Trouble in Paradise
U.S. fugitives may think they can hide in Belize, but here's the untold story of how some get caught
Working a network of sources from his police days, Hamilton eventually picked up Davis's trail leading deeper into Belize's jungle, to a rural 500-acre plot of land owned by the mosque. Late one night, clad in his old Army camouflage and armed with a Sig 9-mm pistol, Hamilton trekked toward an isolated cabin on the property. Davis, a former black militant, was considered dangerous, but Hamilton said he was not intimidated either by Davis or by Belize's poisonous snakes. "The stars were shining bright that night," he recalls. Reaching the makeshift cabin, Hamilton saw that Davis had been there recently, all right, but he was gone. In the end, the biggest threat that night was the mosquitoes, swarming after days of heavy rains.
Finally, after five months of sleuthing, Hamilton received the decisive tip, and the Belize police were able to nab Davis at a friend's house. It was evident that Davis's experience in Belize didn't match up to a vacation brochure. "Life on the run was not good," says Osterhout. "His wanted poster said 170 pounds, but he was probably 130 pounds ... and he was just covered in mosquito bites." Today, Davis is serving time in Missouri.
Why Belize? This tiny nation of only 280,000 people does seem to draw a surprising number of fugitives. They come here "for the same reasons as the tourists," says Gerald Westby, Belize's police commissioner. "It's English-speaking and close to Mexico." Some try to blend in with vacationers on sun-drenched coastal islands like Ambergris Cay, and others, like Davis, try to find sanctuary in the jungle. They also appear to find comfort in the poverty (hence, their money goes further) and lawlessness (figuring they won't be a priority for local cops). Belize City is a violent place, currently suffering from a rash of "pedal by" shootings--executions by gunmen on bicycles.
Amid this backdrop, perhaps it is not surprising that Belize--with a national police force of just over 1,000 officers--has granted Osterhout unusual leeway, including permission to carry a concealed weapon. Sometimes, he calls in local police only for the actual arrest. Belize signed an extradition treaty with the United States in 2000, but officials are often quite willing to expedite a deportation instead of the lengthy extradition process. The police also assigned a sergeant, David Chi, as a full-time liaison to the embassy. "Belize is very close to being one of the most cooperative Central American nations," says James Schield, chief of international investigations for the U.S. Marshals Service. One key secret to Osterhout's success is the generous amount of equipment and training that he has helped obtain for the poorly equipped Belize police. Money, though, is still short. Asked to arrange a ride-along for a U.S. News photographer, Grinage looks embarrassed. "We're out of vehicles," he says. "There's no money to repair them, man."
Belize also has its own self-interest. "We are only too happy to get rid of these criminals when they come to Belize," says Westby, the police commissioner. This was especially true in the case of one of Belize's most notorious fugitives: Reinaldo Silvestre, a charismatic Cuban with a host of gruesome nicknames. He called himself "Dr. Ray," but the Belize press labeled him a "modern-day Frankenstein," and he was best known in the United States as the "Butcher of South Beach" after being featured on the television show America's Most Wanted. By whatever name, Silvestre allegedly spent more than a year posing as a plastic surgeon in Miami. Preying on the vain and the frugal (in part by advertising cut-rate breast enhancements), Silvestre left in his wake botched surgeries and scarred women, according to Miami police. In one particularly grisly operation, he reportedly gave a set of women's breast implants to a Mexican bodybuilder looking for enhanced pecs. (What's more, the bodybuilder woke up during the operation because of too little anesthesia.) And then one day in May 1999, Silvestre vanished.