On Saturday, February 28, between 2 and 4 p.m., elements of the Guatemalan military stationed at the Sarstoon River border between Guatemala and Belize, committed an act of aggression upon a group of 40 Belizeans who had traveled up the Sarstoon to place a bronze marker at the Gracias a Dios border point.
As the Belizeans were returning in their boat from Gracias a Dios to the Sarstoon River mouth, the Guatemalan military detachment intercepted the Belizean boat, forced it to stop, ordered the captain to shut down his two engines, and then began towing the Belizean boat. Reports are they towed the Belizeans about half a mile into open sea, where the apparent intention of the Guatemalans was to order them inside a large Guatemalan Coast Guard vessel. Unable to do this because of the rough condition of the seas, the Guatemalans then had the Belizean vessel start its engines and forced the Belizeans to go to Livingston, a Guatemalan town about ten miles from Punta Gorda. The Belizeans have said that the initial act of aggression took place in Belizean territory, on the Belizean side of the Sarstoon, after the Guatemalans had “shadowed” them all the way up the Sarstoon to Gracias a Dios.
Kremandala received a phone call from Toledo alerting us to this development around 4:20 p.m. on Saturday, and we soon began to consider the situation as amounting to a national emergency. The freedom of Belizean civilians had been compromised in Belizean territory by the Guatemalan military. The Belizeans had been made prisoners of the Guatemalan military. Our understanding of the situation was that what the imprisoned Belizeans, who would be entering various stages of anxiety because of their apprehension/confinement, would appreciate most of all in their increasingly uncomfortable situation, would be for their fellow Belizeans to know of their predicament and to express their Belizean solidarity in any way possible.
Around 5 p.m. on Saturday, therefore, KREM Television general manager, Mose Hyde, suspended regular KREM Radio programming and began broadcasting from the KREM Radio studio with the assistance of technical producer, Frisco Wallace. Upstairs on the third floor, KREM TV’s technical producer, Bart Sanchez, suspended regular programming to switch KREM TV into simulcast mode with KREM Radio, complete with video from the KREM Radio studio. From Toledo, Wil Maheia began providing telephone updates of the Belizeans’ situations. Col. George Lovell, the chief executive officer in the Belize Ministry of National Security, called in on multiple occasions to inform Belizeans of the Government of Belize’s response to the emergency. Mose Hyde was soon joined in the KREM broadcast studio by KREM Radio news editor, Marisol Amaya, who provided Spanish translations of the conversations and proceedings from time to time. The president of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), Marvin Mora, visited the studio to express his and his organization’s solidarity with the Belizeans who were now being moved from their home country to a hostile destination. The activist attorney, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, established text/telephone contact with the abducted Belizeans and began providing updates to the KREM broadcasters.
Around 7 p.m. or so it became clear that the Belizeans had arrived in Livingston and at some point they were informed that they were “free.” Around this time, Matura-Shepherd, accompanied by fellow activist and KREM TV broadcaster, Ya Ya Marin Coleman, decided to leave Belize City and head for Punta Gorda by road. Matura-Shepherd continued to call in updates to the KREM broadcasters even as she was on the George Price Highway, as she remained in contact with the Belizeans in Livingston, who were led by Antonio Giovanni De La Fuente.
The Belizeans included Orange Walkeños as old as 81 years and as young as 14, and it was decided that a boat trip from Livingston back to Punta Gorda would not be safe at night, and that they would leave early Sunday morning after spending the night in Livingston. KREM’s coverage of the situation continued past 10 p.m. Saturday.
Complications developed early Sunday morning, when the Guatemalan authorities took the captain of the Belizean boat, Guillermo Avila, into custody, and sought to have him sign a document with five points of reference. Accompanied by Mr. De La Fuente, Mr. Avila, under duress, eventually agreed to sign on one point, that he had made a wrong turn in the Sarstoon and had therefore entered Guatemalan territory for five minutes. The Belizean group had displayed admirable solidarity by refusing to leave Livingston without their captain. In turn, Mr. Avila was under pressure to provide the Guatemalan aggressors with evidence to free the Guatemalans of guilt with respect to the act of aggression. The Belizeans, who had been expected to leave Livingston around 6:30 a.m., could not do so until near 10, and ended up landing in Punta Gorda near 11 a.m. KREM Radio/TV had begun broadcasting again around 7 a.m. because of the decision by the Guatemalans to detain Mr. Avila Sunday morning after “freeing” the entire party on Saturday night.
The complete story of this incident is yet to be told. There are several matters that have to be examined in detail. One of these is leadership and responsibility. Once a group of people enter a boat and leave a land harbor for river or sea travel, the supreme authority is transferred from whosoever is the leader of that group to the captain of the boat. This is the code of the sea. As far as we can ascertain, the Guatemalans brought maximum pressure on the captain, Guillermo Avila, and, to the best of our knowledge, his support from the group leader, Antonio Giovanni De La Fuente, was constant and irreproachable. Overall, we are very proud of the solidarity and patriotism of this group of Belizeans, almost all Orange Walkeños, and we give them the highest of respect.
On the other hand, we consider the behavior of Belize’s political leaders, of both the two major parties, to have been inappropriate and inadequate. This incident was a national emergency which required the maximum mobilization of Belizean consciousness, both at home and abroad, if only to comfort those of our citizens who were in the specific predicament. Our citizens under pressure would be comforted with the knowledge of our Belizean solidarity.
The response of the non-political Belizean media was unacceptable. The only comfort Belizeans could offer to our stricken brethren and sistren, to repeat, was our solidarity in their time of distress. It is the responsibility of the Belizean media to understand there are no weekends in their profession. Emergency can arise at any time. The media is paid to inform and alert the Belizean people.
We can perhaps excuse Belize’s political media, because they would have had to receive instructions from their dibby dibby political leaders. Those instructions were not sent, because the electoral politicians always put their politics before anything else. Because national municipal are due on Wednesday, the Belizean politicians could not figure out how to address the national emergency of Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Shame.