PUNTA GORDA, Mon. June 15, 2015–Roughly five hours after a Guatemalan gunboat, which was illegally in Belize’s waters, along with one other gunboat and a Columbian-type boat, was allowed to leave Glover’s Reef Atoll, near Middle Caye, where it had run aground, on Sunday, without any penalties for damaging the reef, five Belizeans were allowed to leave a Guatemalan court where they had been charged for an incident fabricated by Guatemalan soldiers in the village of Santa Cruz, a Guatemalan community which borders Jalacte, an informal border point where a lot of commercial activity occurs between Belize and Guatemala.
After reaching the safety of Belize, the men told the media that they had to plead guilty to the false charges brought by Guatemalan soldiers who accused them of being drunk, or they would not have been released. They were charged 500 quetzals each, but even after they paid the fine, they still would not have been released if it were not for the efforts of Belize’s Ambassador to Guatemala, Alexis Rosado and protocol officer Said Guerra.
The incident occurred on Saturday at about 3:15 p.m. while the group of five Belizeans – Punta Gorda Town Councilor, Ashton McKenzie; Michel Santiago Romero, an IT officer at the Toledo Teachers Credit Union; Ray Anthony Martinez, a mathematics teacher from Punta Gorda Town; Rutelio Cal, who works as a teller at Heritage Bank in Mango Creek; and Rafael Cus, a farmer who cultivates corn and beans in the Jalacte area and who was not with the men, but happened to be in the area at the time – were in Santa Cruz, a Guatemalan community adjacent to Jalacte, a village in south-western Belize, very near to the border with Guatemala.
While in a restaurant in that area, however, the group of five was detained and forced to go to San Luis, Peten by Guatemalan military personnel.
Ashton McKenzie, one of the five Belizeans who were arrested by Guatemalan soldiers on apparently trumped-up allegations while visiting Guatemala this past Saturday, June 13, told Amandala what happened, saying that they had been “roughed up,” abused and threatened with death.
Initial reports received by local media suggested that the men had been arrested because they were intoxicated and had been behaving in a disorderly manner, but McKenzie said that the ordeal was apparently orchestrated by the Guatemalan military officials as a means of either extorting, or scaring off the Belizean visitors.
McKenzie explained that he and his colleagues went to Santa Cruz on a casual trip and were not drinking as was initially reported, but were instead having lunch at a restaurant in the village when they were accosted by Guatemalan military personnel who first questioned their nationality, and then ordered them to immediately leave the area.
The Belizeans reportedly complied, but got permission to buy some items at a nearby store when they were approached by a high-ranking off-duty Guatemalan military officer who was apparently under the influence of alcohol.
That officer told the men that they had to accompany him to San Luis, Peten, because they had violated that country’s immigration laws, and that was when everything went downhill for the Belizeans.
While being escorted by the soldiers, McKenzie said, the group was forced to run for approximately four miles with high-powered weapons pointed at their heads.
“We started walking but they told us that we will have to run. And they made us run with weapons pointed at our heads, and they made it clear to us that if we do not comply or run fast enough, they will shoot or kill us, so we basically ran 4 miles feeling very, very nervous,” he explained.
At that time, Martinez complained of heart problems, so they were put to sit in a pasture and offered water, but were later bullied by the soldiers who used their weapons to further intimidate them.
“While facing the pasture, the commanding officer instructed all the other officers to first crank their weapons, and the second instruction was for them to aim at us. At that point in time, I felt like I was going to die, but then they took us to the police station [in San Luis] where we were processed and escorted through that municipality to the court house,” McKenzie further said.
Upon their arrival at the courthouse, the same high-ranking arresting officer who had appeared to be intoxicated, and who had been in civilian clothing, arrived in his uniform and reportedly provided the judge with a fabricated version of the events.
“The judge gave him the opportunity to give his statement and right there and then, he fabricated a blatant lie about us, saying that we were intoxicated and we were giving ‘battery’ in the particular village, so the magistrate looked at us and said that that is not logical, because we were not drunk; we were in a sound state of mind. He then instructed them to take us back to the police station,”McKenzie added.
Amandala was told that, whilst at the station, the Belizeans were grossly mistreated and handled like common criminals.
“We were first put in an open area and then we were taken to a cell with Guatemalan criminals. Fearing for our safety and considering that they had already manipulated the system by telling lies on us, we were fearful that they would harm us. After Mr. Romero explained to them that we are law-abiding citizens in our country, they decided to give us the opportunity to go back in the open area,” McKenzie recounted.
That, however, did not stop the Guatemalan police officers from allegedly hurling insults at the group who, McKenzie stated, refused to eat or fall asleep for fear that their rights would again be violated.
Additional military personnel were also sent to guard the men, who later negotiated with some of the police officers in order for them to use the phone to contact their relatives in Belize, who were not aware of the situation at the time.
The men also made contact with local authorities after they were visited at the station by Ambassador Said Guerra, a consular and protocol officer from Belize’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who went to check on their welfare after being told about what had happened.
The next morning at around 9:00, the Belizeans were taken back to the courthouse, where they gave the judge their version of what had transpired, and in order to get the matter behind them and get back home to Belize, McKenzie explained, they decided to accept the fictitious charges of disorderly conduct and immigration offences which were brought against them, as a means of getting out of the situation.
After that session, the captives were told that they would have had to remain in custody for a longer period, but Belize’s Ambassador to Guatemala, His Excellency Alexis Rosado, reportedly intervened to secure the release of the men, who were then taken to Melchor de Mencos, an official border point, after which arrangements were made for them to be brought back to Punta Gorda at around 4:00 p.m. yesterday, Sunday.
McKenzie also emphasized that the representatives of the Organization of American States (OAS), which acts as the mediator in the Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute, were extremely late in attending to their situation, and that they are disappointed by what has happened because they are all reputable individuals in their community.
“We feel that our reputation was tarnished by the Guatemalan military, who fabricated a story which is totally untrue; we believe that is a great disrespect of their part and we hope that their statements are retracted and further investigations are done into the matter,” he stressed.
McKenzie thanked the local authorities and diplomatic officials who bargained for their release and told us that the officials from the OAS and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have promised to urgently look into the matter and provide them with a response in the near future.
He emphasized that both Belizeans and Guatemalans use that open and unregulated border point to traverse between Jalacte, Belize, and Santa Cruz, Guatemala, to buy groceries and alcoholic beverages at cheaper prices, so they were shocked to find themselves in such a situation.
McKenzie said that while they do not know exactly why they were targeted, he believes that it may have been a means of either extorting money from them, since they were fined BZ$724 for the offences, or may have something to do with the long-standing and increasingly hostile territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala.
In a joint press release which was issued by the five men today, they classified the detention as “a total abuse of authority by the Guatemalan military personnel.”
On February 28, a group of 37 Belizeans who are a part of the Northern Territorial Volunteers (NTV) from the Orange Walk District were taken prisoner by the Guatemalan Coast Guard while on a trip back from the Gracias A Dios border marker, which is located at the southern-most point of Belize.
While nearing the mouth of the Sarstoon River, the boatload of patriotic citizens were intercepted and detained by the Guatemalan officials and taken to the eastern port town of Livingston, Guatemala, where they were made to similarly stay for an overnight until their release the next day.
So far, there has been no word from authorities as to the investigations into that appalling incident.
Then, on May 28/29, on Sarstoon Caye, at the southern border between Belize and Guatemala, Guatemalan soldiers ordered Belize Coast Guard officers to leave the caye, claiming it belongs to Guatemala. When the officers stood their ground initially; the Guatemalans left and came back with two military boats, and again ordered the officers to leave.
Again the Coast Guard officers responded that they were in Belizean territory, but they were later ordered to leave the island by none other than Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who apparently feared a confrontation with the Guatemalans.
In the wake of that incident, Belize’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a diplomatic note to the Government of Guatemala in regards to what had unfolded.
As of press time tonight, the Government of Belize has not yet issued any official release regarding the latest affront to our sovereignty – 5 Belizeans abused by Guatemalan soldiers while Belizean authorities waved bon voyage to Guatemalan military boats illegally in our waters, one of which had damaged a section of our reef.