The Belize Territorial Volunteers’ Sarstoon expedition to commemorate the signing of the 1859 Treaty which defines Belize’s borders, garnered wide public attention with the Government trying to dissuade leader of the BTV, Wil Maheia from carrying out the expedition but Maheia forged on. On Friday, government introduced a Statutory Instrument making it illegal for any Belizean to traverse the Belize side of the Sarstoon River without proper authorization. Still, the BTV decided they would carry out their expedition. But on Saturday morning, there would ultimately be no such expedition to the Sarstoon River. The BTV and crowd, amounting to about 70 people, were met with another surprise as the boats chartered by the BTV were led away by Coast Guard personnel and the boat captains- detained. Maheia shared his views.
“As it is right now our boat when we entered the wharf our boat was here waiting for us and then all of a sudden we just got escorted, when we were getting on the dock we were blocked from getting on the dock, when we were getting here our boats were at the docks but all of a sudden they moved off the dock. I couldn’t see inside the boat, it looked like some military personnel boarded our civilian boat that was going to take us down. We know that the three captains that were coming out of PG they were turned back and detained. The boats that we had in Barranco that were waiting for us those suddenly left, apparently some military personnel boarded those boats and they drifted off just to the line of sight. I absolutely expected nothing like this, we were going not to the Sarstoon. I could understand that the Military be at the mouth of the Sarstoon so we can’t because the SI specifically did not say from Barranco it said from the Sarstoon. We can’t even go to the Temash, in fact we can’t even go on the Baranco Dock right now and the SI only covers the Sarstoon so I have no idea why we are being prevented from going on the dock or why our boats were turned back.”
Commander Elton Bennett from the Coast Guard explained what happened and why the boat captains were detained, citing that as the Coast Guard checked the boats to see that they were properly secured to sail, there were minor infractions.
“We received information yesterday that the Coast Guard would be required to conduct safety and security operations somewhere between Punta Gorda and Baranco. We understand that the BTV had plans to depart Branco and it’s the Coast Guard’s responsibility to ensure that those vessels were seaworthy. We commenced operations this morning and so far we’ve detained three vessels all for maritime safety offences. Those three vessels were detained and taken back to Punta Gorda. The offences ranged from lack of fire extinguisher, lack of life jackets, no sea worthiness certificates, not master’s license and we cannot allow those vessels to sail with that amount of people, it’s unsafe and that is exactly what we did this morning. Apparently there was one person that was detained because he didn’t have any documents at all. So far just the three vessels were detained, the individuals who were operating those vessels were not detained except for that one individual who we wanted to do further investigation on. He was operating a vessel with no master’s license and he had no identification card on him and so the police detained him and they will be doing follow up investigations. He was not arrested he was detained similarly to how the vessels were detained.”
The sudden changes left many wondering if the detention of the captains was an attempt to stop the BTV from carrying out the expedition. Commander Bennett explained the Coast Guard’s position, assuring that they carry out such interventions regularly and that they will have a continuous presence in the area to ensure the enforcement of the recent regulations.
“Operations in the Sarstoon are continuous, there are vessels , personnel and security forces at the Sarstoon enforcing a restricted security zone as we speak. The operations in the Sarstoon extends from enforcing a restricted area and illegal fishing, illegal migration and all of those violations to Belizean laws are enforced from the Operating Base. As you can see right now there are Coast Guard Vessels operating in the area. Our operations are sporadic, that is how we are able to target illegal activities. We continue to operate in this area, this is not a one day operation that you see the concentration of Coast Guard vessels at this location. Our operation is continuous.”
Security personnel from the Special Patrol Unit, Coast Guard and the Police Department blocked the passage of the crowd onto the dock, stating that the dock was not secure for the people to pass on. The BTV’s concern now is whether the same law that applies to Belizeans, restricting them from traversing the Sarstoon also applies to Guatemalan fishermen who, according to Maheia, continually fish in the area.
“Well I would hope so, we will be here regularly to make sure that the law does not only apply to Belizeans because right behind me there are Guatemalans who usually come into this area and fish. Our thing is that we totally have respect for our military personnel but at the same time we want that the laws be enforced. The simple fishing regulations these guys are using gill nets in the whole area. At the end of the day it’s about our natural resources that are getting exploited. The illegal fishing continues, the illegal logging continues that is what it’s all about.”
Commander Bennett spoke about a Guatemalan fisherman who had been detained pending charges.
“They will be detained based on immigration offences, fisheries offences but the restricted zone is applicable to anyone, anyone that is found in that area will be detained but it is more likely that those individuals will cross from Guatemala doing illegal fishing within our jurisdictional waters will be detained. So far one person was detained and possibly will be arrested and charged pending the outcome of the investigation.”
Tensions ran high after the news that the crowd would not be able to board the boats. Representatives from the PUP, Toledo West Area Representative Oscar Requena and PUP standard bearer for Orange Walk North, Ramon Cervantes were among the crowd. Cervantes gave his sentiments about the blockage.
“This is an outrageous disgrace. The law itself demonstrates a betrayal against the Belizean people and demonstrates the cowardice of our government toward the Guatemalan Government and I think it is high time that in the face of this, seeing that the government has lost control of this situation that the government has caused us to lose the Sarstoon Virtually because now we can’t even go from Barranco to out in the waters. The people must know that it is high time that we start demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Minister of National Security.”
Members of the Belize Progressive Party also expressed shock and indignation at the blockade that they met on Saturday morning. Robert Lopez voiced his opinion:
“For the SI that was written we expected to be blocked at the Sarstoon, that’s what I would have thought. It’s a beautiful day, the seas are light chop to choppy, there is no danger in traversing the seas so we expected to be blocked at the Sarstoon and we were not. There was no way we were going against what the government had already put in place. We are peaceful law abiding citizens and our objective today was to visit the base, we brought some mahogany trees, six representing the districts and one representing the cayes and our seas and that’s what we were going to do, plant the trees and have a short ceremony.”
Attorney Dickey Bradley spoke about the legality and constitutionality of the Statutory Instrument.
“My understanding is that the passage of that statutory instrument is an unlawful piece of legislation in that that law itself, the public safety act starts off by saying what conditions would lead to any attempts to restrict freedom. The law also requires to restrict freedom of animals and vermin and that is the law that is used against the volunteers but the law opens by saying what conditions required that in fact you restrict freedom. It’s an old colonial law from the 1960s. Since then in 1981 a constitution has come along which guarantees our right to freedom of movement subject to certain conditions of which this is not one of those conditions.”
After seeing that the trip would not be taking off, the crowd dispersed. Maheia told us they would be waiting out the month of restriction after which they will plan another expedition to the Sarstoon.