By Sgt. 1st Class Alex LiceaMay 5, 2010
(Belize City, Belize) - Known for its beautiful coastlines and tropical weather, the Central American nation of Belize has been a destination for tourists all over the world.
However, past the luxury ocean front hotels comes a realization many people are not aware of. Concerns about trafficking throughout the tiny nation have increased as operatives use Belize as a launching pad for trafficking. The upsurge in the illegal transit operations can be traced along many of Belize's rural, remote areas, and vast ocean.
It's a problem that has been acknowledged by both Belizean officials and their American counterparts who are working in partnership in an effort to deter illicit movement within Belize's borders.
For members of Operational Detachment-Alpha or ODA, a detachment comprised of the U.S. Army's elite Special Forces from the 7th Special Forces Group, it is a predicament they understand as the men advise and assist their Belizean Defence Force partners through training and mentoring. The goal of these efforts is to build the BDF's military capacity in order to combat trafficking.
"Belize is a cruise destination, but it has also become a trafficking destination," said the SF officer-in-charge of the ODA. "Our goal is to build their collective capability, and get them operational in these remote areas to combat this problem."
The Army's Special Forces are training a special group of Belizean soldiers who are assigned to the Belize Special Assignment Group (BSAG). Within Belize's military, they are considered the first responders to handle illicit activities.
This exchange is part of Special Operations Command South's, the Homestead, Fla., based command that is responsible for all special operations in the Caribbean, Central and South America, theater security cooperation program. The program enables partner nations to better protect their borders and increase their capacity to conduct special operations. SOCSOUTH's program also helps partner nations improve their training facilities, such as weapons ranges, in order to increase their military capacity.
During the training, ODA personnel instruct their Belizean partners on a number of military skills, which include a range of advanced marksmanship, small unit tactics, first aid, and infantry maneuvers. All the training culminates in a field training exercise in which the American advisors employ practical scenarios into the training in order to prepare the BSAG troops for a real-life situation.
"All of our training is based on real-world events in order to prepare them for unilateral operations," said the SF officer. "We are working on the fundamentals so they can learn all the different skill sets, and ultimately, they can train themselves."
Their efforts in Belize are transforming the BDF into a highly trained special operations unit. During a recent trip to a marksmanship range, Belizean non-commissioned officers took charge of the training and guided their soldiers on the proper procedures of marksmanship.
Although the American troops advised them on some aspects of the instruction, Belizean NCOs took the lead in conducting the training. It's moments like this that make Belizean Cpl. Macario Salam proud to serve his country.
"I feel it is important that our American partners trust me to train these men, especially since we are using live ammunition," said Salam. "It is good that they let us train ourselves. They have confidence in us, and we are grateful for their training."
The accomplishments on the firing range came just days after the BSAG conducted a reconnaissance mission of a suspected trafficking route near the Belize-Guatemalan border, one of the first military operations of any kind along this remote, jungle area.
"We are here to advise and assist, but they are beginning to professionalize themselves. They have great non-commissioned officers. They are professional soldiers, and many of them have trained in British and Belizean jungle schools," said the ODA SF team sergeant. "We have confidence in them; we have a positive relationship and know everyone by name. We have grown to respect their capabilities."
BSAG troops credit much of their success to the relationship that they have had with their American counterparts throughout the past few months.
"They (U.S. Troops) are like our brothers," said Salam, who has served in uniform for 11 years. "These men are veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their knowledge and experience have been very important for us to become better soldiers."
However, not everything comes easy, and many challenges plague military growth. Belizean soldiers feel that they can improve their capabilities with more resources.
"We are dedicated and will fight no matter the resources, but we need the support to be there so we can effectively combat trafficking," said Belizean Staff Sgt. Philip Coc.
Despite the continued challenges, positive efforts have been made, such as the establishment of the Belize National Coast Guard (BNCG).
According to the SF officer, the BNCG provides them the capacity to patrol their waters and deter the flow of trafficking.
The SF officer also said that fighting trafficking also requires more than military strength and needs the involvement and cooperation of civilian organizations in order to be effective.
"This is a full-spectrum fight which involves inter-agency cooperation with all agencies," he said. "We have started communicating in order to gather the information we need to help us train and advise our partners for real-world missions."
The BSAG hopes to double in growth in the near future with a selection process, and new weapons will be given to them as they continue to fill their ranks.
Ultimately, the goal for the ODA is to create combat multipliers to empower the Belizean military to eventually train themselves without American support. This goal is one that the BSAG strives to fulfill.
"We want our country to be safe for the citizens and the tourists," said Coc. "We have good training and the skills to engage any enemy. We are more than ready, but we need the continued support!"