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GAF remove Belize flags from Sarstoon Island

HeadlineGAF remove Belize flags from Sarstoon Island

by Marco Lopez

PUNTA GORDA, Toledo District, Wed. Sept. 21, 2022 

On Sunday, September 18, the Belize Territorial Volunteers’ (BTV) annual trip to Sarstoon Island to commemorate Belize’s independence was met with military aggression from the Guatemalan Armed Forces(GAF). A contingent of five Guatemalan army vessels, which had been trailing the boats on which the Belizeans were traveling, entered Belizean territory illegally and seized Belizean flags planted on Sarstoon Island by the participants on the trip, many of whom were children (Scouts members) from Colombia village in Toledo. This latest act of military hostility by the Guatemalan military was the most explicit revelation yet of exactly what stance Guatemala has taken in regard to the ownership of Sarstoon Island and the surrounding river.

Wil Maheia, leader of the BTV, has indicated that the GAF seemed to have known they were coming, since they met the BTV’s five boats just before they reached the mouth of the river, telling them they could not enter the Sarstoon. Maheia pointed out to local reporters during a Zoom press conference after the incident, however, that because the Belizeans were on five vessels, the GAF could not stop all of them—even though they attempted to physically block their passage.

“Thank God we had several boats, so it was hard for them to block all of us. We then pushed on and entered the river and proceeded to the island. All this time they trying to stop us,” Maheia recounted.

Cellphone video footage of the encounter shows the standoff that took place before the group of about 60 made it to the island. 

“Estoy en Guatemala,” one of the members of the GAF said, as the BTV boats attempted to advance towards the island. “No this is Belizean territory, guys,” Maheia replied. “Rio Sarstoon es territorio de Guatemala,” one GAF soldier then repeated. 

This continued for some time before the five boats from the BTV were able to make it to the island, where the BTV members sang the National Anthem and planted the flags. 

“After much back and forth, we eventually pushed our way through to the island where they seem to have gotten really mad. But despite that, we gathered on the island, and the flag was planted. Then we began to sing the national anthem, and you can see them boiling. Immediately after we sang the national anthem and our boat drifted away, they pushed in and rushed to tear down our flag. They then put our flag in their boat,” Maheia reported to the media following the incident.

The two Belizean flags which were planted by the BTV, one at the front of the island and another a bit further into the interior, were both taken by the GAF and never returned, despite the repeated demands by Maheia and the group.

“Please leave,” one Guatemalan soldier told the group as Maheia demanded the return of the flags. “No, give me my flag. You want me to leave, give me my flag,” Maheia replied. “You will be in diplomatic trouble if you don’t leave,” the soldier retorted. 

“You came here and took down our flag from our island. That is ridiculous, and I want my flag. That’s my flag for my country, I want my flag,” Maheia told the soldier. 

The GAF soldier answered, “You put your flag in my country, we are friendly … Sarstoon River belongs to Guatemala.”

Maheia and the other BTV members then sought the assistance of a joint patrol from the Belize Defence Force (BDF) and the Coast Guard (BCG), who then went to the area, after receiving the formal complaint.

In reference to the response of the joint patrol, a Government of Belize press release that was issued this week stated, “Mr. Wil Maheia, leader of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, informed the joint patrol that they had placed two Belizean National Flags on the Sarstoon Island, which members of the Guatemalan Armed Forces later removed. The Guatemalans informed the joint patrol that the entire area belongs to Guatemala; however, the joint patrol commander informed the Guatemalan Armed Forces that they were in Belizean territory and that they should leave.”

During a Zoom press conference on Tuesday, Maheia, who is also a standard bearer for the Belize Progressive Party (BPP), recalled, “We pointed to the Guatemalan boat that had our flags, and the Coast Guard and the BDF proceeded to their boat. They told the Guatemalan officers that they needed to return our flag. They told the BDF and Coast Guard that they were not going to return any flag, because that flag was planted in Guatemalan territory. The Coast Guard was right there to know that we did not hit the Guatemalan mainland. We only went on to the island. So, the Coast Guard insisted that they give us our flag, and they insisted that they’re not gonna give us our flag. At this time, the sea is getting rougher. So, I said, ‘You know what, in the interest of safety, we better pull out.’ So, we pulled out and headed back to Punta Gorda.”

The five boats with children and other members of the BTV made it back to Punta Gorda at about noon on Sunday. The Guatemala vessels departed shortly after as well, with the Belizean flag still in their possession.

On Wednesday, during Prime Minister John Briceño’s Independence Day speech, he informed the country that the Belizean flag was at the Belize Embassy in Guatemala. The Opposition, however, has released a statement following the incident calling for the immediate return of the Belizean flag taken by the GAF and the leader of the opposition, Hon. Shyne Barrow, reiterated this in his own speech during the day’s ceremony. 

“When the United Democratic Party government established the forward operating base near the Sarstoon Island, it was to protect Belizeans’ right to navigate the area, deter transnational illegal activity and assert ownership over our entire territory. The United Democratic Party expresses extreme pride in the bravery of our men and women in uniform who confront the Guatemalan Armed Forces in defense of our Belizean navigators time and time again,” the release from the UDP said. 

The Forward Operating Base at the Sarstoon is becoming submerged as a result of coastal erosion that has compromised the stability of the base’s main building, which has since been evacuated until the completion of a feasibility study and the construction of a new base. As a result of the relocation of the soldiers who had been stationed on the island to Barranco Village, the military presence in the area is now 15 minutes away. The Belizean military had served as a safeguard and deterrent to Guatemala’s military aggression in the area and encroachment from Guatemalan nationals. 

Neville Smith, a boat captain who had accompanied the BTV on the trip to Sarstoon Island, has stated that he considers the removal of the military presence from the Sarstoon a slap in the face. 

“I believe that having the military, the BDF, move from the Sarstoon base over to Barranco was a slap in the eye, or a punch in the eye, based on the fact that Guatemala actually sees that as a win. I also believe that the last time we went down to the Sarstoon, and we didn’t get harassed, that was based on the military that we have was actually present there. Now, we have no military there. So, we took the hit that we took this time,” Smith said.

A release from the Government of Belize stated, “The Ministry of National Defence and Border Security wishes to inform the public that the joint deployment continues to conduct regular patrols from Barranco Village to the Sarstoon Island, and remains vigilant to ensure the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Belize.”

Despite the Prime Minister’s statement that the flags are currently at the Belizean Embassy in Guatemala, there has been no indication whether any efforts are being made by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs or National Defence to have the flags taken by the Guatemalan military returned to Belizean soil.

Maheia, when speaking to local reporters during a Zoom press conference, pointed out that he was shocked when the Guatemalan soldiers asserted that Sarstoon Island belongs to Guatemala. 

“I was struck when they insisted that, look, Sarstoon Island belongs to Guatemala. That’s what they were — they kept saying that. And I was saying ‘no, the river is for both of us’. And they were saying, ‘no, the Belize Border is actually from the banks of the Sarstoon River. So, go back over there.’ This is in broad daylight. The video evidence is there. We made a complaint to the Belize Defence Force. The footage shows where Guatemalans came into Belize’s territory and stole our flag. We hope that our government will do whatever is in its means to get back our flag. If we don’t, we will look weak as a country. Today, they take Sarstoon Island. Tomorrow, they could take Barranco. The next day they could take Punta Gorda, if we show such weakness,” Maheia said. 

The Government of Belize submitted its counter-memorial to the International Court of Justice in response to Guatemala’s territorial claim on June 3 of this year. At this time, only a few are privy to the details of Guatemala’s Memorial and Belize’s Counter-Memorial, since the court rules forbid any disclosures of the pleadings from either party. Prime Minister Briceño has reassured

Belizeans, however, that a strong case has been submitted for Belize. 

A date for an oral hearing can be set as soon as 2024, following Guatemala’s response to Belize’s counter-memorial, which is due this December, and a rejoinder from Belize by June 2023, which should mark the end of the period of written pleadings from the parties. Until a determination from the court is handed down, the parties are bound by the 2005 Confidence- Building Measures which stipulate that the Guatemalan government must dissuade its citizens from crossing into Belize illegally. The Guatemala government has, however, refused to come to an agreement on the matter of the Sarstoon, as pointed out by Prime Minister Briceño in a June 2022 comment. 

“The Guatemalan government has refused to abide by repeated commitment to negotiate Confidence Building Measures regarding the Sarstoon River in defiance of appeals by international bodies. Again, we urge the government of Guatemala to put into effect its undertaking the agreed CBM for the Sarstoon,” the Prime Minister had said.

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