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Saturday, 15 March 2008

Police shootout with crew of narco-plane

While there have always been rumors and reports of drug-running planes landing in half-forgotten jungles of our northern districts, Friday’s surprise landing on the Northern Highway confirmed without a doubt Belize’s status in the transnational drug transshipment routes from South America to the United States.
The drama began to unfold at about 2:00 a.m. on Friday, when motorists driving between Miles 39 and 44 on the Northern Highway made a number of reports to police and the BDF, that masked men dressed in full black, in the style of the paramilitary, refused to let them pass through the area. They were reportedly armed with AK47 machine guns, but did not directly threaten the motorists, only diverting them away from the scene.
The army was first on the scene, and reportedly exchanged gunfire with a number of gunmen standing around a container truck containing a Rotoplas tank and containers of jet fuel for refueling the plane, possibly injuring the driver of a vehicle seen in the area at the time, registered to one Zacharias Copo of Orange Walk, though it was not known if he was among the group fired on.
The plane, which had landed between Miles 40 and 41, was facing south on the road, pointing toward Belize City.There were no drugs of any kind found aboard the plane, leading investigators to believe that the traffickers may have escaped with the drugs, or it may have been dropped beforehand, as police “strongly believe” there was a large quantity, possibly a ton or more, of drugs on the confiscated plane.
The police did find equipment for refueling and a substantial amount of aircraft fuel - nine 15-gallon containers, according to reports.
Six suspects were initially detained, all Belizeans. The plane, a twin-engine King Air Beechcraft with possibly false Venezuela markings, was damaged in the incident and had to be transported to the BDF base at Ladyville.
The Police Anti-Drug Unit, Orange Walk Police Formation under Senior Superintendent Robert Mariano, and the BDF are all participating in the investigation, and we are told that the prisoners were cooperating.

As of Tuesday, March 11, eight persons have been charged in connection with the incident. They are all of Orange Walk: Anthony Thurton, 44; Ricardo Rivera, 50; Luis Novelo, 22; Irvin Cantun, 18; Victor Torres, 19; Roy Lanza, 22; Arnoldo Rivas, 44; and Caesar Canche, 39. They were denied bail by Magistrate Headley Stewart and remanded to Hattieville Prison on non-drug-related charges of conspiracy to land an aircraft, control of aviation fuel, illegally landing an aircraft and causing obstruction to the free flow of traffic.
Still at large are the individual injured in the original shootout by the BDF, as well as Zacharias Copo, who owns the container truck identified at the scene, and the pilot and co-pilot of the plane. Police are also looking for the drugs they are sure was on the plane and likely moved to another location during the shootout.
Speaking with local media Tuesday, Orange Walk’s Sr. Supt. Robert Mariano said whatever information that was gotten from the prisoners was not taken by force, and was gathered in the presence of a Justice of the Peace, and confirmed that some Mexicans may have been involved.



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