Chief of Staff, Lieutenant Colonel Ganney Dortch, told Amandala Thursday that the Belize Defence Force (BDF) will increase ground and air presence in western Toledo following reports of expanded xatéros activity by villagers of San Jose and Na Lum Cah.
Villagers had complained that people they suspect to be Guatemalan xatéros had stolen their horses and a donkey, and fire was seen coming from the area of Edwards Central, inside the Columbia River Forest Reserve, suggesting illegal clearings.
“An intense search of the area was conducted and no one was found,” said a rare press release issued this morning by BDF, Ministry of Defence. “To date, the BDF have not encountered any illegal activity as claimed,” the release added.
Dortch claimed that the military did two air reconnaissance missions and a foot patrol to investigate the reports.
“The air reconnaissance confirmed ‘slash and burn’ activities directly north of San Jose village owned by farmers of the village as opposed to the claim of large clearance or burning in the Edward Central Area,” Dortch reported, saying that the burnings they found were evidently from area residents. He also added that there is no one from the village that have witnessed anyone (xatéro) stealing any animals.
“The Chairman and residents of the area were encouraged, by the patrol, to report the issue for the police as it was deemed a police matter,” the release said.
On the other hand, there was evidence of suspect activities very close to the border: “The foot patrols encounter fresh tracks and footprints 7 km (approx 4.5 miles) east of the Belize/Guatemala border indicating human activities.”
It added that: “On the 24th [last Thursday], an area 9km (approx 5.5 miles) east of the Belize/Guatemala border, approximately 6 km (approx 3.75 miles) northwest of San Jose Village, revealed that there is indication of fresh xate harvesting in the area.”
Interestingly, it has been months since any arrest has been announced from the area for illegal incursions and xate activity, despite anecdotal reports that such activities continue unabated.
Seemingly responding to the concerns, the BDF release asserts, “It continues to monitor and take appropriate actions to stem reports of illegal activities in the San Jose/Edward Central Area, as reported in the media.” [Emphasis ours]
We clarify to Dortch that the reports went first to the Ministry of Defence – not the media – and we only got wind of it later. It was after the reports were published in the media that the investigative missions did their probes, and the BDF claimed that the weather caused delays in their plans.
The Ministry affirmed today that, “It must be reiterated that the BDF continues to maintain vigilance in the area and continues to address claims made by the media of illegal activities deep within Belize’s territory.”
Again, we emphasized to Dortch, that those reports did not originate with us. In fact, persons have come to our newsroom, including both civilians on the ground and conservation organizations who work in the field and who constantly see the evidence of continuing illegal activities spanning the Cayo and Toledo Districts, up to 35 miles inland, according to one NGO.
The BDF says that it mans several observation posts along the Belize-Guatemala border to monitor illegal activity, and as well work along with several conservation organizations. One such post, it says, is located 20 km (12 miles) Northwest of San Jose Hawai and approx 10 km (6 miles) Northwest of Edward Central.
In concluding, the Ministry of Defence says, “The Force continues to monitor the areas of concern and will take all necessary actions to detect, deny, deter and where possible detain those illegally operating in the area.”