SARSTOON ISLAND, Toledo District, Mon. Aug. 17, 2015–The government of Prime Minister Dean Barrow upheld its threat not to send the Belize Defence Force (BDF) to ensure that an expedition led by founder and leader of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), Wil Maheia, and Orlando De La Fuente, leader of the Northern Territorial Volunteers, had safe passage yesterday, Sunday, to Sarstoon Island, the southernmost island in Belize, nestled inside the mouth of the river by the same name, whose southern branch forms the border between Guatemala and Belize.
Foreign Minister, Wilfred Elrington, who had to have taken his cue from PM Barrow, had repeatedly said that the expedition did not have Government’s blessing.
Last Tuesday, the BTV had sent a letter to the Minister of National Security, John Saldivar, informing him about the planned expedition, but there was no reply from Saldivar.
When Opposition Senator Lisa Shoman, who is also a member of the Negotiating Team on the Bipartisan Committee on Guatemala’s unfounded claim to Belize, announced she was joining the expedition to the Sarstoon, Government’s indifference took a sharp turn – Government then expressed “great consternation” over the announcement.
Nevertheless, Maheia and De La Fuente led an expedition that numbered about 130 people, including men, women and children, young and old, together with personnel from most media houses, on what they called a “patriotic day,” to demonstrate that Sarstoon Island is a part of Belize’s territory, despite false claims by Guatemala that the island belongs to them.
Not only was there no visible presence from the BDF, but the Government-affiliated media, Wave Radio, Wave TV and the Guardian, were not present, nor indeed was any Minister of Government or public official.
Knowing that the government of Prime Minister Barrow had told his own people to desist from travelling to land that belongs to Belize, however, soldiers of the Guatemalan navy took advantage of the fact and harassed the vessels that comprised the flotilla of Belizeans, in five boats, travelling to Sarstoon Island.
Live reports from Belizeans on the boats, about noon on Sunday, said that the Guatemalans were actively trying to prevent them from reaching Sarstoon Island by blockading the route to the island with their two military vessels – meanwhile, the Guatemalans had a big gunboat that was parked in open water about a half mile east of the Sarstoon.
There was another boat in which the Guatemalan customs and immigration personnel were traveling, and another boat that contained the Guatemalan press, and one other boat that contained the OAS officials.
Despite repeated attempts by the Guatemalan soldiers, however, all the Belizean vessels managed to slip past, except the largest boat, which was the last in line for the flotilla. Each time the boat attempted to follow the other boats, the Guatemalans boats blocked their path, and being large, it was not able to maneuver quickly enough to elude the Guatemalan crafts.
The 40-foot Belizean boat, which had at least 32 people onboard, had to retreat each time they were blocked by the Guatemalans, and in the end, the boat was forced into shallow water. It was not able to complete its journey to Sarstoon Island.
The aim of the expedition was for the Belizeans to travel around the Sarstoon Island in the four boats to show it was Belizean territory, and the drama began as soon as the boats approached the north branch of the river mouth. Two Guatemala Navy boats that were patiently waiting a short distance away, suddenly drove up and intercepted the lead boat, and an official of one of the navy boats began to intimidate and threaten the captain of the lead Belize boat. The navy boat went diagonal in front of the Belize boat, blocking it from proceeding, causing the Belize captain to become intimidated, and that was when Orlando De La Fuente, Maheia’s second-in-command on the expedition, who was travelling in the lead boat, took charge.
The Guatemalan official had a lively exchange with De La Fuente who was standing in the bow of the boat, and pointed to the Belize boat captain at the stern as someone he knew, and demanded that he turn the boat back. The captain, a Belizean fisherman who frequents the area and felt his livelihood and safety may be threatened, decided he couldn’t continue, despite De La Fuente’s orders for him to ignore the Guatemalan official and continue forward. With the captain refusing to go forward, and the BTV members on board loudly determined not to turn back, De La Fuente took over the engine controls, while the Guatemalan Navy officer continued telling him to turn back, that this was Guatemala waters, and not to proceed before an accident occurred. On a number of occasions during the blocking attempts by the Guatemalan boat, the Belize boat was unable to avoid contact, but there was no hard collision, as BTV members helped to push away the Guatemalan boat.
The brave De La Fuente made it clear to the Navy officer that they were in Belize sovereign territory, and it was they who were in our waters, and that they, the Guatemalans, should not be here.
After repeated blocking attempts by the Guatemalan boat, De La Fuente eventually succeeded in maneuvering his boat, the first in the flotilla, to the left of the Guatemalan Navy boat, so that, when circling the western end of the Sarstoon Island, the Belize boat would be on the “inside,” closer to the island, and thus not vulnerable to be pushed by the Guatemalans across the river boundary line in the middle. At that point, it appeared the Guatemalan boat became resigned to stop attempting to block the Belizeans, but stayed about thirty feet abreast for the rest of the journey around the Sarstoon Island. Because of the persistent intimidation and blocking attempts by the Guatemalan boat, it took close to half hour for the Belize boat to make the turn around the western end of Sarstoon Island, while it took under fifteen minutes to return to the river mouth up the south channel after the intimidation had ceased.
The aggression of the Guatemala Navy in the territory of Belize in the Sarstoon area was intense. The Navy was trying hard to discourage the Belize boats from proceeding in the Sarstoon, by bumping and blocking the lead boat and attempted to guide it onto the Guatemala side of the river to arrest them, but De La Fuente remained on the Belize side of the river. At one point the Navy boat was on the left side of De La Fuente’s boat, trying to push him into the Guatemalan side of the river, but again, De La Fuente maneuvered valiantly to keep on the Belize side.
Since De La Fuente’s boat was the lead boat, blocking it would have made the other three boats stop, unable to proceed to Sarstoon Island.
In spite of the aggression and intimidation, however, De La Fuente led the four remaining boats (the last boat had been restrained by the Guatemalans) around Sarstoon Island and back to Barranco Village. The mission could be hailed a success, but the intimidation by the Guatemala Navy was intense.
Present at the time during the aggressive action against the unarmed Belizeans who were waving the Belize flag and singing “Ya Da fu We, Belize,” were the OAS observers, who drove up towards the Guatemalan boat and tried to stop the aggression, but the Navy boat went around the OAS boat and continued the aggressive action of trying to stop the Belize boats from proceeding up the river.
This occurred next to the lead boat, which De La Fuente was driving, and that was when he challenged the OAS and asked them if they were in Belize waters, and they replied yes; and he asked them what they were going to do about what was happening; and a woman from the Organization of American States (OAS) put up her hands in a sign that signified that it was out of their control.
Also during those tense moments while the aggression was displayed by the Guatemala Navy, some Belizeans on the second boat that was travelling on the right of De La Fuente’s boat, in which Amandala was travelling, began to get nervous, and agitated. A man who was riding in the boat shouted at De La Fuente to turn back, that the point had been made and that there was no need to go further; and a woman in the boat said that she was not out for a confrontation with the Guatemalan Navy, and also that the point had been made; but De La Fuente replied that the boats were not turning back, that they were in our territory, Belize, and that they were going around the island, which was also in our territory.
At this time the Navy boat was on the left side of De La Fuente’s boat, trying to push him into the Guatemalan side of the river, but again, De La Fuente maneuvered valiantly to keep on the Belize side.
That was when the Guatemalan Navy boats went on the right side beside the Belize boats, making sure that the boats kept to the left side of the river, on the Belize side, when going around into the South Channel, behind the island, and the boats drove out to the mouth of the Sarstoon with the Navy boats now taking the role as escorts, after which the Navy broke to the right of the Belizeans, who then continued to travel to Barranco.
Also present in our territory were the Guatemala press, whose cameras were rolling and recording all the actions and misdeeds of their Navy. Luckily, no shots were fired, and all the Belizeans returned safely to Barranco, where Wil Maheia, Orlando De La Fuente and Audrey Matura spoke to the media about what had happened.
In his report on the event, Orlando De La Fuente said that the plan was that the group would sail around the island in the boats, and the lead boat was to have been the big boat in which Wil Maheia was to be in command, and if that boat was blocked by the Guatemalans, the second boat in which he, De La Fuente, was travelling, would be the lead boat, and the mission was to go around the island.
He said that as they approached the North Channel of the river, which is Belize sovereign territory, two Guatemala Navy boats came up and began to cut them off and block them, and that was when he took over and commanded the boat.
De La Fuente said that it is a shame that such things would happen in our waters and there is no response from the Government. Our foreign policy is failing us, and Belize is negotiating from a position of weakness, he lamented. The Guatemala Navy is displaying its might in the Sarstoon River, which is clearly Belize territory, while the Belize Coast Guard stays away, he said.
Attorney Audrey Matura, who was on the trip and observing the Guatemalans’ naked aggression, said that she saw the Guatemala navy bullying the Belize boat, and saw them trying to get them into the Guatemalan side of the river. Matura said that the attitude of the Guatemala Navy is out of the ordinary, and is convinced that some deal must have been worked out and that Sarstoon Island must have been ceded to Guatemala, because of the way they are behaving, claiming ownership.
Wil Maheia, leader and founder of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, said that the Guatemala Navy was clearly in Belize territory, and were stopping Belizeans from travelling in our own river, and it was total nonsense.
Many of the Belizeans who were on the expedition expressed disappointment and anger that Belizeans were being bullied in their own country by a foreign nation.
The participants in the expedition met at 10:00 at Barranco Village, and the group was put into six boats to travel to Sarstoon Island. One of the boats was assigned to be a reserve boat, which was to stay near the mainland, and was not scheduled to travel around Sarstoon Island with the rest of the boats.
On their arrival in the area, at about 10:45 a.m., a large Guatemala Navy boat was seen anchored in the Sarstoon area. Also, five other boats were seen, but were at a safe distance on the Guatemala side.
The Belizeans disembarked at a distance of about 100 yards from the shore in waist-deep water, because the area of water leading to the shore was too shallow for the boats. The Belizeans then assembled and after prayers were said, the National Anthem was sung and the flags were waved, after which the Belizeans got back into the boats to go for the drive around the island, and that was when the Guatemalan vessels closed in and began their intimidation.
It must be reported that at the wharf in Barranco, elements of the local Coast Guard were present, and again, they were present when the Belizeans returned; but there were no BDF, Coast Guard or police with the Belizeans at the Sarstoon to stop the intimidation and harassment of the aggressive Guatemalan navy in our territory.
Tonight, it was reported that the Guatemalan media reported that Belize wanted to take the island, which was not theirs, but had been stopped.
The Belize National Security Council (NSC), for their part, sent out a shameless press release, “expressing its profound satisfaction that the expedition ended without major incident.”
The NSC said that “Nevertheless, there is confirmation by the Organization of American States (OAS) that four of the Belizean boats that approached the Sarstoon island did so by transiting not just the north, but the south channel of the river. Fortunately, the presence of the OAS and the diplomatic safety net that the Government of Belize had secured in collaboration with key allies as part of its contingency measures, succeeded in averting any major fallout from this no doubt inadvertent occurrence.
“Still, it causes the Council to reiterate the position it took on Friday: assertion and maintenance of sovereignty over the Sarstoon Island and our half of the river, is best left to the Belizean military and Belizean diplomats.
“The NSC offers its thanks to the OAS for the crucial role it played as this issue unfolded, and to the Ministries of National Security and Foreign Affairs for their continuing critical work in looking after Belize’s national interests.”
We don’t know what movie the NSC was watching, because no mention whatsoever was made of the aggression of the Guatemalan Navy against unarmed Belizeans and the illegal detention of the passengers onboard the last boat of the flotilla.
Some notables on the tour were Senator Lisa Shoman, who was riding in the same boat with Amandala personnel; Alfredo Ortega, president of the Belize Sugar Cane Farmers Association; attorney Richard “Dickie” Bradley; Charles X Hyde, Amandala Sports Editor; Giovanni Bracket of COLA; Nigel Petillo and other BGYEA executives; and attorney Audrey Matura, among many other brave Belizeans who went on the tour to demonstrate patriotism in the face of steady Government discouragement.