BELIZE CITY, Mon. June 8, 2015–Vice Commandant of the Belize Coast Guard, Elton Bennett, told the media last week that the Belize Coast Guard officers—10 of whom were decorated with medals for bravery on Friday—had been “extracted” from Sarstoon island on Friday, May 29, rather than withdrawing in a cowardly manner after Guatemalan naval officers insisted that the Coast Guard officers vacate Sarstoon Island, which is squarely inside Belize.
Although we were initially told that two of Guatemala’s naval vessels had gone to the island on Thursday, May 28, to demand that the officers leave the island, subsequent reports to our newspaper are that on Friday, May 29, three Guatemalan naval vessels were seen, and one of them appeared to have headed back into Belizean waters, close to Sarstoon Island, as if advancing on the Belize Coast Guard officers.
Last week, we tried to get official information on who was actually leading the Coast Guard operation but at the time, we were told that the information could not be disclosed. We have since learned that it was Bennett, the Coast Guard’s second-in-command, who headed that Sarstoon Island operation.
We reported in May that Bennett had raised concerns with Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred Elrington over comments he, Elrington, had publicly made expressing his view that he does not know where Belize’s territorial waters end. Based on Elrington’s information to us, that conversation happened on Thursday, May 7.
We know that Bennett maintained the stance that Belize’s water boundaries, over which the Coast Guard has jurisdiction to patrol, are clearly defined in our law, and the Coast Guard, as we understand it, has continued to exercise their jurisdiction over those waters. As the officer in charge on Sarstoon Island, Bennett is the one who held that the Coast Guard would not leave because they were in Belizean territory.
When the team of 10 men began their Sarstoon operation around 7:00 on Thursday, May 28, their intention was to establish a forward operating base at the Sarstoon to combat a range of illegal activities, including illegal fishing and illegal logging.
However, the officers were called in, on orders issued by Prime Minister Dean Barrow, on Friday, May 29, cutting their mission about 8 days short. We understand that at this time, the Guatemala navy had stepped up its presence from 9 officers to 27 officers—not 21, as had initially been reported to us.
While two vessels appeared to retreat to Guatemalan waters, a snapshot taken of the vessels indicates that a third naval vessel was back inside Belizean waters as the Coast Guard officers headed back to the mainland.
An official source told our newspaper that Guatemalans sometimes venture all the way to Belize’s mainland to conduct illegal logging, apart from engaging in illegal fishing inside Belize’s territorial waters.
Our newspaper has been informed that the Coast Guard intends to return to the Sarstoon in a few weeks to establish the much needed surveillance station near the mouth of the Sarstoon River, as well as an outpost on Sarstoon Island, and the surveillance post would be jointly manned by Coast Guard and Belize Defence Force officers.
We understand that the Government of Belize is still awaiting a reply from Guatemala to its note protesting the Sarstoon incident. We do not know whether they will wait for a response from the Guatemalan government before building the outpost on the island.