BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 17, 2016–On February 27, an excursion organized by the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), formed to affirm Belize’s sovereignty in the troubled waters of the Sarstoon, was stopped by 5 Guatemalan military vessels with armed soldiers and immigration officials. Whereas February’s excursion by the BTV marked a year since a boatful of Belizeans were detained by Guatemalan military and taken over to Guatemala, on allegations that they had drifted over into Guatemala, it also marks 16 years since a BDF patrol of three persons—Second Lieutenant Romaldo Herrera, Lance Corporal Lucio Arana, Private Luciano Tzub and Police Constable Macedonio Sanchez—was surrounded by 25 Guatemalan soldiers who detained them near Jalacte, Toledo, on allegations that they had illegally made their way onto Guatemalan terrain.
It was after this incident, roughly 16 years ago, that the Organization of American States (OAS) was formally engaged to help resolve the territorial differendum between Belize and Guatemala. In March of 2000, the Government of Belize and the Government of Guatemala agreed to the OAS process. Since then, three agreements for confidence-building measures were signed between the parties, but the agreement only covers Belize’s western border with Guatemala and not the Sarstoon boundary. In the wake of heightened tensions, similar measures have recently been suggested for the Sarstoon.
A BDF “threat assessment” at the Sarstoon, leaked late last year, is again the subject of discussion, as Belizeans remain concerned about the Government of Guatemala’s recent statement that it will continue to exercise sovereignty over the Sarstoon, in the absence of a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the territorial differendum with Belize.
“Aggressive behavior of the Guatemalan Army Navy started in 2006,” said Major R. Beltran, in a letter to Ret’d Lt. Col. George Lovell, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Security. “The aggression towards the BDF personnel are done whilst the BDF are conducting changeover at Cadenas and have to go through the Sarstoon River,” he explained in the letter.
Beltran, who wrote the letter dated October 22, 2015, attached a confidential report, in which he detailed several incidents dating back to February 2006.
The memo notes that the Guatemalan army had indicated to the BDF that they were merely extending a courtesy by allowing them to use the river to access Cadenas and that that privilege could be revoked, as they claim that the ENTIRE, river belongs to Guatemala. In previous statements to the press, Belize Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred Elrington had dissuaded Belizeans from using the Sarstoon Island, saying that the Guatemalans claim it. This, evidently, has not been the stance of the BDF, which has been adamant in venturing on its patrols in the area.
The memo also documents increased militarization of the Sarstoon by Guatemala, which, it said, appears to have been setting up the BDF for conflict. This is noteworthy in the context of statements made last July by Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Carlos Raúl Morales, while on a visit to Belize, that Belize and Guatemala had agreed “to not build another military base” in the border area after their 2000 agreement. The statement was made as Guatemalan military challenged a move by Belize to build a forward operating base at the Sarstoon. We have since learned that contrary to Morales’s claim, no such written agreement exists, and no such agreement was referenced in the BDF confidential report.
The report of which we speak notes that, “The Guatemalan Army is in the process of modernizing and increasing their strength despite a worldwide economic recession.”
It cautioned that, “Of concern to Belize’s security forces is the aggressive approach that they have taken arguably with the intent to lure our forces into conflict.”
The military, which initially only had a tent in the area, eventually built a permanent house, from which it has operated since February 2006. They started with one skiff operating in the area but increased to two vessels, which the officer said were always seen during changeover.
He added that prior to the BDF’s change in routine changeovers in 2015, a 105-foot patrol boat was always seen near the mouth of the Sarstoon.
In the threat assessment, written as of October 14, 2015, the BDF officer said that encounters with the Guatemala Army/Navy date back to 2003, 2004, and 2005; however, 2006 saw the beginning of the Guatemalan Army’s aggressive behavior towards members of the BDF.
On December 18, 2006, the BDF boat squadron unit was approached by 4 armed Guatemalan soldiers who attempted to limit their movement to the north side of the Sarstoon Island. They were told that they had to submit their names if they wanted to transit the area, but the BDF commander asserted that they were in Belize and had no doubt of it and so did not submit the requested names.
In 2007, the GAF increased the number of vessels in the area from 1 to 4, said the report. Of note is that just as the BTV was blocked from entering the Sarstoon last month, on February 27, 2015, so too was the BDF blocked by GAF members on May 29, 2007—a full 8 years prior, when they blocked the south side of the Sarstoon Island from the BDF, the report said. It added that two of the vessels had been equipped with machine guns. The Guatemalans insisted that Belizean soldiers should use the portion to the river north of the island.
High-ranking officials from both sides met in an effort to diffuse tensions between the two armed forces, said the report. At the time, Brigadier General Lloyd Gillett was Commander of the BDF, while the Guatemala general was Mario Aguilar Bran. Out of that meeting came a gentleman’s agreement, the report said.
While the parties have agreed that “there will be no more blocking of the Sarstoon or belligerent action,” they also agreed to form a set of confidence-building measures, including meeting up at the mouth of the Sarstoon for joint patrols and using both approaches to the Sarstoon alternatively as of June 2007, when the meeting was convened.
Things were consequently quiet in 2008 but in 2009 Guatemala’s “aggressive behavior towards members of the BDF” resumed, the BDF Major’s report detailed.
It said that “…they encountered a 40-feet Guatemalan Army vessel anchored at the mouth of the Sarstoon River which appeared to be inside Belizean territorial waters.” Up the river, there were two more Guatemala vessels, and the BDF asked them why they were patrolling inside Belizean waters. The reply from the Guatemalans: they were acting on orders from their superior commander. The BDF saw a Guatemalan flag being flown from a tree on Sarstoon Island, which belongs to Belize. That was the same location where the BTV went to erect a Belize flag in August 2015, 6 years later, when they were similarly challenged by Guatemalan military, who BTV leader Wil Maheia, said had approached them, evidently in Belizean waters, to question them.
The BDF reported another encounter in December 2009, when its soldiers opted to use the northern side of the river to avoid conflict with the Guatemalans.
“2010 saw an increase in encounters…” the report goes on to say. At the same time, though, it reported that the meetings were most cordial, except for two incidents of concern. Between 2011 and 2013, the Guatemalan military made it a habit to escort the BDF vessels in the area.
In February 2010, GAF were adamant that the BDF should be stopped from using the southern channel. Just as they would years later do to the BTV excursions, they used their vessels to block the BDF from using the area, according to the report.
Two months after that military encounter, there was another encounter with a Guatemalan Naval ship at the mouth of the Sarstoon.
“The GA Vessel Commander introduced himself as Lt. Alex Ander Pinelo. He said THAT HE RECEIVED ORDERS FROM HIS GENERAL THAT NO BDF IS TO ENTER THROUGH THE SOUTHSIDE CHANNEL OF THE ISLAND,” said the report. The BDF officer was adamant that his orders were for him to pass through the southern channel – and he was “allowed to pass and followed…,” the BDF report documented.
Things were apparently quiet again in 2014, but not in 2015, when more encounters were reported.
“On 12 July 2015, reports of the GA vessel escorting the BDF vessel were again received from BDF personnel conducting changeover at Cadenas [observation post], which was believed to have been triggered by the GA’s previous encounter with the Belize Coast Guard on the 31 May 2015 [when the Guatemalans tried to chase the Coast Guard off Sarstoon Island] and BTV’s activities in the area…” the report said. It added that, “Since then, several encounters with GA personnel have been reported; however, only two incidents of concern have been reported.”
This is notable, against the backdrop of claims recently made by Prime Minister Dean Barrow, head of the National Security Council, that there is a correlation between the increase in Guatemalan aggression against the BDF and the BTV’s civilian excursions in the area. Barrow told the press this week that, “There is no doubt in my mind that the stepping up in Guatemalan rhetoric, the ratcheting up of their position is directly related to all that has taken place with respect to the Sarstoon and the visits and expeditions and excursions [by the BTV]; well-meaning on the part of civilians designed to assist the military, which needs no assistance in terms of Belize’s position.”
He added that, “As far as I know this is the first time the Guatemalans have said, ‘We are going to stop the Belize Defence Force from traversing that river.”
The BDF confidential said that two notable military encounters occurred in August 2015. On the 11th, said the report, a Guatemalan army vessel almost caused a boat accident with the BDF vessel which the Guatemalans tried to quickly intercept when the BDF made its way to the south of the Sarstoon Island.
The Guatemalans told the Belizeans to use the other side of the island because there were too many fishing nets in the area. (The BTV has reported a lot of illegal net fishing in the Belize portion of the river by Guatemalans.)
When the flare-up in the Sarstoon happened this past weekend, the Guatemalan military also accused the BDF of damaging the fishing net of a Guatemalan, while the BDF was traversing the river. They also said that the BDF had not been using the protocols for patrolling the river.
“On 25 August 2015, GA personnel stopped BDF patrol and stated that they took down a Belizean flag from the Sarstoon Island. The flag was then given to the BDF vessel commander. According to the Guatemalan personnel, no party should put any flag on the Sarstoon Island, because it is still on discussion…” the report detailed.
BTV founder, Wil Maheia, had told Amandala that while they waited for the BDF boat that went to Cardenas to return, they were videotaping 50-100 Guatemalans fishing illegally in Belize near the mouth of the Sarstoon.
Suddenly, there was a loud sound and two boats shot out of the river: the BDF boat returning from Cadenas, and right behind it – a Guatemalan military boat.
“I don’t know if they were racing, chasing or escorting the BDF boat,” Maheia had told us, adding that, “The Guatemalan boat followed the BDF boat into Belize territorial waters.”
On Sunday, August 16, 2015, the Belize Territorial Volunteers had led an excursion of Belizeans to erect a flag on Sarstoon Island. OAS Peace Mission Chief, Magdelana Talamas, was on the mission as observer. Vessels with Guatemalan military and customs officials, as well as Guatemala media, were reportedly also in the area at the time of the excursion.
Amandala had reported that “Guatemalans were actively trying to prevent them from reaching Sarstoon Island by blockading the route to the island with their two military vessels – meanwhile, the Guatemalans had a big gunboat that was parked in open water about a half mile east of the Sarstoon.”
It was after this expression of Belizean sovereignty by the BTV and Belizean supporters that the Guatemalan military returned a Belizean flag to the BDF.
The BDF report cites continued problems with illegal fishing in the Sarstoon – the same problem highlighted by the BTV over the years. According to the BDF, though, its efforts to crack down on illegal fishing have also led to “tensions.”
BDF Commander, Brigadier General David Jones, told the media this week that a protocol in the Sarstoon between Belize and Guatemala is urgent, in order to avert a serious incident in the area.
Foreign Affairs officials from the countries met on Tuesday in Washington, DC, and the Government of Belize hopes that a set of confidence building measures can be worked out for the Sarstoon.