BELIZE CITY, Tues. Apr. 2, 2019– Apart from Guatemalan civilians’ incursions on the western border, the Sarstoon River in the area of the Forward Operating Base (FOB) has become a flashpoint for the Guatemalan Armed Forces’ (GAF) violation of Belize’s territorial integrity. This is a matter for which the government’s response appears to be inadequate, even cowardly, some would say. Belizeans recall that Prime Minister Dean Barrow withdrew a Coast Guard team from Sarstoon Island, where they were on a reconnaissance mission for locating a spot to set up the FOB in 2015, when they got involved in a standoff with the GAF.
Barrow’s decision to withdraw the Belize Coast Guard from the island and his subsequent Statutory Instrument in 2016, prohibiting Belizeans from traveling on the river, may have emboldened the GAF in their activities on the Belize side of the Sarstoon River—until yesterday when Belizean military personnel at the FOB stood their ground in defense of Belizeans’ right to traverse the river.
The first inkling that something had happened on the Sarstoon River came yesterday at 9:42 a.m., when the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) leader, Wil Maheia, posted a brief message in a WhatsApp chat group, saying: “Things got hot on the Sarstoon today.”
“The GAF told me, you are not going around that island today,” Maheia told Amandala in a telephone interview this afternoon.
Maheia explained that the GAF officer, with guns at the ready, asked him, “Who gave you permission to be over here?”
“I replied: ‘this da Belize’; and he replied: ‘no, this is Guatemala’,” Maheia said.
While his boat was intercepted by the GAF, almost in front of Belize’s FOB, the Belize Defence Force soldiers and Coast Guard stationed there were observing what was taking place and decided to get in their boat and move closer toward the GAF and Maheia’s boat.
“We deh deh di argue for a good five to ten minutes” Maheia said.
Maheia told us he responded to the GAF, saying, “I am going around this island, and unnu noh wahn “f” wid me today.”
When the Coast Guard vessel got closer, an officer asked Maheia what was going on. Maheia explained that the GAF had told him that he was in Guatemala.
“I did not know that the border line had changed,” Maheia said he remarked to the Belize Coast Guard.
“No, no border line noh change,” Maheia said the Coast Guard told him. The Coast Guard officer then asked: “Where do you want to go?”
Maheia said he replied, “Around this island.”
“Proceed,” Maheia said the Coast Guard instructed.
Maheia said that after he was instructed to proceed he decided to put his boat in forward, and by the time he did that, another GAF boat came up. He said, “The GAF on that boat was on the radio all the time this was going on.”
Maheia said that when he moved the boat forward, the GAF boat moved forward too, but the Coast Guard told him they would not stop him. “If they want to bump your boat, let them go ahead, but they will not stop you!” Maheia said the officer told him.
Maheia explained that the Guatemalan gunboats had about ten men each, while the Belize Coast Guard boat had about five or six men.
The Coast Guard apparently called for backup, and “Before you know it, the BDF haul up in their boat. Their boat is the ‘metal shark’, like the Guatemalans,” Maheia said.
We asked Maheia how many men were on the BDF boat.
“Boy, it was between six to eight BDF,” he replied excitedly.
“The BDF told the GAF, ‘this man deh eena Belize’,” Maheia said. From there Maheia and his group completed the circle around the Sarstoon Island.
“With our mission accomplished, we thanked the BDF and the Coast Guard, as the Guatemalans retreated to their side of the river,” Maheia explained.
We asked Maheia how many persons were on his boat and what the purpose of going on the Sarstoon was.
“There were six of us on the boat and we went out as Belize Territorial Volunteers to monitor the river for illegal fishing,” Maheia disclosed.
Maheia had a lot of praise for the bravery and professionalism that Belize’s military personnel demonstrated in protecting him and his colleagues on the Sarstoon River, for holding their ground in the defense of the territorial integrity of Belize. He told KREM’s WUB hosts this morning that Belizeans should salute the men and women in uniform today.