The government of Belize is making a determined effort to lure back the British Army to its shores after the U.K. shuttered its British Army Training Unit Belize (BATSUB) in November 2011 leaving behind a token presence of about 10 soldiers. The Central American country which gained independence in 1981 from Great Britain has been facing hard economic times and it sees dollar signs in those squaddie boots.
The return of the British Army will lead to badly needed foreign exchange, free use of military equipment such as helicopters for its army and officials, and of course a modicum of comfort against any military adventurism from neighboring Guatemala with which it has a territorial dispute. Since the departure of of the Brits who had shouldered most of country’s defense obligations, Belize has been reduced to transporting local soldiers on border patrols in farm carts towed by donated tractors. Neither the Belize Defense Force nor the government owns a helicopter and its air force consists of two dilapidated 12 passenger aircraft donated by Britain a couple decades ago. The government has been encouraging the U.S. army to make training exercises in Belize but this has resulted in limited income.
At the time of independence, Belize hosted a garrison of some 1,000 British soldiers equipped with artillery, helicopters and Harrier attack aircraft. But in 1994, the main body of British troops was pulled out; leaving behind a small training unit, BATSUB. In 2010, the British government began to make defense cuts and started making preparations to shut down the unit. Doors were closed at the end of 2011.
The confirmation that the British Army was being courted to return to Belize was first made By National Security Minister John Saldivar on 4 February at the annual BDF Day. But more details emerged yesterday when Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred Elrington stated in a televised interview that:
“For some time, we have been talking to the British because we have the need for things like helicopters. You know the jungle is very far, it is very difficult to penetrate and when there are any incidents back there, it is very difficult to get to the people who are wounded. So we have long wanted to get helicopter assistance. We have talked to the Canadians, we have talked to the British and the British has the BATSUB here – I think in small numbers, but is used to train their own military personnel. We were hoping that they would be able to enhance their presence here and by enhancing their presence, bring equipment and training that we can benefit from.
“So to that extend, we have in fact been negotiating with them to try to see if they can enhance their presence here and to bring back these helicopters. I spoke to one of the under-secretary when I was in Chile last month and he indicated to me that he was fairly optimistic, but the British are going through very difficult economic times and so they have to be very careful how they deploy their resources, but he thought that there was a good chance that we would perhaps get an enhancement of the BATSUB presence.”
The Belize Defense Force numbers around 1,000 and is stretched thin with a third of its soldierss being deployed to support the Belize Police Force in fighting crime throughout the country, including a rising narco trafficking problem. It is now being additionally tasked to run a prison camp for young gang members in the Mountain Pine Ridge. In a broadcast interview today, the new BDF Commander Brigadier David Jones said that under that program, young criminals between the ages of 14 and 18 will be removed from urban areas and transported to the BDF facility in the Cayo District. There they will undergo forced labor and reeducation in sentences ranging up to two years.