SARSTOON ISLAND, Toledo District, Mon. Feb. 29, 2016–Armed Guatemalan military stopped Belizeans on Saturday morning from even entering the Sarstoon River—an act which is being described by the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) as a “provocative and illegal act by the Guatemalan Navy.”
Wil Maheia, founder of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), reported that at about 10:00 a.m. while traveling in very cool weather through choppy seas, a group of Belizeans who were planning on taking an educational excursion to the Gracias a Dios border marker in southwestern Belize were forced to abandon their mission when they saw armed Guatemala military approaching them.
“Guatemala has embarked on a dangerous and confrontational course; we reject it,” said Opposition Leader Johnny Briceño.
In recounting what transpired on Saturday, Maheia told Amandala that between 15 to 20 Belizeans, including media personnel, went on the expedition, but the furthest they got was north of the Belize forward operating base (FOB) and somewhat south of the Temash River, where, he said, Guatemalan gunboats moved to cut them off.
Prensa Libre this Saturday carried a report claiming that Guatemalan Navy and Immigration officials prevented an invasion by Belizeans in Livingston. According to the report, Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Carlos Raúl Morales had indicated that the Guatemalan military had asked the Belizeans not to enter “Guatemalan waters.”
In a feature video appearing on its website, Prensa Libre reports that Guatemala claims three districts—the Toledo, Cayo and Stann Creek districts.
An official source in the Ministry of National Security told us the incident took place on Saturday at the approach to the Sarstoon River, between 800-1,000 meters away from the forward operating base which Belize is building on the banks of the Sarstoon.
The BTV’s original plan was to travel to the Belize-Guatemala border marker, about 30 miles up the Sarstoon River, about an hour away, but they could not even get into the Sarstoon, Maheia told us.
“They came over into Belizean waters to block us,” he said.
According to Maheia, the photo shows a Guatemalan boat north of the forward operating base which the Government of Belize is building. He said that the boats “had lights on, like a police parade, trying to intimidate us.”
About a quarter-mile from where the BTV expedition was, they saw five boats with “more than 50 Guatemala soldiers,” he told us, adding that the Guatemalans seemed “combat ready.”
According to Maheia, this was the largest contingent of Guatemalan soldiers he has seen in Belizean waters, but this is not the furthest they have come inside Belizean waters. He told us that the Guatemala military had previously been seen “right in front of Barranco.”
We asked Maheia whether there was any Belize security presence in the area, and he said that while he was not sure, there appeared to be a Belize Defence Force (BDF) boat in the area at the time which, he said, sped by them and went towards the BDF station.
Saturday’s expedition was planned to mark the first anniversary of the occasion in February 2015 when a group of Belizean civilians, on a similar excursion in the area, were detained by Guatemalan military, and taken over to Guatemala.
“2016 is not the time for Guatemala to change the borderline by military force…” said former Foreign Affairs Minister of Belize, Eamon Courtenay, SC, who called the incident “a grave violation,” “a direct attack,” and “a violation of international law.”
“We in the very strongest terms condemn the action by the Guatemalan military, the Guatemalan Navy and we call on the Government to take appropriate action…” the PUP official said.
The Opposition PUP declared in its statement today that, “…Belizeans have the right to travel to any and all parts of Belize.”
Courtenay noted that it is not only Belizean civilians whose use of the Sarstoon has been impeded—Guatemalans are also accused of having hindered Belize security forces in their use of Belizean territory in the Sarstoon area.
Courtenay told the press that Guatemala seems, by choice, to have embarked upon a course where an incident is going to take place and that should be avoided.
“For a foreign military force to stop a Belizean in Belizean territorial waters from going into any part of Belize is a violation of our sovereignty; that is a clear violation of international law,” Courtenay said.
He added that “now is the time to galvanize a very strong international alliance in favor of Belize’s integrity.”
The former Foreign Minister explained that Guatemala has no legal authority to do anything inside Belizean territorial waters. He said that no military vessel is allowed to come into our territorial waters without our permission and, as far as he understands, the Guatemalans had no such permission.
Courtenay said that the Government of Belize should be strong and steadfast, and “get our friends to communicate very directly to Guatemala that they are in the wrong and we are in the right…”
Courtenay—who was named along with Said Musa, Assad Shoman, Godfrey Smith, and Lisa Shoman as PUP members on the Belize-Guatemala Advisory Committee (a PUP group which Musa is to chair)—told the press today that the Government of Belize should take very strong action to protest what the Guatemalan authorities did on Saturday and “to make known not only to Guatemala but to friends that Guatemala has recently adopted a course that is designed to provoke an international incident…”
When we contacted him earlier today, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Sylvestre, said that they have not received an official report on the incident, although he told us that he has seen the report put out by the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV). He said that the official report will determine the Belize Government’s course of action.
National Security CEO, Ret’d Colonel George Lovell, told Amandala when we contacted him that he does not have all the facts. Lovell said that once he receives the report from Belize Defence Force Commander, David Jones, which will indicate “what was the BDF’s position on the ground as to what may have transpired,” he will forward it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He said that Jones is the point person for the Ministry, since it was the BDF that was at the Sarstoon when the BTV expedition visited the area. When we contacted Brigadier-General Jones, he told us that he could not talk at the time because he was in a meeting. We have been unable to reach him in our subsequent attempts.
Guatemala’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying that that morning a group of Belizean civilians in two boats were trying to get to Sarstoon Island via the Sarstoon River and they were peacefully stopped by the Guatemalan military and civil authorities. It spoke of settling the matter at the International Court of Justice.
This afternoon the Government of Belize issued its first official statement on the matter. In that release the Government said: “Belize’s security forces witnessed on Saturday, 27th February, 2016 an increased state of alertness by the Guatemalan Armed Forces in the Sarstoon River who appeared intent on blocking entry of Belizean civilians into the Sarstoon River from the Bay of Honduras.”
What is GOB’s solution? “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will raise its concern with the Republic of Guatemala and the Organization of American States on this matter, and will continue to actively seek the adoption of confidence building measures for the area, pending a definitive resolution of the dispute arising from Guatemala’s claims,” the Government said.
The PUP’s statement challenges the claims made on Saturday by Guatemala’s Foreign Minister, Carlos Raul Morales, as reported in Guatemala media, that all of the Sarstoon River is Guatemalan territory.
“That is false and provocative. Based on reliable reports, it is clear that on the 27 February 2016 a Guatemalan military vessel entered Belizean territorial waters,” the Opposition statement insisted, adding that, “This was an egregious violation of Belizean sovereignty and a breach of international law.”
The PUP added that it “categorically rejects the specious claim by Foreign Minister Morales, and strongly condemns the provocative and illegal act by the Guatemalan Navy.”
It went on to call for the Government to deliver a strongly worded diplomatic note to Guatemala, rejecting Morales’ spurious claim, and to recall our Belizean Ambassador to Guatemala for urgent consultations.
In an interview aired on News 5 tonight, Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred Elrington said that what transpired on Saturday did not come as a surprise to him, and he is grateful that nobody got injured or was detained by the Guatemalans.
He said that the suggestion from Belize’s military is that one Guatemalan vessel may have entered into Belizean territory, and as a result the Government would send a note of strong protest to the Guatemalans, saying that the Government “does not countenance that kind of activity.”
Responding to the Opposition’s call to have Belize’s Ambassador resident in Guatemala, H.E. Alexis Rosado, recalled for urgent consultation, Elrington said that such a recall would cause a breakdown of relations between Belize and Guatemala.”
Meanwhile, Courtenay is calling for Belize and Guatemala to hold an urgent ministerial meeting at the OAS, but, he said, “that meeting will have to be premised on the respect by Guatemala for Belize’s borders and there should be no, absolutely no, mistake about that.”
He added that such a meeting should be held to reduce tensions and to develop a set of confidence-building measures for the Sarstoon in order to avoid any incident like this in the future. Currently, CBMs only apply to the western border between Belize and Guatemala.
Although the Opposition had last year backed out of the bipartisan process in resolving the Belize-Guatemala differendum in protest of Government’s lack of consultation with them and the wider Belizean public, Briceño said, “Now, more than ever, we need a bipartisan approach to what is clearly a threat to Belizean sovereignty. The PUP is ready to play a leading role in a new national effort to defend our national interests.”