Watch: why did the British Army kill a one-legged man?
On 9 May 1983, a British paratrooper shot dead 55-year-old Antonio Alford in Belize, a small nation in Central America. That much is certain. But everything else about this incident remains a mystery, three decades on. I’ve spent months investigating this forgotten killing, and this is what I’ve found so far.
There appears to be only one telegram about Antonio’s death available at the UK National Archives. It was sent to 10 Downing Street hours after the shooting and gives the official version of events. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) claimed that Antonio was a cannabis grower and pointed a shotgun at a British soldier, who opened fire in self-defence.
This explanation is plausible – at that time UK forces regularly patrolled Belize’s jungles to stop drug runners. The country had only just become independent from Britain and did not yet have enough of its own soldiers and police to handle counter-narcotics.
But local people I met in Belize remember this incident very differently. They say Antonio only had one leg, after a shark accident as a young man. His friends called him 'One foot Tony' – friends that even included Belize's prime minister. Antonio was especially well-regarded for helping to run his local football club and many people attended his funeral.
Once I heard this, the official story started to sound shaky. Did Antonio, a disabled man, really pose a lethal threat to British soldiers on that fateful day?
Errol Flowers, a carpenter, was with Antonio the moment he died. The two men were close – Antonio was like a father figure to the younger Errol. They were chopping wood together when British soldiers emerged from their nearby camp at Holdfast and detained them. Errol claims he was tied up ‘like an animal’ and blindfolded for hours.
Eventually, he heard the soldiers shoot Antonio – 13 times in the back. Errol was then arrested for possession of a small quantity of marijuana, but soon released. He says no British soldiers were punished for Antonio's death. The shooting continues to haunt Errol to this day, as he struggles to scratch out a living in a remote part of Belize.
We do not know exactly who shot Antonio, beyond the fact that he was a non-commissioned officer from Britain’s elite parachute regiment – specifically its 2nd Battalion (known as 2 PARA), and most probably B Company.
This is important because almost a year to the day before Antonio was shot, 2 PARA fought a fierce battle on the Falkland Islands at Goose Green. Eighteen members of 2 PARA, including a teenager, died in that war with Argentina. Many more were maimed and physiologically scarred for life.
Gus Hales, a former British army sergeant, was attached to 2 PARA for the Falklands War - although he belonged to a slightly different branch of the Parachute regiment. The conflict left him deeply troubled, after seeing ‘the death and dying of others’. He said 2 PARA was sent to Belize the following year as a ‘sunshine tour’. The Caribbean basin was a welcome change from the freezing south Atlantic.
And yet a dark cloud still hung over them. Research has shown that some 22 per cent of Falkland veterans displayed symptoms of PTSD five years after the war ended; Gus estimates that a similar proportion of his unit was suffering from PTSD when they arrived in Belize straight after the war. He said this meant they were ‘a bit trigger-happy’ in Belize, and struggled to adjust from being in all-out-combat.
Gus heard about Antonio’s shooting while he was in Belize, although he was not directly involved. He remembers being told the official version of events, but thinks PTSD could have played a factor in why Antonio was shot. Gus believes PTSD is a ticking time bomb – and soldiers deserve better mental health care, especially when they leave the army.
Britain’s MOD does not directly look after veterans. Instead this role is farmed out to charities. Combat Stress is one of the largest, specialising in mental health. It used to look after Gus, until one day they suddenly stopped treating him.
Gus was left on his own to deal with the nightmares of PTSD. He wrote letters in protest, but to no avail. Last winter, aged 62, he went on hunger strike for 18 days outside the charity’s office in Shropshire and slept by the roadside in a tent. He was hospitalised and said ‘it nearly killed me’.
But his drastic protest got the attention of the media, and MPs started asking questions in Parliament. It turned out that dozens of other ex-soldiers had also been let down by Combat Stress. Sensing a scandal, Veterans Minister Tobias Ellwood MP invited Gus to a meeting at the MOD, where he promised to do better.
But mental health care costs money, and the MOD shows no sign of picking up the bill. Instead, Britain’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson MP is enthusiastically making expensive plans to expand the military's presence in the Caribbean after Brexit.
The MOD says it is currently ‘developing our footprint in Belize’, where the British army still has a jungle warfare training camp. Last September, British defence minister Mark Lancaster MP visited Belize and signed a new deal to keep the base open for another 15 years. This will not come cheap. The base needs a new water treatment plant, costing over half a million pounds alone.
Meanwhile, armed forces veterans like Gus, and victims of British military deployments like Errol, continue to struggle on at the margins of society.