The third annual Sarstoon Eco Challenge kayak race was held on Saturday in the one section of the country that has been a hot zone of aggression for the past few years from our neighbor, Guatemala. The border at Benque remains calm and a source of commerce and trade with the bordering town Melchor. It’s a stark contrast to the Sarstoon where any Belizean movement is normally targeted by aggressive Guatemalan Armed Forces and gunboats accompanied by yelling of ‘respeten el protocolo’. So it was no surprise that an international incident occurred when the Belize Territorial Volunteers, tried to go up the creek with only paddles. The Guatemalan gunboats attempted to cut in front of the kayakers and forced them to turn around. That resulted in a press conference held by the Belize Peace Movement, the Northern Territorial Volunteers and the Belize Territorial Volunteers. This conglomerate of NGO’s essentially accused the Belize Defense Force (BDF) of not assisting them and though they claimed they informed the BDF of their actions to have a kayak race, the Minister of National Security John Saldivar says he stands by the report coming from the BDF stationed in the area that refutes the claim. While Saldivar denies there is any protocol between Belize and Guatemala for the Sarstoon, he says there is one for Belizeans to check in with the BDF and that the conglomerate of NGO’s namely BTV, NTV and BPM did not do.
John Saldivar, Minister of National Security: “Clearly we are concerned about the Guatemalan activity in and on that river, it’s a clear violation of international law with respect to observing our sovereignty and territorial integrity and that is the reason we have protested. At all times that this has happened we have had the Ministry of Foreign Affairs send a note to the Guatemalans about their actions in their actions.”
Reporter: The Belize Territorial Volunteers had their Sarstoon Eco Challenge and they made a big deal about not receiving any support from what we perceive as adverse reaction from the Guatemalan armed forces what is your response to all of these various groups?
John Saldivar, Minister of National Security: “I think we’ve made it clear already that we understand that there are elements from the Guatemalan armed forces that seem to be dead set on occasionally interrupting Belizean passage through the Sarstoon River. We have therefore come up with a protocol from our side that we believe that the Belizeans should observe so that we can secure their security in passing through the Sarstoon River. On those two particular occasions, the volunteers did not check in as we have been requiring of them and it resulted in a confrontation with the Guatemalans which we regret and which we have already sent a note protesting to the Guatemalan government.”
Reporter: Do you feel these groups are perhaps doing this, perhaps that they have political motivations being that they are aware of the protocol that the BDF has in place?
John Saldivar, Minister of National Security: “Well one can come to that conclusion they would have to more explain why they are doing it contrary to what we have asked them to do and we feel that if they do follow the protocol we’ve established the BDF and the Coast Guard in the area are able to secure their right to pass through the river. We’ve done it on many occasions including with the leader of the volunteers who has previously been escorted by the BDF up that river without incident.”
Reporter: The BTV has flatly denied what was issued in that press release saying that they’ve asked the BDF for support not once or twice but I believe three times.
John Saldivar, Minister of National Security: “I am not aware and I stand to be corrected if they can show any documentary proof that they did. I am not aware that they did and certainly the report that we got from the BDF stationed at the FOB is that they simply passed by and waved and did not stop in to talk with the soldiers there.”
Love News confirmed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the protest note had been forwarded through proper channels including informing the OAS about the protest note sent to Guatemala. While the Minister of National Security was diplomatic and avoided calling the BTV, NTV and BPM outright liars, the Minister of Foreign Affairs was not kind to them either. He called them reckless, irresponsible and perverse for taking women and children to the hot zone.
Wilfred Elrington, Minister of Foreign Affairs: “The Guatemalans have thousands and thousands and thousands, they have air force, they have tanks, they have paratroopers, they have all kinds of military hardware and it is not that we are afraid of them but we have to respect them, you have to respect might.”
Reporter: Do you think that the Belize Territorial Volunteers is purposely being provocative and pushing a political agenda with their actions in the Sarstoon without checking in?
Wilfred Elrington, Minister of Foreign Affairs: “Personally I think the activities are perverse. I cannot conceive how you know that if you take innocent females and children on the river you are likely to collide with the Guatemalans – the Guatemalans have a terrible history of killing their own people during the 70s and 80s they killed over 300,000 of their own people- a terrible civil war so they are battle hardened. To my mind it is reckless it is irresponsible for anybody to be carrying children and people in an area where you know you are likely to come in contact with them. Then we have a protocol you know. We established a protocol to secure them when you going notify the military that you are going to be going up the river so that they could give you a little measure of support that we can offer. They don’t do that, seek the sneak by them as if it’s a game they are playing, but it’s a deadly game – it’s a child playing with matches in a dry forest. Fire goes off easy to start but you can’t end it and it burns up everybody in the process. That is what we are so concerned about that is what concerns people like me I can’t sleep in the night because I am worried. What happens if in fact they start a conflict down there between the BDF and the Guatemalans ? In a few moments, the Guatemalans can have a few thousand military people there how many can we muster? What will the consequence be ?”
Leader of the Opposition, John Briceno expressed disappointment in the government’s handling of the situation.
John Briceno, Opposition Leader: “We are very disappointed and we have been calling out the government for a very long time that we need to have a Sarstoon protocol. When we were actively involved in the work along with Guatemala we were pushing for us to sign a protocol. We prepared the first draft of that protocol but it seems that it’s not going anywhere. I think that as a government we can do more, I think we can put more pressure on Guatemala and to make sure that maybe we need to spread this out beyond Guatemala and Belize and making sure that all the friends of Belize and all the countries as well in the United Nations are aware of the illegal behavior of Guatemala trying to take a portion of the Sarstoon river that we know and they know rightfully belongs to Belize. As I said many times over and over the position of the People’s United Party is that we are not going to give a single inch of territory to Guatemala.”