Extract: Colombia, cocaine and the coastal paradise on a US blacklist

Today, the US finally blacklisted Belize and El Salvador for being major narcotics transhipment hubs – mainly for Colombian cocaine. Anyone who’s been to the former British Honduras, a tiny little country on the Central American coastline, will already know very well how much of it goes down there. Indeed, most are probably wondering, like me, what took the US so long.

For those who don’t – and for everyone interested in the cocaine trade – I’ve decided to post a free extract of my book below, in which I witnessed the workings of the Belize cocaine transhipment trade at close quarters. Read it and weep…

– From the chapter
High Times on the Costa Coca

“It’s just the start of another lazy, sun-kissed day on Ambergris, one of the tiny, sandspit-and-swamp cayes—pronounced keys, like the Florida archipelago they resemble—off the mainland of this Mayan-Caribbean state. Belize is a tiny coastal country nestled between Guatemala and Mexico on the Central American coastline. Accordingly, the former British Honduras is part coastal paradise, part Mayan hill-and-jungle backwater, and projects the kind of quaint, slow-paced charm we all remember from childhood visits to elderly aunts by the seaside. The waters this side of a long coastal reef glow bright blue, and farther out, where the peasant fishermen ply their trade and the occasional launch zips by on its way up the Central American seaboard toward Florida, they are calm and reassuringly hushed. It genuinely is the last place I’d ever expected, quite literally, to fall over the slit and dissolving remains of a twelve-kilo sack of uncut cocaine someone had left lying on the sandspit beach of the long caye during a dawn walk.

If I’d been able to read the local papers for the couple of months before my arrival in March 2003, I might have had an inkling. On a cloudy Wednesday morning in February 2003, Belizean drug-enforcement agents on a tip-off stormed a field on the Mexico-Belize border and stumbled upon a still-smoldering torched aircraft. But if that was genuinely their first clue that all was not entirely as it should be on the sunny shores of this tiny Central American paradise, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. For years, fishermen and farmers up and down the Mosquito Coast have been doubling up as cocaine salvage men, pushing out early in the morning to see what they can rescue from the fields and waters of Belize and neighboring countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Locals here earn a matter of pennies a day—yet a handful or those industrious or well-informed enough have long been living a Central American rewrite of Whisky Galore (Compton Mackenzie’s book and subsequent film about a small Scottish island community onto whose beach fifty thousand cases of scotch from a wrecked World War II cargo vessel are washed). Only here, the flotsam comes in the form of shrink-wrapped bales of 100 percent pure cocaine, not bottles of booze.

On a sandy, shark-encircled caye a few kilometers along the Costa Coca just weeks later, I was a passenger on a local fishing boat whose skipper explained to me as he sped right past his fishing waters and into the deeper ocean that it was always worth his while scouting around for the “taped-up plastic sacks of cocaine that the narcotraficantes drop into the water at night.” Sometimes, he explains, the narcos whose job it is to deliver the drugs to the planes come round the coast at night and attempt to rendezvous with the plane’s crew. If they are disturbed, chased by law enforcement, or just paranoid, the easiest thing for them to do is push the cargo over the side, carefully wrapped so that it floats discreetly, in the hope of doubling back and retrieving it when the danger has passed—the big-money equivalent of throwing your joint from the car window. The air trapped in the sacks makes them float, semi-submerged or just below the surface, glinting as the light bounces off the plastic. Often they do return and retrieve their cargo, but there are often stragglers, bales washed away from the rest. These are, says the skipper, “the bales the fishing boats find, mostly. Sometimes from a plane too, though, I think.”

By now it was late morning and my skipper and I were no longer alone: A handful of small dinghies could be seen combing the reef waters and the deeper sea beyond, packed with fishermen hoping to land their own twelve-kilo, plastic-wrapped golden ticket. Up and down the beach, meanwhile, were the sacks that hadn’t made it—punctured on impact with the ground, swept out, torn, and washed up again, their precious contents either a dissolving bubbly residue or gone forever.

Back on land, the caye is awash with the stuff, young teenagers selling cocaine—or a hurriedly home-cut version of what the boats or 4x4s brought in—for as little as ten dollars a gram on jetties, beach bars, and up and down the sand in a way you’d normally be offered cheap souvenir beach towels or hair braids. One can’t help but notice how, among the rows of hovels, rusting pickups, and wooden boats, the occasional spanking-new, tinted-glass Humvee sits incongruously; or the odd rococo home extension with pool among a cluster of poor-but-proud shacks at the end of a dirt road. This is just one of the bizarre local economic glitches—along with a series of microbooms to the cash economy whenever a shipment falls—that attends this particular delivery method to the local arms-for-drugs traders.

The idea of spiriting large quantities of Colombian-grown drugs out of rural Belize by cargo plane is not new. In July 2000, British paratrooper Ken Lukowiak wrote a best-selling account of a successful marijuana-smuggling operation he masterminded from his British garrison in Belize in 1983, using military-transport aircraft to spirit large quantities of grass to Europe. Successful until he was caught by the army and jailed, that is.

Yet the Belizean police do seem incredibly unlucky to keep narrowly missing an arrest despite the tip-offs they receive from local witnesses. Just months later in August 2003, enforcement authorities in Blue Creek, a mile and a half from Quintana Roo, Mexico, arrived just too late once more and found another ditched Antonov. This time the gun was smoking: On landing, the An-12’s wheels had become stuck in the thick mud of the field, crippling it. Just like the Candid team who left their junk plane to rust in Afghanistan after having dropped their generator for the U.S. military, this crew knew what to do. The plane itself had cost just $1.5 million; it was expendable. The cargo wasn’t. Witnesses reported seeing men arrive at the plane by car, pick up the crew and a suspected ten bales of cocaine, and speed off in the direction of the Mexican border . . . where they vanished forever.”

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