OTTAWA - Spillover from Mexico's violent drug war is prompting the Harper government and the Canadian military to become more involved in helping defend the tiny Central American country of Belize.
A series of internal reports, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, show the government has quietly increased co-operation with the Commonwealth nation, formerly known as British Honduras.
Canada is providing non-lethal equipment for security services and helping with strategic planning and the training of soldiers.
The documents, which all date from the spring of last year, describe the situation in Belize as deteriorating in the face of ultra-violent drug cartels that are battling not only Mexican and U.S. law enforcement, but each other as well.
"Belize is of growing importance to the Canadian government due to the increasingly precarious security situation in Central America, particularly along the Belize-Mexico border," said a March 23, 2012, briefing note prepared for Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
"Following increasing success to counter transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in Mexico, these organizations have advanced into Belize, bringing with them violence and public insecurity."
The long coastline, coral inlets and dark, gnarled jungles have been a mecca for tourists over the years, but also perfect cover for cocaine smugglers in fast boats coming up from Columbia.
The increasing cartel focus on Belize prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to add the country to the so-called “black list” of countries considered major drug-producing states or transit nations for narcotics.
Both the internal Defence Department reports and U.S. experts on the drug war in Central America say the small Caribbean Sea nation has become an important thoroughfare for South American drug cartels.
"Many of the countries in Central America and the Caribbean are facing increasing worries and in some cases documented pressure on their law enforcement and justice systems from transnational organized crime groups," said Shannon O'Neil, an adjunct fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"All of these countries will benefit from strengthening their law enforcement institutions — police, courts, and the like — in the face of these threats."
Eric Olson, associate director of Latin American programs at the Washington-based Wilson Centre, agreed and said the success of anti-drug operations in both the U.S. and Mexico has been overplayed.
To some extent, the shift in drug routes has almost as much to do with cartels battling each other and smugglers looking for easier laneways than with better law enforcement, he said.
"The Belizean security forces are over-matched when it comes to the kind of firepower and capacity that the traffickers have," Olson said.
The coast guard in that country should be a priority for modernization, given the way smuggling patterns have unfolded, he added.
Engagement in the Americas has been an evolving economic and security priority for the Harper government, said defence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The country's minister of defence requested help from Canada when conducting a strategic defence review in 2011 involving the country's more than 1,050 military, coast guard and national police forces, say the internal documents.
Canada's special forces recently delivered a batch of military equipment, including binoculars, combat clothing, helmets, boots, gloves and other gear.