BELIZE CITY, Mon. Apr. 25, 2016–Prime Minister Dean Barrow briefed the country this morning at a press conference at the Best Western Biltmore Plaza Hotel four days after Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales ratcheted up the tension between the two countries in the wake of the shooting death of a Guatemalan teenager by a Belize Defence Force patrol which had come under fire in the Chiquibul National Park.
Barrow, who was out of the country during the height of the tension with Guatemala on Thursday, at a press conference held this morning at the Best Western Belize Biltmore Plaza, said that he had met with President Morales in New York, where the two leaders had attended a United Nations convention signing on climate change.
In reading from a prepared statement, Prime Minister Barrow said, “We have just concluded a meeting of the National Security Council of Belize and this is a follow-up from the meeting held on Friday when I was in New York and in which I participated by phone.”
Barrow said that he is satisfied that the immediate crisis provoked by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’ extraordinary address to his nation is over.
“I am convinced that diplomacy, Belize’s invocation of the Confidence Building Agreement and Belize’s call for peace and the de-escalation of the threat and tension created by the Guatemalan government’s response and the measures that have been announced by President Morales, has worked,” Barrow said.
Barrow said that Belize’s position has been noted and supported by the international community and ultimately accepted by Guatemala. There has therefore been success in defusing the situation to a point where the return to normalcy has begun, he said.
Barrow added that the two countries can start again to work on the reiteration and expansion of the protocols governing the complex relations between us.
“I have already reported to the nation by phone on Friday from New York, on my meetings and discussions that day with the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, the Secretary General of the OAS, the Secretary General of CARICOM and most importantly, President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala.,” said Barrow.
Barrow went on to explain, “I repeat now, that President Morales committed to me, his agreement to our mutual de-escalation of the tension that has arisen over the Cebada incident. It is true that he maintained at all times his strong and vigorous protest, over what he described as the unprovoked BDF attack on innocent Guatemalan civilians and the murder of the Guatemalan minor. And it is true, he repeated the need for justice for Guatemala and its citizens.
“But it is also true, and I placed on record that the BDF patrol had come under fire first and had responded, firing in the direction from which they had been shot at. I made the further point that the civilians from Friends for Conservation and Development who had accompanied the patrol confirm the BDF version of events. I regretted the unfortunate loss of life of the Guatemalan minor, but repeated that the BDF had come under fire several times before in that very area from armed and dangerous Guatemalans and the pillaging of Belizean forest, environment and resources. Our military had every right to defend itself and our patrimony.”
“I also pointed out to the president that the OAS had already commenced an impartial investigation into the incident and suggested that Belize would be willing, as we had done in a similar incident sometime ago, to seek additional expert assistance, forensic help from the Americans to aid the OAS inquiry,” the statement said.
Barrow further stated, “Belize and the BDF had nothing to hide in circumstances where our actions were necessary and justified. President Morales said that the killing of Guatemalans by the BDF could not continue and that Guatemala must protect its citizens and would among other things, seek redress for the death of the minor from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, but he agreed with me that while the OAS inquiry and Guatemala’s petition to the Human Rights Commission was proceeding, it was absolutely necessary to dial back the tension between our two countries, and therefore [he is] committed to de-escalation and accepted that I would make public to Belize and to the international officials to whom I would speak.”
Barrow added that the Secretary General of the OAS had briefed him on a meeting he had yesterday with President Morales, and reported that President Morales had also confirmed to him, the Secretary General, Guatemala’s commitment to de-escalate and proceed in peace with Belize as the two countries try to work through our difficulties. Then last night the Guatemalan Foreign Minister spoke to our Foreign Minister and repeated the position of his president regarding the commitment to peace and de-escalation, said Barrow.
“Some of you would also have seen a video recording of a press conference given by the Guatemalan Defense Minister in which he does seek to walk back some of what had earlier been said about Guatemalan mobilization and explained that the 3,000 troops that were referred to have always been in the Peten, and that they merely moved some of them closer to the adjacency zone,” said Barrow.
Barrow further explained, “If they’ve had 500 before, they put a 1,000, and if they had 20 personnel at the Sarstoon, they went up to 40, but insisted that the Guatemalan army is an army of peace and that they went out exporting peace in the region.”
“We put all this together and on that basis, I say, I repeat, that any immediate danger has passed and our nation can, for the moment, rest easy. Of course, our diplomatic outreach must continue full force,” said Barrow.
Barrow told reporters that Baroness Scotland, the new Secretary General for the Commonwealth, will visit Belize later this week and he will fully brief her and ask for a meeting of the Commonwealth Standing Ministerial Committee on Belize to be convened.
“Foreign Minister Elrington attends the UK/Caribbean meeting on Friday in the Bahamas and will brief a CARICOM caucus convened for the morning of that meeting,” he said, adding that he would see the Mexican Ambassador to Belize this afternoon. He also went on to note that, “of course, the UK and the USA are fully in the picture.”
He said he will also update Canada’s High Commissioner to Belize on Friday.
“President Morales and I agreed that as we go forward, an operational modality must be found to eliminate the possibility of conflict between our two countries in the Adjacency Zone, and especially on the Sarstoon. The work will proceed in that regard at both the military and political levels,” said Barrow.
PM Barrow ended by stating, “Before I take your questions, let me conclude by thanking Belizeans for the solidarity and resolve that was evident as the crisis was unfolding. The statements made by the Leader of the Opposition, and various organizations and social partners, were also extremely helpful.”
“Finally, I thank the Security Forces of this country for their steadfastness in daily carrying out their job of protecting our country in the face of overwhelming odds,” ended the Prime Minister.
In the question and answer session that followed, the PM was asked about the OAS’s emotive statement, which “repudiated” the killing of a Guatemalan teenager at the hands of BDF soldiers, even before an investigation has been conducted. Barrow said he did not know who drafted the OAS statement and commented, “I have to believe that there is some difficulty with the drafter of the statement. I have to believe that that is some sort of a slip. If it helps, the Guatemalans give the OAS hell, too.”
Barrow went on to explain that he was very pleased that the OAS is in involved in the impartial investigation. He said that the OAS Secretary General briefed him on the meeting he had with Morales and that Morales had also mentioned to him the need for de-escalation.
“I absolutely endorse and welcome the role that OAS is playing in this business,” Barrow said.
Barrow was asked if Guatemala had in fact annexed the Sarstoon River, and he replied that there can be no question of Guatemalan annexing the Sarstoon.
“We continue to say that that portion of the Sarstoon is ours and we continue to act in accordance with that position. We continue to go up-river. That does not stop the Guatemalans from saying that the Sarstoon is theirs. That is a position we cannot accept,” he said.
Are there concerns on the part of the National Security Council that Wil Maheia and the Territorial Volunteers have scheduled a trip to the Sarstoon for this weekend, Barrow was asked.
Barrow said that the Guatemalans see the Territorial Volunteers as provocation. Their actions “are utterly and terribly misguided,” he said.
The Prime Minister, while insisting that Belize has not ceded its rights to the Sarstoon River, said that if the volunteers go to the border and the Guatemalans attempt to interdict them, they would be putting the lives of the Belizean security personnel at risk.
“I am appealing to the Territorial Volunteers, give peace a chance, and allow us to come up with a protocol. For now, in this climate, when we are trying to work through this matter with the Guatemalans, they ought not to go”, insisted Barrow.
The question of Dr. Assad Shoman came up, and Barrow said that his administration would look to see if there is some professional capacity in which Dr. Shoman could be used. “Well, it’s not the UDP that will appoint him; it is the Government of Belize,” Barrow said, in making reference to Shoman’s remark that he is no longer a PUP.
Barrow said, in response to one journalist’s observation that it is Guatemala’s version of the shooting incident that has been circulated worldwide, that “Sensationalists in the media couldn’t care less; it is not our side of the story that would sell.”
BDF Commandant Brigadier General Jones said that the BDF Defender aircraft saw the encroachment of the Guatemalan poachers from the air and so the BDF and FCD went into the area to investigate.
“Unfortunately, the incident occurred on Wednesday night. The gentleman was apprehended (before the shooting began) and he admitted that he knew that he was in Belize and that he had been planting in Belize for years,” General Jones said.
“The BDF patrol acted in self-defense (when they were fired upon). It is not the practice of the BDF or any army to fire at minors,” Jones said.
Barrow was asked if the name Danny Conorquie and Sergeant Lambey came up during his discussions with the Guatemalan President.
Barrow said that he had said in his voice recording on Friday that he had mentioned to President Morales that Danny Conorquie had been murdered by Guatemalan civilians and that Sergeant Lambey had been shot.
Morales asked him, he said, where his evidence is, and Barrow said that legally, we can’t prove that these men were Guatemalans, but factually, we know that these were Guatemalans. We know, but we can’t prove, Barrow explained.
Barrow said that he thinks the Guatemalans should send back their ambassador to Belize as a measure of good faith.
Barrow also explained that it is impossible to stop the Guatemalans from coming across to Belize. “I wish the Guatemalan authorities could do more,” he said.
General Jones said that, “it is important for us to work out a protocol. Leave the area to the military to work in peace … it is an area of dispute. Of course, it is not fair to our Belizeans, but we are asking to give us a chance to work out a protocol.” “Give diplomacy a chance, give peace a chance,” he implored.
Rear Admiral John Borland, Belize Coast Guard Commander, explained that the Coast Guard will not operate in the Sarstoon River, but will operate outside on the high seas in the area north of the Sarstoon.