SPANISH LOOKOUT, Cayo District, Thurs. May 19, 2016–Roger Plett, a young Belizean farmer of the Mennonite community of Spanish Lookout, is still trying to cope with the terrifying experience he had exactly one week ago when armed Guatemalans whom he identified as a group of both civilians and military men, abducted him from his farm and took him over to Guatemala, threatening to beat him up, apparently in retaliation for a forest fire which had been raging in the area. Plett told police that the light-skinned man who was giving orders said he works for the Organization of American States (OAS).
Belize police have a very extensive report with the information gleaned from four men—two Mennonites and two Guatemalans—who encountered the Guatemalans in the Green Hills area last week and were allegedly forced to the other side of the border.
Ironically, Plett said that he had gone to the area to help put out the fire when he came under attack. After the Guatemalans released him, he found out that the very tractor he was using to quench the forest fire had been so badly vandalized, he could barely drive it.
On Friday, May 13, at about 6:00 p.m., Roger Plett visited the San Ignacio Police Station, where he reported that on Thursday, May 12, he, along with a group of workers hired by his father, George Plett — namely Rudy Friesen, a Mennonite; Manuel Ayala, a Guatemalan who is a naturalized Belizean; and Rogelio Barrientos, the Guatemalan caretaker from the farm owned by Plett — went to his farm that is located in the Green Hills area of Spanish Lookout to extinguish a bush fire, so as to prevent it from spreading or damaging other pastures in the area.
The farm covers an area that abuts the Belize-Guatemala border for about two to three miles, and the line is demarcated, with the Guatemalan side, which is under protected status, being more forested than the Belize side.
Plett told police that about 3:00 that afternoon, civilian men came from the Guatemalan side and lashed their machetes on the left side of the tractor door. By this time, he saw the military men surrounding the tractor, and one of the military men ordered him off the tractor, which Plett had been using to try to extinguish the forest fire.
Roger Plett said that they pushed him and told him to walk towards the Belize-Guatemala border. He managed to make a call back home before the Guatemalans snatched away his phone. They later tied him up and threatened to beat him—but promised to let him go after he told them that he is really a Canadian from Manitoba, where they had also experienced major problems with forest fires.
It was almost three hours before the Guatemalans gave him back his phone and allowed him to return home to Belize, said Plett.
The Pletts farm corn and beans and they also run a cattle ranch in the Green Hills area. On May 11, the day before Plett’s abduction, Luis Gongora, president of la Alianza Nacional de Organizaciones Forestales de Guatemala, uploaded 5 photos to his Facebook page with a post indicating that since 2:00 p.m. on May 10, they had been alerted to a fire raging in the concession area assigned to El Esfuerzo which was caused by farmers from the Belize side who do not take the necessary precautions to clear the fire breaks. Gongora identified men from the Guatemalan army among the persons who had gone to the area to combat the fire which he insisted had been caused by “bad-minded Belizean neighbors.”
Plett said that he was told that a Belizean had to pay for the fire damage—and he was only let off the hook because he told the Guatemalans that he is Canadian.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Security, Ret’d Colonel George Lovell, told Amandala today that, “So far the police investigation revealed that the fire that Plett and his team were trying to extinguish made its way across the Guatemalan side and it is in that area that there were a group of Guatemalans already extinguishing a fire.” He said that because the Guatemalans blamed Plett and his crew—which incidentally included two Guatemalan nationals—they were forcefully taken over to Guatemala to assist them in outing the fire.
Amandala understands from a reliable source in the conservation community that there has been an insistence from Guatemalans in the area where forest concessions have been issued that measures need to be taken to control the spread of forest fires which impact their logging zones. At a press conference held yesterday at the Ministry of National Security in Belmopan, Belizean officials said that there is a mechanism for addressing problems that arise in the area due to forest fires – but that mechanism had not been triggered by the Guatemalans.
Instead, the reports from Plett, as well as information gleaned by Belize police, indicate that the Guatemalans decided to take matters into their own hands—first by marching over to Belizean territory, some of them armed with machetes, abducting Plett and then commandeering his bulldozer and tractor, which they later wrecked before abandoning it on their side of the border.
Furthermore, information to police indicates that on Friday, after Plett had been released, the Guatemalans, suggesting that they had someone else detained, demanded a tractor for ransom.
Roger Plett told Amandala that the fire that went over to the Guatemalan side was not on his father’s property, and he does not know who or what started it. He told us that although he had seen the Guatemalans in the area before, this is the first time he had a physical encounter with them.
Plett identified one of the men in Luis Gongora’s photos. He said that the military man who sat in the pan of the red pickup was among the four men who looked on as he was being tied up with a black rope that the uniformed men had across their left shoulder. Some of them were also armed with machine guns, Plett said. Barrientos, a Guatemalan working with the Plett family, who was at another location, was also ordered to go with the Guatemalans, and he complied, Plett said the worker had told him.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Sylvester, told the media that on Tuesday, May 17, which is 5 days after Plett’s abduction, the Government of Belize asked the office of the Organization of American States (OAS) at the Belize-Guatemala border to conduct a formal verification exercise into the incident reported by the Plett family. Sylvester also pointed to an ongoing police investigation into the matter.
At a press conference held on Monday, Roger Plett had told the media that police refused to put on the statement he was giving to them last Friday that it was the Guatemalan military, joined by some civilians, that had abducted him. Instead, he was told to put in his report that men in military fatigues had taken him over to Guatemala.
Lovell said that the police ought not to make anyone change their statement, since it should reflect the account which the person making the report wants to put on the record—a report to which the complainant signs his name.
It is alleged that it was only after officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came that police insisted on changing the language in the report.
Lovell told us that Belize Ambassador Said Badi Guerra of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had visited the police station with Louis Perez from the OAS on May 13 and they interviewed both Roger Plett and Manuel Ayala.
In speaking with Amandala, Roger Plett maintained that the men dressed in camouflage were indeed military men, and he saw the word “militares” on the uniform, as well as markings on their sleeves to denote rank.
“I cannot, unless I’m proven otherwise, doubt what Roger is saying, because he is giving a firsthand account of what transpired, and so there is a need for further investigation,” Lovell told the press Wednesday.
He has also been assured that the police have gone to Green Hills to investigate the matter: “When you talk about San Ignacio police not going there I can tell you that I spoke with the acting Commissioner of Police, Mr. Russell Blackett, and he assures me that the police went on the ground,” he said.
However Plett said that the police refused to go to the actual area where the Guatemalans abducted him.
Sylvester said that when contact was made with the Guatemalan officials last week, they were “given every assurance” that there was no Belizean detained and that the Guatemalan armed forces were not on any patrol in the Green Hills area.
“The thing is, we are in fact trying to confirm precisely who it is because Roger is still insisting that it’s Guatemalan military, and we can’t take that away from him. He was the one on the ground and he saw these people,” Lovell said.
“The OAS, who I believe may have spoken to the Guatemalans, are saying, ‘Listen, the Guatemalans are saying we have not had a military patrol in that area for quite a long time, it cannot be our patrol,’” Lovell added.
“I’m just saying what they are saying so to answer the question as to who was holding them, we need to go in there and establish that and the only way we can establish that is having that verification that the OAS will go in there with the Guatemalans and say, ‘okay, who were the people that had encountered them?’ …It’s not a matter that we wish to happen to any of our citizens and it’s not a matter that we would hope and I hope it would never occur again,” Lovell said.
In the report given to police, Plett said that the light-skinned person who was giving the orders told Plett that he works for the OAS, and he gave Plett a soft drink and they started to walk with him towards Belize.
They were also returning his blue Ford tractor, which had been run low on fuel by the Guatemalans, and visibly wrecked. Plett reported that the front left tire was almost off the rim and the step that leads to the door was bent and damaged. The spray tank’s metal frame used to water the area had also been damaged and the steering wheel was locked and hanging to the left side. As he approached the tractor, one of the Guatemalans started to take pictures of him, Plett reported to police. The tractor malfunctioned along the way, and he did not have enough fuel to make it home.
Plett and his dad decided to call Rudy Friesen, who had been operating the bulldozer, to find out from him where he was. He had indicated that he was already on the Belize side, as he had told the Guatemalans that he only had fuel for one hour and needed to return to Belize to refuel.
George Plett decided to deploy his drone with a camera over the farm area, monitored with his Galaxy Edge telephone, to see if there were any military guys around, but all they saw was that the bulldozer had been left behind.
All this unfolded on Thursday. On Friday, May 13, Barrientos, the Guatemalan, made a distress call asking for assistance from Belize police and the Belize Defence Force. However, Lovell said that when the cops showed up, he informed police that he was now safe at home and so police decided to stand down off the operation.
Lovell said that in response to the distress call, they dispatched a joint BDF special patrol unit and a quick reaction force and mobile interdiction team of police officers to Green Hills. They had been told that that Belizeans had been kidnapped and some machines were being requested by the Guatemalan military in exchange for their release. They were requesting that a tractor be provided for them to release the Belizeans who were in Guatemala, Lovell said he had been told.
The CEO said that the forceful removal of a Belizean, speaking of Plett, into Guatemala is the main case that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pursuing.
“We certainly regret this very unfortunate occurrence and we, as fast as we possibly can, intend to get to the bottom of this and we appeal in the strongest way to the Guatemalans on the action of their citizens against ours,” Lovell said.
We asked Lovell, a retired Belizean general, whether he recognized the arm of the Guatemalan forces to which the military men would be attached. The closest reference we could find to what Plett identified was the reserve military in Guatemala. Lovell said that based on the photos shown to him from Gongora’s Facebook post, the men do appear to be military persons indeed, and his people also indicate that it may well be so.