Air Tragedy: Belize loses four BDF airmen; investigation ongoing
Thursday, March 5th, 2020
An investigation is underway to find answers as to what brought down a U1-H1 helicopter attached to the Belize Defence Force’s (BDF) Air Wing sometime on Thursday, February 27th. The helicopter crashed in the Western Lagoon, near Gales Point, Manatee, Belize District, killing its crew of four highly decorated BDF officers. Pilots, Commanding Officer of the Air Wing, Major Adran Ramirez, Deputy Air Wing Commanding Officer, Major Radford Baizar and Corporals Yassir Mendez and Reinaldo Choco reportedly left base near Belize City around 4AM to provide air support to ground forces (BDF and Police) in the interception of a drug plane that landed in the area of Gales Point, Manatee on a makeshift airstrip.
While the joint operation resulted in the confiscation of about two tons of suspected cocaine aboard the drug jet, no one seem to notice that a BDF helicopter was missing. As Belizeans commended the security forces for one of the largest drug busts in recent times, joy turned to shock when they learned on Friday, February 28th, that the helicopter had been found in the lagoon by Gales Point, with its four occupants dead. The Ministry of National Security, headed by its newly appointed Minister Honourable Michael Peyrefitte hastily called for a press conference at the Belize Coast Guard Conference Room.
Peyrefitte was flanked by the top brass of the different security agencies as he addressed the media. He explained that when the Air Wing provides support to the ground troops, it is standard for the aircraft to either stay on the ground with the supporting troops or to hover within the immediate area. Peyrefitte made it clear that they had begun a search and rescue operation the day before, late in the evening when the aircraft did not return to base.
This explanation questioned the protocols of communication when a helicopter is out on a mission. “The only time they would usually radio in, is when there is a situation, and so when they did not radio by evening time, there was no need for alarm,” said Peyrefitte. However, he added that the investigation will reveal if all communication protocols were followed.
According to Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Security, Felix Enriquez, they were in communication with the families of the pilots and crew. These allegations were denied by the Mendez and Choco family members. They told the media that they found out through social media (Facebook) about the tragedy and that no one from the Ministry of National Security or the BDF contacted them. “I want to find out why and how my son died, why they did not report it, because I heard they left camp at 2AM and the reports are saying 4AM,” said Choco’s mother.
Unofficial reports from BDF Headquarters is that the operation was carried out without anyone’s knowledge. BDF Commandant, Brigadier General Steven Ortega denied the allegations, saying that the mission was official. He also explained that the chopper did warm-up flights around 2AM, but that it left base at 4AM for the mission. He admitted that the helicopter did not have night vision equipment, but that the pilots had experience in night flying.
The investigation into the deadly crash is being headed by Chief of Staff in the Ministry of National Security, John Borland. According to him, he is not directly involved but he will guide and oversee the procedure. Personnel from the United States Southern Command, the Honduran military, British Army and Mexico are expected to participate in the probe. Because the helicopter was not equipped with a flight data recorder, communication between the helicopter and the Air Wing will be difficult to establish.
No evidence of foul play
Unofficial reports had indicated that bullet perforations were noticed on the sides of the helicopter. These allegations were disregarded by Chief of Staff Borland, indicating that so far there is no evidence that the aircraft was brought down. Borland asked the public for patience and to wait for the results of the investigation. He said that if protocols were breached, someone will be held liable.
Local Institutions call for the implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC)
As the investigation into the helicopter crash is underway, the Belize Network of Non-Governmental Organizations (BNN) joins the National Trade Union Congress of Belize calling for the government to immediately implement the UNCAC to support the crash investigation. BNN in a press release on Wednesday, March 4th, stated that provisions in the new National Budget must include sufficient resources for UNCAC’s continued implementation. The release expressed their support for the government to comply with the provisions of UNCAC.
The note talks about the Prevention of Corruption Act that establishes the Integrity Commission, which guards against Corruption Offences and acceptance of bribes by members of the National Assembly along with City and Town Councillors. “Without a fully staffed Secretariat, the commission has been rendered rather ineffective. A fully staffed Secretariat requires the government to provide adequate resources to hire at a minimum an Executive Director, and in-house-legal advisor and a special and highly skilled forensic investigator. The release ends by asking for a National Day of prayer and mourning to honour the service of the pilots Major Adran Ramirez and Major Radford Baizar, along with crew members Corporals Yassir Mendez and Reinaldo Choco.
Post-mortem says officers died from crash injuries
The four deceased BDF airmen were highly skilled. Their loss has significantly hit the Force as they lost two of their best pilots and leaders of the Air Wing. One of them, Major Ramirez was also a flight instructor, and a highly respected officer not only in Belize but across the Caribbean Region. According to a post-mortem examination conducted on the four soldiers, they died of multiple blunt force traumatic injuries. According to reports, to compensate the affected families, Cabinet will be presenting an offer to the families, while the deceased will be paid their pension and compensated as if they had retired.
The burial of the fallen soldiers began on Tuesday, March 3rd with military honours. Corporal Mendez was laid to rest at his hometown in Douglas Village, Orange Walk District. Corporal Choco’s funeral took place on Wednesday, March 4th, followed by Major Ramirez on Thursday, March 5th followed by Baizar’s.
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