SARSTOON, Toledo District, Fri. May 27, 2016–It appears that Belizeans must still seek permission from Guatemalan officials before traversing the Sarstoon, despite recent Government announcements to the contrary.
Following discussions in Istanbul, Turkey, it appeared that Belize had, to some extent, regained the use of the Sarstoon River, over which Guatemala had claimed total sovereignty, to the extent of blocking travel not only of Belizean citizens and NGO’s, but also of the Belize military.
The Cabinet of Belize issued a press release last Tuesday declaring that, “the two sides [Belize and Guatemala] have informally accepted a situation in which there will be untrammeled traffic for Belize’s military and civilians along the Sarstoon.”
In light of this informal agreement, the unpopular “Sarstoon Law”, a statutory instrument which had previously restricted Belizeans from accessing the Sarstoon in an effort to, “give peace a chance,” was revoked. According to the statement issued by Cabinet, “Government’s decision comes as a consequence of the agreement reached in Turkey between Belize and Guatemala regarding the Sarstoon.”
However, when an Amandala team, in the company of other media representatives, travelled to the Sarstoon today to test Barrow’s assertion that it was now safe for Belizeans to travel to the Sarstoon, it was soon revealed that Guatemala was still exercising total control over the Sarstoon.
While making our way to the Sarstoon, we noted that the usual Guatemalan gunboats were visibly absent. We stopped at Belize’s Forward Operating Base (FOB), only to be told by the Belize Defence Force (BDF) that we were not allowed to dock. However, we were allowed to continue our journey down the river.
We proceeded until we were approached by the Guatemalan Armed Forces’ (GAF) “metal shark” boat with five soldiers on board. Though not exhibiting the type of aggression they have typically shown to Belizeans who have ventured onto the river, they questioned us about our purpose on the Sarstoon.
One GAF soldier informed our team that we were in Guatemalan waters. Marisol Amaya of KREM Radio then told him, “Our leaders told us that after the talks in Istanbul last weekend, meanwhile they decided on a protocol for the Sarstoon, that there would be free access to both sides. We represent three media houses in Belize and we are here to verify if this is the case.” The GAF soldier responded to Amaya with the following statement: “I understand what you are saying, but since that situation just happened, then it has not yet been defined. We would like for you all to inform us beforehand, follow due process so that you can take your pictures and we could do the same as well, without any problems whatsoever. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Amaya then asked a second time whether the team could or could not continue on its journey. “To travel down the river – no, but you can take pictures that are pertinent. If you need more information, I don’t have the authority to do that. My leaders or bosses would have to do that,” the GAF soldier said. When asked whether the team could go around the island to take pictures, however, the soldier said that he would have “to get authorization to do that.”
Amaya then informed the soldier that an informal agreement had been reached that allowed both countries to use the river while the two countries’ leaders continue their negotiations, and she then told the soldier, “If you need to verify that with someone else, then we can wait here.”
The soldier told Amaya that he would do that, and the senior officer on board drove about 30 feet away and radioed his commander. About fifteen minutes later he returned and declared that we were in Guatemalan waters and we had to leave.
Upon returning to the team, the soldier said, “Effectively, you are in national [Guatemalan] waters and so you cannot continue down the river.”
“Exactly who gave those orders?” Amaya asked.
The soldier replied, “I cannot give you more information, because, you, are not understanding me. You are in Guatemalan waters; you cannot continue, so I will ask you to please leave.” Amaya pressed further: “Yes, but who exactly gave you those orders? What is his name?”
“I cannot give you that information,” the soldier responded. “And what is your name?” asked Amaya.
“Likewise, I cannot give you that information. That is all. Have a nice day,” he said.
Prime Minister Barrow, in an interview with Channel 5 today, Friday, stated, “I am extremely distressed, extremely disturbed by what has happened. We’re trying to get to the bottom of it. As near as I can gather, the people in Guatemala are saying, ‘Well, the Foreign Minister is still travelling, and he has not returned to Guatemala since the meeting in Istanbul’, so that in fact, the military, had not been appraised of new instructions regarding Belizean civilian traffic along the river. I do not find that satisfactory. Let me put it clearly. I find that most unsatisfactory.”