PUNTA GORDA TOWN, Mon. Mar. 2, 2015–What started out as a patriotic excursion to demarcate Belize’s southernmost border point evolved into a disconcerting experience for forty Belizeans who were all detained by Guatemalan military officials between the hours of 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. last Saturday, February 28.
The unsettling encounter occurred after the group, who are part of the Northern Territorial Volunteers (NTV) from the Orange Walk District, had embarked on an expedition to place a brass plaque with the name “Belize” at the Gracias A Dios border marker, a site that is accessible via the Sarstoon River, which forms a natural southern boundary between Belize and Guatemala.
The group of bold nationalists – including 37 Northern Territorial Volunteers (which is comprised of individuals, including women, ranging from 14 to 81 years of age, and included 4 students and several teachers), 2 crew members, and an employee of PGTV – was about midway through their return trip when they were intercepted by heavily armed Guatemalan military personnel who informed them that for about 5 to 10 minutes during their journey, they had made an incursion into Guatemalan territory.
The entire boatload of Belizean nationals was then detained, reportedly in Belizean waters, by the military officials, who tied their 36-foot boat to a smaller Guatemalan vessel (which was being utilized by the soldiers) and hauled them off to a larger military vessel, which was parked out at sea in Guatemalan waters, with the intent to take them to a nearby Guatemalan military outpost.
That task, however, would prove to be impractical on account of rough sea conditions which prevented the transfer of the detainees onto the bigger boat.
As a result, their names were reportedly recorded and they were subsequently released from custody.
By that time, though, nightfall was imminent and the sea conditions had gotten worse, and since a number of the BTVs had reservations about traveling all the way back to Punta Gorda in the dangerous waters, the Belizeans were escorted, using the power of their own vessel, by the Guatemalan officials to Livingston, Izabal – a small coastal village located at the mouth of the Río Dulce at the Gulf of Honduras in eastern Guatemala in order to seek refuge until the sea conditions improved.
After an unexpected overnight stay in that small community, their ordeal finally ended yesterday, Sunday, when the besieged, but spirited Belizean nationals arrived back in Punta Gorda, escorted this time by Belize Coast Guard personnel, at around 11:00 a.m., to a heroes’ welcome from a small crowd of their fellow countrymen/women who cheered, while some vigorously waved Belizean flags on shore.
Immediately upon their arrival at the pier at the Customs/Immigration wharf, Belize’s southern port-of-entry, a touching rendition of the Belizean National Anthem commenced, which soon segued into a recital of the National Prayer.
Shortly thereafter, we spoke to Antonio De La Fuente, one of the leaders of the Northern Territorial Volunteers, an activist group that holds regular flag-raising and demarcation ceremonies at strategic points on the Adjacency Zone between Belize and Guatemala. He gave us a firsthand account of the unnerving sequence of events.
“Upon exiting the Sarstoon River, the Guatemalan military approached our boat, ordered us to stop, threw a rope onto our boat, and then towed us about half mile out to sea, where they had a larger vessel that was awaiting us. Due to the size of the waves and the weather, they could not make a transfer, so we steamed on our own power to Livingston, where we spent the night [having already been freed],” he recounted.
“This morning, Sunday, we had some negotiations with the Commandant of Livingston, and we were released. There was absolutely no charge for the group; however, the captain had to sign a document stating that he had accidentally entered a creek for the distance of 100 yards and a time of approximately five minutes”, De La Fuente continued.
De La Fuente mentioned that there are many creeks and tributaries throughout the river, and that they had indeed gone down one of those channels while on their journey, but added that as soon as they realized that they were going the wrong route, they turned back.
A copy of the said document, which was signed by boat captain Guillermo “Memo” Avila, a native of Punta Gorda, outlined the Guatemalan military’s version of the events, apparently in an attempt to justify their officers’ actions.
The document insisted that Avila’s vessel, named “Dore”, including its passengers and crew members, entered waters which are considered Guatemalan territory for a period of ten minutes (as opposed to five as was mentioned by De La Fuente) without “international departure clearance to enter [Guatemalan] waters”, and therefore, the boat was escorted out of the area for the “safety” of his passengers, and based on “instructions of higher command.”
That, however, is no appeasement for the passengers, most of whom believe that they were subjected to unfair and unnecessary treatment at the hands of the Guatemalan forces.
“They had no right to detain us”, said De La Fuente’s daughter, who was also on the trip.
“I never had Livingston on my itinerary”, said another passenger, who added that, “I don’t understand how we could have been detained while coming through the Sarstoon [River].”
“I’m just glad we are finally back home”, said a teacher from Orange Walk who described it as an “unpleasant experience”, but was thankful that none of them were hurt during the ordeal.
Reliable reports we have received suggest that during the seizure of the Belizean vessel, one of the Guatemalan soldiers inquired if Wil Maheia, a well-known political activist and leader of the Punta Gorda-based Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), a similar activist group which normally engages in the same type of border excursions, was also on board the vessel.
After a 7-hour trip back to Orange Walk Town late yesterday evening, the group was met at the Orange Walk Toll Bridge by relatives, friends and other supporters, after which they were taken via motorcade through the principal streets of Orange Walk, and later welcomed at an official ceremony at the Orange Walk Town Hall.
After arriving back home, an undeterred Giovanni de la Fuente said, “We feel we were kidnapped, [but] we are not intimidated”, implying that the Territorial Volunteers will not be daunted by the experience, and will persist in its efforts to install and maintain border indicators in and around the disputed boundaries between Belize and Guatemala, because the Belizean government refuses to do so.
The incident has caused much consternation among sectors of the Belizean public, who are upset about the way in which the situation has played out, and are demanding answers from their government.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Security, Col. (Ret’d), George Lovell, who indicated that there are a number of concerns the Belizean authorities will have to address with their Guatemalan counterparts, spoke to us about the justification behind the detention of the Belizeans –reportedly within Belizean waters – who were subsequently taken all the way to Guatemala, even if indeed an infraction had been committed on the part of the Belizean vessel.
He said, “What we now need to do is to get with our Guatemalan counterparts and do a joint verification to confirm precisely where the boat was, and then we take it from there.”
Lovell told us that they have since spoken with their Guatemalan counterparts “to gather facts and deal with it in a very responsible way”.
When asked what he found out from the people he spoke with, Lovell replied, “There are a number of things that were said that I am very concerned about, and we will definitely, as a Government, take up those concerns with our Guatemalan counterparts.”
Lovell, however, would not go into details given the guidelines set out in the confidence building measures (signed by Belize and Guatemala) as to how incidents of this nature must be reported on by authorities, adding that he must first brief the Prime Minister, the Minister of National Security, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, after which there will be certain actions that the Government of Belize “will have to take.”
A release issued by the Government of Belize [GOB] this evening stated that the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were “immediately informed” of the incident, after which Belizean authorities, “in accordance with standard operating procedures in managing such incidents, activated the lines of communication to firstly, guarantee the safety and welfare of the Belizeans on board the vessel and their immediate return; secondly, to ensure that they were afforded appropriate consular support; and thirdly, to ascertain the facts.”
The document that was signed yesterday by the Belizean captain to secure the release of the group included six points, mainly asserting that the passengers were detained because the conditions of the sea were not favorable for the excursion; that “at no point was their freedom restricted”; that the crew and passengers stated that they were not “subjected to mistreatment during their stay at the Port of Livingston”; and that Avila was “warned that should he be caught committing the offense [again], he shall be sanctioned with a fine or the boat and crew will be put at the disposition of the competent authorities, as appropriate.”
Captain Avila’s attorney, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, who also played a part in facilitating the return of the Belizeans, has argued that Avila was forced to sign the document under duress, and that he should not have been forced to sign such a document without the presence of an ambassador from his home country.
It is noteworthy that on the NTV excursion at the time was Belize’s Chargé d’ affaires to Cuba, Efrain Novelo who – while not on official duty – was able to assist during the moment that the BTVs had to fend for themselves in Livingston to find accommodations late Saturday night.
Belize’s Ambassador to Guatemala, His Excellency Alexis Rosado, arrived in Livingston shortly before 9:00 a.m. yesterday, and he accompanied the BTVs to Belize in one of the two vessels that transported them back into our territorial waters along the Sarstoon River, after which they were escorted by Belize military and Coast Guard personnel to Punta Gorda.
When we interviewed Rosado regarding his sentiments about the incident, seeing that it comes on the heels of 13 bilateral agreements that were recently signed between Belize and Guatemala in mid-December 2014, his response was that while they were not exactly surprised, they are very disappointed in the way the incident transpired.
He said, “We are very disappointed in what happened. We are still trying to clear up the story to get the full picture, but what it tells me is that we need to implement those agreements and do more to keep that level of contact, communication and cooperation. I think the fact that we managed to get our Belizeans back home so quickly and safely, is a good indication of the communication and the links that exist between the militaries and foreign ministries [of both countries] – that of course, without prejudice to establishing all the facts surrounding the whole situation.”
So how quickly and aggressively will Belizean authorities be trying to get to the bottom of the issue to find out whether the Belizeans were indeed guilty of committing any actual infraction against the Guatemalans, especially since they were reportedly intercepted by Guatemalan military officials who were in Belizean waters?
According to Rosado, protocol must be followed, but at the end of the day, the objective is to ensure that something of that nature does not happen again.
“First of all, we have to establish the facts, and then there is a joint verification that ought to take place, which I think, is already on stream. The Foreign Ministry [of Belize] had already requested something like that, so there is a protocol to follow, but the important thing is that we get to the bottom of it all and ensure that it doesn’t happen again”, he cited.
Rosado noted that they will have to “get the ball rolling” in terms of the involvement of the Organization of American States (OAS), which acts as the mediator in the Belize-Guatemala territorial differendum, as well as establishing the chain of events from both sides.
According to GOB, who maintained that “deep concern” about the ongoing incident was raised with senior authorities of the Guatemalan Government and of the OAS, initial reports suggest that “by an error of navigation”, the Belizean vessel “may have unintentionally entered into Guatemalan waters”, but GOB added that “these reports also suggest that the Guatemalan authorities may have erred in their judgment and placed the passengers of the [Belizean] vessel at risk by diverting the vessel to Livingston, Guatemala [in rough sea conditions]”, and that the Guatemalan military officials “may have entered illegally into Belizean waters at the Sarstoon.”
GOB declared that it will be taking “necessary measures to address these concerns and others with the Government of Guatemala, including the request of a joint verification exercise along with the OAS”, after which “the findings of this verification exercise will guide our Government’s further action.”
GOB’s release claimed that “official reports furnished to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the OAS reveal that the same group which organized this weekend’s excursion had exactly one year ago, planted palms on the wrong side of the border.”
At this time, there are certainly many questions and concerns that remain regarding this latest episode of the unending Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute, and so far, there has not yet been any official statement issued by the Guatemalan government regarding the incident.
CEO Lovell yesterday informed us that there should be a press conference staged by the Government of Belize sometime this week to answer queries that remain unaddressed, as well as to outline a strategy going forward to manage such contingencies which tend to arise as a part of Guatemala’s long-standing, unfounded territorial claim to Belize.