BELIZE CITY, Tues. Apr. 16, 2019– An incident on the Sarstoon River yesterday morning involving Belizeans, both military and civilians, brought into sharp focus once more the problem of what appeared to be the annexation of the entire river by the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) and highlighted, for the world to see, the impotent response from the Belize Government’s Ministry of National Security and Foreign Affairs.
A group of Belizeans visiting from the United States set out on a trip on the Sarstoon River. They hired Wil Maheia, the leader of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), and a boat captain to take them up the river and around Sarstoon Island, and then back to their starting point.
That seems simple enough: a group of vacationing Belizeans, mostly women, two of whom are said to be close relatives of Belize Prime Minister, Dean Barrow. Everything was going well until after they checked in at Belize’s Forward Operating Base (FOB) at the mouth of the Sarstoon River, where on the opposite side, the GAF also has a military base.
Upon sighting the Belize boats (at this time the Maheia boat was being escorted by a Belize Coast Guard boat), three GAF “metal sharks” came whizzing across to the Belize side of the river. The GAF boats positioned themselves in front of the Belizean boats, preventing them from going forward, inside Belize territorial waters.
The Belize military personnel then decided to turn back, instead of attempting to escort the boat with the civilians around Sarstoon Island.
Maheia told Amandala that the Belize Coast Guard and Belize Defence Force soldiers at the FOB have always acted very professionally when confronting the GAF on the Belize side of the Sarstoon River, and during yesterday’s incident, they similarly acted professionally.
The Ministry of National Security, as usual, did what they normally do in their pusillanimity: issued a press release about yesterday’s incident that merely chronicles the visitors’ account of trying to go around the island and being blocked by the Guatemalan military.
The government release ended as such releases always end: “This incident has been reported to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a strong protest is being lodged to condemn the actions of the GAF. The Government of Belize notes that this incident marks a higher level of interference by the Guatemalans and is discussing an adequate diplomatic response.”
By today, however, a changed emphasis had crept into their narrative, from none other than the Minister of National Security, John Saldivar, who posted that Wil Maheia was to be blamed for the incident on the Sarstoon.
Whenever there is trouble at the Sarstoon, our government never blames the Guatemalan military, whom the Foreign Affairs Minister likes to call “our friends”; they prefer to blame the Belizean nationalist, Wil Maheia.
The Belize government, in blaming Maheia, has totally ignored the fact that at all times, Maheia was in Belize territory, and also, has downplayed the fact that the escort boat was a Belizean military boat from the Belize Coast Guard.
The government owes a duty of protection to Wil Maheia and any other Belizean who wants to traverse the river. They should not be hindered by what appears to be a military occupying force.
In fact, the country is indebted to Maheia and his BTV for bringing the reality of the presence of the GAF into the consciousness of Belizeans. Otherwise, how would the country have known about the Guatemalan military presence and continued violation of Belize’s territorial integrity?
While the Ministry of National Security purported to speak on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in saying that “a strong protest is being lodged to condemn the actions of the GAF,” it stopped short of saying where this protest is being lodged.
Under the circumstances, what is an adequate diplomatic response from Belize? Will we recall our ambassador? Will Belize protest at the UN Security Council, the OAS and other international forums?
Rhenae Nunez, one of the visiting Belizeans on the trip, had this to say on her Facebook page: “Vexing experience!!! Guatemalan military came across from their base and blocked us from proceeding beyond our military base. Utterly disrespectful. Out of concern for our safety, Wil Maheia made the decision to turn back. This is as vivid as it gets! Guatemalans are preventing Belizeans from moving around in our country!!!”
The government should quit trying to make a scapegoat out of Wil Maheia, and stop wasting time with protest notes to the Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Belize Government should go on a diplomatic offensive—take it to the international community. Silence is not an option in a clear violation of Belize’s territorial integrity and violations of its citizens’ rights to move unimpeded in their own country.
Since this is an international incident, why not protest it to the Friends of Belize as well, and the Organization of American States and the UN, since this behavior on the part of the GAF is a clear violation of the Confidence Building Measures Belize signed with Guatemala in 2005.
Otherwise, the continued silence by the Belize government will amount to acquiescence to Guatemalan military occupation of the Sarstoon.