SARSTOON RIVER, Toledo, Thurs. June 16, 2016–Nine armed soldiers of the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) showed up on the Belize side of the Sarstoon River today, ordering a group of Belizeans, including Wil Maheia of the Belize Territorial Volunteers and Mike Rudon, news reporter at Channel 5, to stop traversing the Sarstoon, Amandala was told today.
Maheia said that they went to the area after 6:00 a.m. with a crew from Channel 5.
“Going up, it was OK. They [the GAF] followed us, and we passed the [Sarstoon] Island. And when we decided to turn back, they said, ‘Stop!’ We said, ‘No man!’ and they insisted and they started to run their boat close to ours,” Maheia recounted.
He said that there were four people on the boat that took the Belizean civilians to the Sarstoon. The Guatemalans, in a similar motorized skiff, had more passengers onboard their vessel and so the Belizeans were able to outpace them.
The GAF persistently argued with the Belizeans that they were traversing Guatemalan waters.
“They were trying to stop us. We said, ‘We are in Belize.’ They said, ‘Respecte el protocol [respect the protocol]!’”
This is exactly what members of the GAF told the BDF when a group of Guatemalan soldiers in two boats blocked their passage in the Sarstoon just over a month ago.
“We said, ‘Cual protocolo? …No hay protocolo.’ He said, ‘Ask your government.’” Maheia said, in reference to what the GAF told him when he asked them what protocol they were urging the Belizeans to respect.
Before the exchange with the GAF, the Belizeans were able to go about half-mile past the Sarstoon Island, which is within Belizean territory, and it was when they were returning that the Guatemalans aggressively tried to stop them.
We were told that this time, they approached the Belizeans more aggressively than they did on May 27, 2016; however, it was noted that a different GAF officer was in command of the crew.
Of note is that the officer in charge of the Guatemalan group was on a cellphone communicating with someone else while issuing orders to the Belizeans, suggesting that he was taking orders from a superior.
The Belizeans feared that had they complied with the order of the GAF to stop, they may have been detained and taken over to Guatemala.
Additionally, Maheia reported seeing Guatemalans fishing with gillnets near the mouth of the Sarstoon on the Belize side, and he told us that one of the dugouts was full of gillnets.
On May 24, 2016, at the conclusion of bilateral talks between Belize and Guatemala in Istanbul, Turkey, on the sidelines of a UN meeting, the Government of Belize revoked a statutory instrument (SI) it had put into place on May 9, “to avoid the possibility of any harm coming to Belizeans going to the Sarstoon in organized numbers to make a political point, given that tensions had reached a fever pitch with Guatemala.”
The Government had also said that, “Guatemala’s armed forces, especially its navy at the Sarstoon, were on a declared hair-trigger mobilization.”
This happened after the Guatemalan government beefed up its military presence at both its western border with Belize and at the Sarstoon, after a Belize Defence Force officer shot and killed a minor at Cebada, in the Chiquibul Forest, Cayo, where the officers reportedly came under fire under the cover of night, while trying to address illegal incursions and milpa farming by Guatemalans on the Belize side of the border.
After the Istanbul talks, the Government said, in a release announcing a revocation of the S.I., that the parties had committed to commence work on a formal cooperation mechanism that will respect Belize’s and Guatemala’s respective use and navigation of the Sarstoon.
The release added that, “While the formal mechanism is being worked on, the two sides have informally accepted a situation in which there will be untrammeled traffic for Belize’s military and civilians along the Sarstoon.”
On May 27th, three days after that statement by the Government, a media contingent, including reporters from Kremandala, traveled to the Sarstoon, but GAF soldiers blocked their entry into the Sarstoon.
The Guatemalans backed off on Friday, June 3, 2016, when the Opposition People’s United Party, led by Opposition Leader Johnny Briceño, led a contingent to the Sarstoon. Belize’s Foreign Minister, Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington, told the press that the Guatemalans, although not there in person to stop the PUP officials had sent a drone which was hovering overhead, taking photos of Belize’s Opposition in the area.
Acting Commander of the Belize Defence Force, Lt. Col. Louis Sutherland, told Amandala last week that the GAF did not interfere with the Belize Defence Force when it conducted its changeover at Cadenas, via the Sarstoon River, last Tuesday, June 7. Today, the Acting Commander told us that there have been no reports of GAF impeding the military at the Sarstoon.
Belize and Guatemala are scheduled to hold high-level talks next Tuesday, June 21, 2016, at the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, DC, to discuss the problems at the Sarstoon.
After their meeting in Istanbul late last month, Belize and Guatemala had issued a joint statement dated May 24, outlining the points of discussion. On that same date, the Government of Belize issued a second statement announcing the revocation of the Sarstoon S.I.
However, it has been reported that on May 28, 2016, the Embassy of Guatemala in Belize wrote Belize’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, disputing Belize’s claim there would now be untrammeled traffic by Belize’s military and civilians along the Sarstoon. The Guatemalan Embassy, whose head was also in Istanbul for the talks, alleged that Belize’s May 24th release (evidently the one on the Sarstoon SI, and not the joint statement) did not reflect what the parties had agreed.
The Embassy’s letter said that Guatemala reiterates that the Sarstoon River is an integral part of its territory, and added that several of its state institutions, including its Ministry of Defense, would be involved in efforts to reach an agreement on the Sarstoon.
While the Government of Belize’s official reply to Guatemala is not available to us, we note that the ruling United Democratic Party has indicated that the Guatemalans have at times agreed to one thing in meetings with Belize and then, immediately upon returning home, have taken an about-face position on the matters discussed.
In a press release issued this evening, the Government of Belize said, “GOB is investigating this incident in an effort to verify all its particulars, including that the media vessel was in Belize’s waters. In the meantime, Guatemalan authorities have communicated that they attempted to stop the vessel to inquire as to the reason for the taking of pictures of their naval base.
“GOB is thus seeking to confirm the details of the Channel 5 version of events. GOB makes clear its firm position that if the report is accurate, the incident would constitute a breach of the spirit of the Confidence Building Measures and must also be rejected as prejudicial to the ongoing diplomatic efforts, including next week’s meeting in Washington, to establish a bilateral Cooperation Mechanism for the Sarstoon.”