious turn: gangsters have carved spooky messages for the Belizean troops into the trees, like "We are watching you," notched with the letter "Z."
"They come over the border and cut down all the trees," Sgt. Marcos Villagran told me on a recent patrol of the border region. The tall, lanky unit commander carried an American M4 rifle — a gift of anti-narcotics aid from the United States, like the Ford F350 that carried his unit through the jungle. "This is about land. Land, and following the law," he said.
But Bobby, in Corozal, was the first person I’d met in Belize who’d actually helped smuggle the stuff.
As the Chinese family continued its brisk sale of beers, Bobby told me about the cargo he’d seen coming into Corozal. He said he’d helped unload packages of cocaine on several occasions, including one shipment so large he calculated its value at $40 million.
“I carried the packages myself,” he said, complaining that the traffickers only paid him $1,500 for the job.
I had no reason to doubt Bobby’s story, but there was no way to verify it. Or at least verify it without taking ill-advised risks. And avoiding dumb risks has been a rule for me while I've reported on the drug war in Mexico and elsewhere. Another rule: Politely decline offers to meet with actual narcos — an opportunity that comes more often than one would think. So when Bobby asked if I wanted to go and meet some of his associates, I said I’d pass.
I’m a writer, I told him. Not a buyer. Not a DEA agent.
We sat there for another few minutes, him working on the Heineken, me gulping down bottled water. Bobby seemed like a nice guy, but then he began asking more questions about what I was doing in Corozal. I thought it was time to exchange goodbyes. I told him I was going back to the plaza to wait for the midnight fireworks.
We shook hands, and as I walked away I weaved through the crowd in the plaza, trying to blend in — just in case Bobby was still watching me. Better to go back to the hotel and watch the fireworks from there, I thought. Just in case Bobby might later decide he’d said too much.
To read more of Nick Miroff's coverage of the war on drugs in Latin America, visit his project site at the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.