The Belize Territorial Volunteers, led by Wil Maheia made their first expedition to the Sarstoon River on August 16, 2015. Just four days before that expedition last year, whilst doing their reconnaissance of the area, they were confronted by Guatemalan Armed Forces. That, however, did not deter their plans and they along with about one hundred and sixty persons traversed the Sarstoon River despite discouragement from the Government of Belize. These trips to the Sarstoon have not been supported by the Government officials as they are saying that the situation need not be aggravated and is best handled by the military and Foreign Affairs Officials. It has been seven months since the BTV’s first trip to the Sarstoon and since then there have been some unwelcomed confrontations with the Guatemalan Armed Forces as well as an increase in confrontations and challenges for the Belize military personnel who are deployed to that area. It is uncertain that the BTV’s trips are contributing to the increase in tension but according to the Prime Minister of Belize it is a factor with all things considered. According to a document marked confidential and bearing the seal of the Belize Defense Force, there were a few confrontations prior to the signing of a Gentleman’s Agreement on June 6, 2007 but none of those had the level of aggression as is seen recently by the Guatemalans. Following the signing of that agreement 2008 was free of confrontations and 2009 had two incidents documented with the Guatemalan Army vessel blocking the path for the BDF boats. The years 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, according to the document did see encounters with the Guatemalans but those were described as cordial and without incident while the year 2014 saw no encounters. 2015, however, seems to be the year that the aggression began with the first documented as being July 12, 2015 when the BDF patrol was approached in a hostile manner. As it relates to that incident, the report states, quote, “reports of the Guatemalan Army vessel escorting the BDF vessel were again received ….. which was believed to have been triggered by the GA’s previous encounter with the Belize Coast Guard on May 31, 2015 and the Belize Territorial Volunteers’ activities within the area.” End of quote. In yesterday’s interview with the Prime Minister following a meeting of the National Security Council, he was clear that the BTV’s activities are partly to blame for the escalation of aggression from the Guatemalans.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the stepping up in Guatemalan rhetoric, the ratcheting up of their position is directly related to all that has taken place with respect to the Sarstoon and the visits and expeditions and excursions well-meaning on the part of civilians designed to assist the military, which needs no assistance in terms of Belize’s position. As far as I know this is the first time the Guatemalans have said “We are going to stop the Belize Defense Force from traversing that river.” In my view there is a direct causal link. Nobody is suggesting that before these incidents they were not, we refer to them as little difficulties, maybe more than little difficulties we spoke about their trying to shadow our people from time to time but what has changed is that I have not in my time known of any official position on the part of Guatemala saying that “Your BDF people will not be allowed to go up the Sarstoon.” That is recent, we are trying to deal with it now, that has happened in my view partly in consequence of what has been taking place at the Sarstoon.”
As we mentioned earlier, since the start of the BTV’s Expeditions, the Government of Belize has frowned upon them and has appealed on several occasions for them to , cease and desist. The volunteers, however, persisted and at one point, were even joined by former Senator, Lisa Shoman. Shoman did do her media rounds regarding her trip to the Sarstoon and so did the Opposition Party under the Fonseca administration using that platform and the Belize/Guatemala issue to criticize the Government and especially the Foreign Minister. The Northern Territorial Volunteers had also met with Prime Minister Barrow whereby the Prime Minister appealed to them and attempted to compromise so as to avoid any further tensions in the south. The BTV’s expedition had also led to a standoff with the Organization of American States in early March 2015 when the OAS issued a report that was contrary to what the BTV believed. As for the aggression of the Guatemalan Armed Forces, it has shown and been documented that the encounters have taken place as a result of Belize military being approached by the Guatemalans and Belize taking the diplomatic road in dealing with the incidents. As a matter of fact, the Guatemalan Armed Forces had also taken on the Organization of American States on August 16, 2015 when they were traveling in their boat with written authorization from both Belize and Guatemala. As we reported earlier this week, the entire issue has now been internationalized and the officials in the US and the United Kingdom have been apprised of the situation. A meeting took place today under the auspices of the OAS with both Belize and Guatemala officials, namely, Wilfred Elrington and Assad Shoman for Belize. It is uncertain as to whether the Government will issue a release on the outcome of today’s meeting but we will keep following the progress of the situation.