BELIZE CITY, Wed. Aug. 19, 2015–More than 72 hours after Guatemalan navy boats made incursions into Belizean territorial waters in the Sarstoon River, where they accosted over 130 heroic Belizeans inA an expedition led by the Belize Territorial Vaolunteers (BTV) to Sarstoon Island, located at the southern tip of Belize, Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow called a press conference today, Wednesday, the same day government received a report from OAS “observers,” who had failed to mention the incursion, and who were also intercepted by the Guatemalan navy in Belize territorial waters.
PM Barrow told the media that he had sent an “an extremely strong protest note” to the Guatemalan government about its navy’s incursion into Belizean waters and its interception of Belizean boats going to Sarstoon Island.
“Any unwitting Belizean entry into Guatemala by unarmed, civilian boats is of a different order completely from the deliberate violation committed against us by a presumably well-armed Guatemalan Navy. An extremely strong protest note has therefore been prepared by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was approved just now by NSC [National Security Council] for immediate dispatch to the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry with a copy to the OAS,” Barrow said.
PM Barrow, however, declined to make public the substance of the note, only saying that its contents were “extremely strong.”
Notwithstanding his refusal to provide the Belizeans who joined the expedition with national security force protection, however, PM Barrow hailed the patriotic BTV expedition as “inspirational” when he made the announcement that Guatemalan navy boats had indeed made incursions into Belize territorial waters, a claim that Foreign Minister Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington spoke of quite dismissively on Monday, when he told Amandala that he did not take the word of the Belizean media as gospel, but would await the OAS observers’ report.
Prime Minister Barrow, who had met earlier today with the National Security Council (NSC), indicated that the conclusion that the Guatemalan navy did make an incursion into Belize was made based on observation of Belize media footage and reports from the BTV expedition on Sunday, which were relayed to him by Ambassador Stuart Leslie.
“The OAS reports that even the four small Belizean boats were at first intercepted by the Guatemalans before they were able to proceed towards the island. And both that temporary interception of the small boats and the permanent interception of the bigger boat took place, as I understand, Ms. Talamas, [the OAS observer], at the mouth of the Sarstoon River.,” Barrow commented.
Barrow added, “It is my belief that what the OAS calls the mouth of the Sarstoon River, is clearly in Belizean waters, and that the Guatemalan Navy committed an incursion when they intercepted our boats at that spot. The Territorial Volunteers and the Belizean media confirm the fact of this incursion, and General Jones and Admiral Borland – after viewing video footage – fully concur. Now whether our four Volunteer (BTV) boats also went into Guatemala during the course of entering, circling and exiting the area of the island must remain unanswered for now. The Volunteers say no, and the OAS doesn’t say yes.”
“But regardless of what may later be established on that score, the Guatemalan incursion certainly happened first,” said Barrow.
Barrow went on to state, “Of course, several things arise from this – whether our military should have been present and acting as armed escort to the territorial volunteers, and whether, since there is talk of another civilian visit to the Sarstoon Island, government would alter its position and involve the BDF and the Coast Guard in any such second attempt. I say right off, that the answer to both questions is an unqualified no.”
Barrow said that Guatemala claims the Sarstoon River, but not in the same way that it claims other portions of our country. Their position, he said, is that what we know to be Belize never included the Sarstoon River, and that our border in that area stops at the bank of the river on the Belize side, so the entire island, Sarstoon, they argue, was always part of Guatemalan territory and recognized as belonging to them.
“We consider that to be completely wrong, and against both history and geography. We, therefore, unequivocally maintain that the boundary between the two countries is the mid-channel of the Sarstoon River from time immemorial, and stated in the 1859 Treaty. And we therefore continue to declare that we are sovereign over our half of the Sarstoon River. I say this, we mean this and we will never change this.
“And as it is with the Sarstoon, this territory is ours, the entire 8,867 square miles and our sovereignty over our country, which not only our military, but all of us are prepared to defend to the death, is unalterable, unshakable, immovable,” Barrow said.
Barrow further remarked, “With respect to the Sarstoon, we don’t just lay claim to our sovereignty; we act on it. Every Tuesday the Belize Defence Force takes a replacement contingent of soldiers up our side of the Sarstoon River to our military outpost at Cadenas, and brings back down the river the troops being rotated out from Cadenas. In doing this, and consistent with our assertion of sovereignty, we ask neither leave nor license from the Guatemalans.
“Indeed, our BDF are routinely challenged by the Guatemalans and, as happened just last Tuesday, frequently told to turn back.
“Our soldiers never retreat and are never deterred by these standoffs. They always complete their mission even when, as also happened last Tuesday, they are threatened by the Guatemalan navy with the ramming of their boat and/or a firefight.”
“In the circumstances, for anyone to claim that there is a sovereignty vacuum regarding our half of the Sarstoon, or that our troops are anything less than resolute and courageous in maintaining our sovereignty, does an intolerable disservice to the brave men and women of the Belize Defence Force and the Belize Coast Guard,” Barrow declared.
Barrow added that the BTV came to “a patently wrong conclusion” about the exercising of sovereignty by Belize over the Sarstoon River.
“Then, proceeding from this mistaken premise, they decided to show that they could fill what in reality was a non-existent void; that they should assert a sovereignty that, albeit seemingly unknown to them, was already being asserted by those both charged with, and capable of, doing the job: our Belizean military. That is how, as I see it, last Sunday’s expedition came about.” Barrow said.
He then went on to note, “Now I want to make clear that I perfectly understand and indeed applaud the sentiment that motivated the Territorial Volunteers. Their decision arose from feelings of patriotism that are not just commendable, but inspirational.
“Nevertheless, theirs was an incomplete grasp of the facts, a situation for which Government is perhaps at least partly to blame. As a result their actions, though well-intended, were wrong. For it cannot be right to insert any Belizean, but especially children, into a situation so fraught with danger.”
“In all the circumstances, therefore, we remain convinced that Government was right in withholding military accompaniment from the Volunteers. I have already described the tension and volatility inherent in the situation of our active dispute with Guatemala over the Sarstoon River. It gives rise to regular confrontations and standoffs between our military and theirs, which thankfully, so far have not erupted into any exchange of fire,” Barrow told the media.
The Prime Minister went on to explain that the situation is so dangerous that an unwittingly wrong move on the part of untrained civilians could “cause all hell to break loose with disastrous consequences for both military and civilians.”
“The Government of Belize was not this time, and will never be, willing to risk the uncontrollability of such an unstable mix of elements. So Government insists that there is no need for and no point in, any further Territorial Volunteer journey to the Sarstoon River and island. This is particularly the case because, after Sunday’s drama, the Guatemalans will likely be in an even more aggressive mode regarding their Tuesday encounters with the BDF,” Barrow highlighted.
“The state of tension overall regarding the Sarstoon River and island has undoubtedly been much heightened by these events, and it would now be infinitely more dangerous for the Territorial Volunteers to make a second sortie,” Barrow said.
Barrow said, nonetheless, that the government would put into effect its diplomatic efforts to safeguard the BTV if a repeat visit to Sarstoon Island is undertaken.
“If there is nevertheless a repeat visit against all advice and reason, Government will once more put into play all its diplomatic and non-military resources. We believe doing that, together with the fact that the expedition would again be seen and known to be of a purely civilian, unarmed character, would be enough to safeguard the Belizean citizens from harmful or disproportionate Guatemalan navy behavior,” he said.
The government’s reliance on its “diplomatic efforts,” however, did not restrain the Guatemalan navy from its aggression against Belize’s territorial integrity and its accosting of the unarmed BTV on Sunday. This may be because the civilian authorities in Guatemala are unable to control the military, which appears to act on its own whims and fancy.
If, as the Government of Belize claims, there was communication with the highest levels of the Guatemalan government, and the military was still able to disregard the diplomatic efforts and even intercepted the OAS observers’ boat in their determination to exert Guatemalan sovereignty over the Sarstoon River, then what is to say that “diplomatic efforts” will succeed in a second try?
“In the circumstances, we appeal to the Territorial Volunteers not to return. The point you thought necessary to make, has been made. Your courage and patriotism were on display for all Belize and the world to see. And no one was hurt. Let that be enough now, and for the sake of all, but especially the children, do not let us tempt fate a second time,” Barrow pleaded.