The preliminary report on the February 27 helicopter crash that claimed the lives of four Belize Defence Force soldiers was presented this afternoon by the Minister of National Security, Michael Peyrefitte. The report leaves many questions unanswered and today’s press conference limited the media on what they were able to ask the head table. We start by bringing you the timeline of the mission that Majors Adran Ramirez and Radford Baizar and Corporals Reynaldo Choco and Yassir Mendez were sent out on.
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security: “On February 27th 2020 at around 1:38am the Joint Intelligence and Operations Center (JIOC) which is a combination of BDF, Coast Guard and Police made a request of General Ortega which General Ortega conditionally approved for a helicopter to assist in the operation that led to the seizure of a drug plane a few hours later. At around 1:45, seven minutes after that, JIOC calls Major Ramirez and tells him to get prepared for a mission as General Ortega had conditionally approved a mission for him to deploy a helicopter to assist the JIOC with an operation. At around 2:12am Major Ramirez texted General Ortega and asked him if the mission is a go. At 2:18am General Ortega calls JIOC to get a briefing on the mission and repeats his conditional approval as he explains to JIOC that it would be up to Major Ramirez to finally determine if they can fly the helicopter based on the weather and other factors. At 2:22am General Ortega calls Major Ramirez and tells him that the mission is a go provided that he (Major Ramirez) is satisfied that the proper conditions exist in order to safely fly and that in his (General Ortega’s) view the weather will not clear up until about 5am. At around 3:17am Major Ramirez texted General Ortega and said “Sir. Weather hold up. Will depart.” It is important to note at this point that at various times before February 27 2020 JIOC and General Ortega had requested air assistance from Major Ramirez and he refused to command a mission because of unfavorable conditions. This was never treated as insubordination as it is accepted that when it comes to flights the Air Wing has the final say. It is also important to note at this point that once Major Ramirez as commander of the Air Wing had decided to accept a mission then he is the one with the total discretion to pick the pilots and crew as was the case here. At around 3:54am Major Ramirez signs out on the helicopter and crew and by around 4:07am the helicopter lifted off from the Williamson base Phillip Goldson International Airport area. Once the helicopter lifted off then as per protocol Major Ramirez communica ted directly with JIOC who were the ones spearheading the mission. At 4:18am Major Ramirez messaged JIOC and says “We’re here.” A series of messages are then exchanged between Major Ramirez and JIOC which I cannot reveal for the purpose of national security and the security of future operations. The families of the deceased and the public may not like that but I plead to you to accept that.”
Minister Peyrefitte went on to inform the media and the public that there is a limit as to what the public is privy to and as such, they will not be divulging all information in their report. The mission was short and by 4:35 am the communication between the team in the chopper and those on the ground ended.
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security: “Major Ramirez messaged Major Velis of JIOC at around 4:33am and then Major Velis responded at around 4:35am by saying “Great help brethren. Thanks.” At this point the specific purpose of the helicopter in the mission had been served and it was expected that the helicopter would return to base. Of note as well is that when Major Velis sent that last text message to Major Ramirez, Whatsapp message by phone, the usual two ticks that you would see when you send a Whatsapp message to indicate that the other person has received it and for some people who don’t have their private messaging thing turned on kind of thing it would turn blue or green to indicate that the person received it and has read it. Sometimes when you send a message you see only one tick which means that the person did not receive it at all much less read it. That last text that Major Velis sends to Major Ramirez that says “Great help brethren, thanks.” only had one tick indicating that in normal circumstances then Major Ramirez did not receive that Whatsapp message. That 4:33am message from Major Ramirez was the last communication from him. On February 28 2020 after a search and rescue operation the destroyed helicopter was sighted at 10:04am. The initial rescue team arrived at 11:06am to the scene and by 1:46pm all four members of the helicopter team were recovered and pronounced dead by the medical officer on the scene. Once the news of this tragic incident became known the Hondurans, Mexicans, Americans and the British immediately offered their assistance and the Hondurans arrived in Belize on the same day February 28th and they stayed with us from then until they left Belize March 6th with a report that I will now produce and distribute for the public and it speaks for itself along with the ballistic report from our ballistics department in the forensics lab. The report was prepared by the Honduras with the assistance of the Civil Aviation Authority of Belize, our security forces and US and British personnel based locally.”
There are several reports coming out of the BDF on what really transpired on February 27. When one reporter attempted to ask Minister Peyrefitte on some of these reports, he was shut down.
Reporter: Would you speak about the anecdotal report that’s widely speculated upon that –
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security: “No.”
Reporter: Hear me out you said there is a –
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security: “Anecdotal, highly speculative report ? No sir. We will give you a report and that’s the only report that we will speak about.”
Reporter: Sir but there’s information in the public domain that I’m giving you the opportunity –
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, Minister of National Security: “Yerrisoh. We did an official investigation, we produced an official report, that report and that investigation or the report was produced based on an investigation by two of the most serious military officers you have in the country; that’s the only report that we are going by. We can answer a million questions on a million speculation but that won’t get us anywhere. That is, what I read to you is the official position based on the investigation that we have done so far, anything else we don’t know about and we don’t care to know about. “
Reporter: I assume it was not written by the hand of God but let us move on.
According to Minister Peyrefitte, the report from the Hondurans will be uploaded to the website. Commander of the Belize Coast Guard, Captain Elton Bennett is the lead in the investigation. While Minister Peyrefitte dominated today’s press conference, Captain Elton Bennett who is heading the investigation noted that the personnel on the ground have been interviewed and that there are several agencies that are taking part in the investigation.
Elton Bennet, Commandant, Belize Coast Guard: “We had expertise from the British Army, the Commanding Officer of the BATSUB and he brought along a pilot in training. In addition to that I’ve had opportunities to speak to experts in air casualty investigation from the British Army. As it relates to the US military the Colonel that is in charge in Belize who we refer to as the United States Military Liaison Office in Belize is a part of the investigation team as well and he brought in from SouthCom two experts in helicopter investigation and they are now with us and they sit at the table and they are part of all of the investigation, part of all of the interviews in addition to that we have personnel from Mexico as well, the Mexican Naval attache and the Mexican Army attache who is a General and also a pilot so he brings to the table those expertise as well so that’s the scope of support and involvement and members of the board that are here in that investigation. In addition to that there were experts from Bell who manufacture the helicopter that came in country last week and started the process with the investigation of the air frame itself and then the Honduran report that is produced that will be uploaded so that’s the broad scope of involvement from our foreign partners.”
For now, there is no one person or persons to blame on what transpired. Minister Peyrefitte says an investigation is underway in this regard. We will have more on today’s press brief in tomorrow’s newscast.