Belize isn't that bad. Yet.
But things are getting dicier here at the country's long, wide-open
border with Guatemala. For years Guatemalan peasants have been spilling
over the boundary into Belize's protected areas, where they clear the
forest and plant crops. Only the pattern has taken a sinister turn
lately, military officers told me, as more and more farmers plant
marijuana, under the protection--or orders--of heavily-armed Zetas on the
other side. Lately the 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," said Sgt.
Marcos Villagran, the tall, lanky unit commander, who wore a bucket hat
and carried an American M4 rifle--a gift of anti-narcotics aid from the
United States, like the Ford F350. "This is about land. Land, and
following the law," he said.
Three weeks earlier, Belizean troops exchanged fired here with two
gunmen armed with AK-47s, shooting back and wounding one of the
attackers. Now they were heading up a steamy jungle valley to a location
where a large pot field had been spotted from the air--but they had
lost radio contact with the lead unit that was supposed to secure the
When the mud got deeper and the truck could no longer continue, the
unit continued up the valley on foot, moving through the forest without a
murmur. It was like hiking in a bug-infested steam room, with only the
sound of swishing brush and the soupy mud sucking at one's boots. Where
the valley widened, the forest had been cleared, and tall corn fields
climbed the hillsides right to the edge of the forest, entangled in bean
The soldiers would fan out and crouch down at the sound of someone
approaching along the trail, their weapons at the ready. At one spot,
they ducked into a defensive position, and I could hear them flicking
off the safety switches on their rifles. But it was only a farmer,
plodding down the trail with sacks of corn loaded on his burro. He was
singing love songs in Spanish, but stopped when he saw the soldiers. He
flashed a toothless smile and sauntered on through the mud.
By mid-afternoon the sky was purple with rain clouds and the unit
still couldn't reach the other team on the radio, so we turned back. Had
the other group gotten lost? Was it a radio malfunction? What if they'd
been attacked? There was no way to know. The Belizeans don't have any
helicopters and all their ATVs were broken, so the only way up the
valley was on foot, and there was no time to get there before nightfall.
They would have to come back tomorrow.
The soldiers reached the pickup just as it started to pour. They
barreled down the highway back to base, teasing each other in Kriol,
honking to friends along the shoulder and whistling at the pretty
ladies. The Pointer Sisters' "Slow Hand" was on the radio, LOVE FM.
It seems like a much bigger storm may be headed for Belize. But for
now the worst of the drug war was still on its door step, and not yet
This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, an Atlantic partner site