BELIZE'S QUIET DESPAIR
Story by: SF Chronicle
Tiny coastal nation plagued by misery brought by crack cocaine addiction
Orange Walk, Belize
The center of this little town looks so wholesome that you expect to see
Andy Griffith come whistling around the corner. There's a small white
church near the town hall and a shaded park where girls in school uniforms
gather after class to gossip and giggle.
But the wholesome image is only a facade. Trouble lies just around the
A town of 14,000 nestled into the sugar cane fields of northern Belize,
Orange Walk is overrun by crack cocaine addicts known as "sprungheads"
because of their notoriously volatile personalities.
The sprungheads loiter on the side streets smoking $2.50 rocks of crack as
fast as they can scrounge or steal the money to buy them. The most
desperate addicts hang out in the cemetery, sleeping on top of tombs or at
an adjacent crack house. "We're here all the time, always looking for the
next hit," said Chris Garland, one of a half-dozen addicts gathered in the
cemetery one recent morning.
"Cocaine just messed up my whole life," said Leroy Young, combing his white
beard from his perch atop a tomb.
Once a successful cabinetmaker with a family and enough money to visit
London, the 62-year-old Young now lives alone in a crack-house room barely
large enough to stretch out his lengthy frame.
He coughs regularly, a symptom of chronic bronchitis. His hazel brown eyes
show desperation, his waist has shriveled away and his once-powerful arms
have gone flabbier than chicken wings.
Orange Walk wasn't always like this. Although marijuana has been grown and
smoked here for decades, crack cocaine only really blossomed in the past
few years, changing Belize dramatically.
The tiny country, which was once relatively free of crime outside the
capital city of Belmopan, is now overrun by drug-related crime and misery,
the sort of problems formerly associated only with inner cities of the
"People used to say cocaine gringo problem," said Miguel Segura, an officer
in the Belize Force. "But now we have all the same problems: Broken homes,
crime, violence, even gangs." It's not just Belize. Thanks to changes in
the international flow of drug trafficking, crack cocaine addiction has
suddenly become a problem all along Central American Atlantic Coast,
Colombian traffickers increasingly use the poorly patrolled coastline
between Costa Rica and to transport drugs bound for Mexico and then on to
the United The trade has inadvertently introduced cocaine to remote coastal
villages where it was never seen before.
Bales of cocaine sometimes wash ashore by accident, dumped by boats fleeing
authorities or spilled while being transferred from one ship to another.
The drug is also left behind as payment to local middlemen.
Wherever the coke winds up, people try it. Like a nasty virus, cocaine
refuses to respect political boundaries or cultural traditions, destroying
There are now crackheads; among the blacks of eastern Costa Rica, the
Miskito Indians of Nicaragua, the Spanish-speaking fishermen of Honduras,
the Garifuna Indians of Guatemala and the Creole-speaking people of Belize.
Alarmed by the trend, the Organization of American States put together a
special task force last year to combat the addiction now sweeping through
Central America's seven nations.
"Everything we're seeing indicates an increase in drug use throughout the
region," said Anna Chisman, who coordinates the OAS' Atlantic Coast
drug-prevention program from Washington, DC.
Belize has been particularly hard hit, which some believe is related to the
country's longtime acceptance of marijuana. Belizeans see themselves as
kin of the Jamaicans, and so smoking the milder drug has long been an
accepted part of the local Rastafarian culture.
By the mid-1980s, exports of "Belize Breeze" made the country the
fourth-largest marijuana producer in the world, according to the U.S.
State Department. The drug became so socially accepted that
semi-professional soccer teams were typically funded by their own private
In Orange Walk, the export of marijuana was practically uncontrolled.
Smugglers began using the main highway just outside town as a night landing
strip for drug planes. Workers with flashlights politely stopped cars
along the highway so the planes could land and be loaded with pot.
Unable to control the smuggling through traditional policing, the desperate
government eventually resorted to putting metal posts along both sides of
the highway, so planes could no longer land without clipping their wings.
Despite the heavy use and the lucrative exports, marijuana never brought
much violence or even petty crime to Belize.
"People who smoke ganja remain calm," said Segura, the police official.
"But people who smoke crack do crazy things. They leave their family.
They steal. They kill."
Gangs modeling themselves after Southern California's Crips and Bloods now
prowl the streets of Belize City, and drive-by shootings are becoming
People accustomed to small-town tranquility have had to quickly revise
their lifestyles. Door locks have been reinforced, bars added to windows,
fences built. Many Belizeans no longer hang their laundry outside to dry,
fearing that a crack addict will steal it.
"The crime here is no worse than what you would see in Houston or Dallas,"
said Chris Heaton, a police officer from Plano, Texas, who recently spent
two weeks patrolling Belize City as part of an exchange program. "But you
have to remember that Belize City has a population of 50,000," he added,
compared with more than a million in the Texas cities.
Ironically, many Belizeans say a well-intentioned U.S. drug eradication
program is partially to blame for the explosion of local cocaine use.
In the late 1980s, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency brought in aircraft to
spray herbicide on the Belize marijuana crop. The program was so effective
that the local ganja supply dried up almost overnight.
"After the spraying, people were looking for another drug," said Francis
Vaizar, head of the government's National Drug Abuse Control Council.
"They switched to cocaine."
Cocaine flowed so freely through Belize that the State Department decided
to place economic sanctions on the government last year, lumping Belize
with Colombia as countries that did not cooperate sufficiently in the war
The sanctions were lifted early this year after Belize officials seized
more than two tons of cocaine over the previous several months.
The transition from marijuana to cocaine is particularly strong in Orange
Walk, which once served as the heart of pot-growing country. The region's
location along the border with Mexico made it perfect for smuggling.
The social acceptance of pot has now transferred to cocaine and crack,
creating a strangely surreal small-town scene. Unlike in Belize City,
police have managed to keep Orange Walk from becoming overrun with violent
crime. But petty crime is pervasive, and the smoking and dealing of crack
Just around the corner from the picturesque central square, at least three
bars openly sell crack over the counter, according to Victor Pollard, the
government's local drug counselor.
Walking farther up a side street, Pollard points to well-kept homes with
new paint jobs. The owners, who he says are well respected, deal crack
from their porches.
The police accept bribes to allow the dealing to continue. The problems
are so ingrained that Pollard sometimes wonders how long he will be able to
keep up his morale in the losing battle.
"I've got so much into this, but sometimes I just want to quit," he
lamented. "The place is so corrupt, and it will never change."