BELIZE CITY, Wed. Sept. 28, 2022
According to the Belize Defence Force (BDF) Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Jermaine Burns, members of the BDF will be meeting their Guatemalan counterparts at a session that is routinely held under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS). At the top of the list of topics to be discussed will be the recent incursion into Belizean territory by the Guatemala Navy, which seized two Belizean flags planted on Sarstoon Island by the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), who placed the flags on the island during an annual ceremony carried out by the BTV to celebrate Belize’s independence. According to Wil Maheia, who had led the BTV group to the island, the Guatemalan soldiers, who had tried to block the passage of their boats, had asserted that the island is the property of Guatemala. Burns said, however, that this incident is out of the ordinary, since the GAF has for the most part maintained a neutral presence in the last few years.
“We have Cadenas there at the very end of the Sarstoon and that our most southern conservation post on top of that hill, and so every other week we must patrol the Sarstoon to change over manpower there. We’ve never had any issues with the GAF, so it’s surprising. It’s almost like they had something against Wil, you know, for them to have accosted him and his crew,” Burns commented. Notably, it is Lt. Col. Burns who will be heading the BDF delegation to Guatemala, and he has already stated his intention to mention the incident to the GAF (Guatemalan Armed Forces).
“We’ll see where the discussion will go in respect to what they have to say about it, because [we] haven’t had a flare-up like this in as much as two, three years, so it is a concern and we didn’t expect this out of them,” Burns said.
It has been suggested that the absence of Belizean soldiers at the Forward Operating Base (FOB) on Sarstoon Island, due to coastal erosion that prompted the relocation of soldiers who were stationed there to a base in Barranco, has emboldened the GAF to assert military force over the area. Lt. Col. Burns, noted, however, that although BDF soldiers do not sleep at the FOB at night, the soldiers do go to the base on the island every day. As mentioned, the current arrangement became necessary due to erosion of the ground on which the foundation posts of the front of the FOB building are located, which has compromised the structural stability of the building—thus placing the soldiers’ well-being at risk. According to Burns, however, the government has assessed the area and is in the process of selecting a contractor to carry out rehabilitation works.
“I can assure you, as we speak, there are men in the Sarstoon and at the FOB, they leave from Barranco at first light and they leave from the FOB at last light, and I know the plans for the rehabilitation of the FOB are well on the way. I think it is at the point where they are sourcing a contractor now and get out there and finish up. So that is what to hasten on, to get our men back out there, patrolling the Sarstoon as we have been. I don’t know if that gave the Guatemala Armed Forces a false sense of our security there, that in fact, they thought that we pulled out, so we are no longer interested in the Sarstoon. I hope that is not the case,” Burns said.
Burns went on to commend the calm demeanor of the BTV group, and said that he hopes that the actions of the GAF were not an attempt to provoke acts of aggression by the group.
“It’s strange, something … I don’t know if it was provoking, if they were trying to provoke our civilians or what the case was, but they know from the military standpoint our approach won’t be aggressive. I don’t know if they thought they could have aggressed the civilians to try and get them to a level of aggression where they would have done something, and then provoked the GAF to react, almost like they were baiting the civilians. And I hope that is not the case,” Burns noted.
The meeting with the GAF, which takes place tomorrow, will hopefully shed some light on the state of mind of the group of Guatemalan soldiers who confronted the BTV group that day, and who can be seen in cellphone video footage (captured by the BTV) insisting that Sarstoon Island belongs to Guatemala.
“I saw those videos, and, just like you, I am equally alarmed, and I am eager to hear the answers from the practitioners tomorrow in Guatemala, the guys that are actually the bosses of those that are on the ground. Because there will be representatives from the maritime element at this meeting tomorrow. Now, what is being said at the diplomatic level, I’m not sure. I haven’t been privy to that,” Burns said, adding that he is sure that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been engaging its counterpart in Guatemala.
This week, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Eamon Courtenay, told 7News that they have verbally protested the illegal incursion into Belizean waters by the Guatemala military, and that they have also “lodged a strongly worded written protest.” He also said that the flags that were taken by the GAF would be placed back in Belizean custody today and that Prime Minister Briceño briefed the OAS Secretary General personally on the matter yesterday. Hon. Courtenay further indicated that he has invited the foreign minister of Guatemala to meet in Lima, Peru, next week to discuss the incident and other matters.
Those matters are to include the incursion on Belizean land by residents of an adjacent village on the Guatemala side of the border, Barrio El Juda. For some years now, Guatemala nationals from the village have been crossing over into Belizean territory, which is located about 20 miles from the Xunantunich archeological site. Some buildings erected by the villagers on Belizean land have been dismantled with the permission of the OAS, but more structures are being placed in the area, and clearings are being seen.
At this time, no illegal cattle ranching is taking place in the area, but other parts of land near the border are used as pastures illegally. Recently, the Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) and BDF met to devise a strategy to address this issue of illegal cattle ranching in Belizean territory, which has been carried out to a large extent in protected areas for a number of years.