Headline — 21 September 2018 — by Rowland A. Parks
Guatemalan aggression in the Sarstoon, but Hon. Saldivar blames BTV

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Sept. 19, 2018– Last Saturday, the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) held their third annual Eco Challenge, with the route of the race being from Barranco, a village in the Toledo District, to the Sarstoon Island and back to Barranco.

The kayakers were to paddle around the island, but that didn’t happen. Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) prevented the kayakers from doing so by blocking their path with gunboats. This extremely provocative move took place despite the presence of Belize’s Forward Operating Base on the north bank of the Sarstoon River.

The official response from the Ministry of National Security, headed by Hon. John Saldivar, was not to denounce, in the strongest possible terms, Guatemala’s lawless, naked aggression against Belize’s territorial integrity.

Instead, Saldivar fired off a press release blaming BTV leader Wil Maheia for the Guatemalan reaction to Belizeans on the Sarstoon River.

“Belizeans are repeatedly advised to check in with the Belize Defence Force at the FOB before proceeding up the river,” Saldivar’s Ministry of National Security press release said. “The FOB has on several occasions gone as far as escorting civilians that are in the area doing legitimate business. Although totally aware of the proper procedure, Mr. Maheia did not observe them on both occasions and instead proceeded along the river without a BDF escort and without informing them of his intentions, whereupon the GAF seized on the opportunity to restrain the group,” the release went on to state.

“At that stage, the situation could have become volatile if the BDF had intervened. To avoid such situations, the BDF prefers to provide escort from the outset; however, Mr. Maheia never stopped in to alert the FOB of his intentions,” said the release.

According to the release, then, because Maheia and his group did not “check in” with the BDF, they could do nothing to protect them when the kayakers were accosted and menaced by the Guatemalan soldiers, even though the event took place in Belizean waters.

The Ministry of National Security also said in its release that there were two other “Eco-Challenge” events in the Sarstoon, and those went without any incident.

“On the matter of the kayakers being intervened by GAF and prevented from circling the Sarstoon Island on September 15th, it is important to recollect that elements of the GAF, many times act without restraint towards civilians and interfere with Belizeans traversing the river. This action is illegal and a contravention of international law. The Ministry, therefore, consistently protests these actions, and through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has done so with respect to this latest incident,” stated the ministry in its release.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a diplomatic protest note to Guatemala, which it shared with the media today, Wednesday, at a signing ceremony at its Belize City office.

“Once again, [the Belizean government] protests in the strongest terms this blatant violation of Belize’s territorial integrity caused by the incursion of uniformed and armed members of the Guatemalan Army into Belizean waters, their unfriendly and their illegal prevention of the right of Belizean vessels and citizens to peacefully and freely navigate the Sarstoon River,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs note of protest said.

The note added, “These deliberate actions by the Guatemalan Army to violate Belize’s territorial integrity, to intimidate and harass and endanger the safety of Belizeans in Belize at the Sarstoon River are unfriendly and provocative acts, and are detrimental to the otherwise friendly relations that the two countries are seeking to build, especially at a time when both governments have signed a commitment to settle any and all claims that Guatemala may have against Belize on the basis of international law, subject to the will of our peoples. Such actions by the Guatemalan Army do not help to foster Belizean confidence.”

Belize’s NGO community weighed in on Saturday’s GAF aggression in the Sarstoon River, in a press release it issued yesterday, Tuesday, under the banner of the Belize Network of NGOs.

In that press release, titled “BNN Concerned about GAF’s Continued Encroachment into Belizean Territory”, the NGO network stated, “The Belize Network of NGOs (BNN) expresses its grave concern at the encroachment of Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) into Belizean territory over the past weekend. This act of belligerence by the GAF has become commonplace, and endangers the safety of Belizean citizens who have all the right to move freely within Belizean territory.”

The release added, “The BNN is extremely concerned about this clear violation of our territorial integrity and sovereignty by the GAF, a sentiment that we expressed exactly a year ago. We, again, strongly urge the Government of Belize to immediately send a strong protest note to the Government of Guatemala, and to inform the world community and international organizations such as the (OAS) about these continued acts of aggression by the Guatemalan armed forces.”

The BTV held a press conference this morning and seated at the head table were the leader of the BTV, Wil Maheia; the leader of the Belize PEACE Movement, Robert “Bobby” Lopez; and the leader of the Northern Territorial Volunteers, Giovanni De La Fuente. The three leaders went on to explain what had transpired on the Sarstoon River on Saturday.

Maheia told the media that on Friday they stopped at the FOB and informed the BDF that they would be there the next day, Saturday, “doing our race.” Maheia said: “During a race- – if you have a cross country race, you can’t stop and talk to police. You have to focus on the race. We know that there was race going on. We informed the day before. Plus, every media house in this country had announced that the race would take place. They know about the race because the day before, we went to scout out the area, and we put a flag on the Sarstoon Island, and on the way back, we informed the BDF that tomorrow, the race is tomorrow. Plus, the week before that, both Coast Guard and BDF were informed of the race. I met them in Barranco, and told them that we would be having the race the 15th. In fact, we even invited them to participate in one of the activities we had, which was the football competition.”

Maheia was asked to respond to the criticism from some members of the public that they have been endangering Belizean lives through these encounters with the Guatemalan military, stationed at the mouth of the Sarstoon River.

Maheia responded: “My answer to those people is that we, the Territorial Volunteers, we love Belize. And we have not taken a gun to anyone’s head and say ‘you must come with us’. People come with us freely. We have never ever forced anyone to come with us. And I believe that it is time for Belizeans to stand up and defend 8867. We are singing right now, everything you see is 8867. But is it really 8867? Because the Sarstoon Island is not part of that, not anymore, and the Sarstoon River is not there. It’s totally controlled by the Guatemalans.”

Robert “Bobby” Lopez, leader of the Belize PEACE (Patriots Engaged Against Corruption and Exploitation) Movement, expressed solidarity with the BTV and denounced the Guatemalan aggression.

Lopez said, “The Belize PEACE Movement joins the BTV in condemning and denouncing this act of aggression against our people. It is also a violation of our constitutional right to freedom of movement within all of Belize. And in doing so, our government should have been there protecting them. And again, we say kudos to the Coast Guard, but we sure are a little disappointed, in fact very disappointed in our BDF.”

 The Northern Territorial Volunteers leader, De La Fuente, declared: “Belizeans, it is time that we take stock and look at what is happening in our country. We have been moving from one point of weakness to another. We are now at a point in our history where we can no longer safely go to the Sarstoon River. The Guatemalan Armed Forces will exert their occupation in the Sarstoon. I would daresay that they have effectively occupied the Sarstoon. It may or it may not bother you. You might be in the safety of the Corozal District, or the safety of Belize City, and say, well, I don’t know. Wil Maheia and his crowd go down to Sarstoon. I don’t know why they don’t just cool off. Belizeans, we’re losing Belize a little by little.”

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