Guatemala Ramps Up Border Patrols Amid Belize Incursion Claims: PM Responds

Guatemala Ramps Up Border Patrols Amid Belize Incursion Claims: PM Responds

There is another security issue that Belize is grappling with involving our neighbors in Guatemala.  The Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) held a bold press conference this past weekend to discuss what they say was an incursion of Belizeans in the Sarstoon. Last week, the top brass of the Belize Defence Force and members of the media were aggressed by GAF soldiers while on a tour of the Sarstoon Island. The confrontation led to the Belizean group being trailed by armed members of the GAF in Belize’s waters. The BDF stated that the situation was too common and said it would be requesting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send a note of protest to the Guatemalan government. However, the Guatemalan army stated this weekend, it would be upping its patrols to keep Belizeans out of their territory, particularly, the Sarstoon River. Yesterday, Prime Minister John Briceno was asked to weigh in on the bold statements from Guatemala. Here’s what he had to say. 

Hon. John Briceño, Prime Minister of Belize: “Well I think I want to leave that for the Foreign Minister. We agreed that he’s going to answer that but as always we always stand up to defend what legally and historically belongs to Belize and the Sarstoon is the boundary between both countries and that has not changed and then we’re going to follow the due process with the OAS, the Friends of Belize and to ensure that we can keep Guatemala in check. But the Foreign Minister can give you more details.”

Interestingly, members of Belize’s security forces had met with Guatemala’s Minister of Defence and its Chief of Defense Staff, who took part in the press conference. The meeting included the Chief of Staff of Defence in the Ministry of National Security, Admiral John Borland; the BDF’s Commandant, Brigadier General Azariel Loria, and the BCG’s Commandant Rear Admiral Elton Bennett. In our interview with Bennett on the recent incident at the Sarstoon, he noted that the recent upgrades at the Forward Operating Base in the Sarstoon may be concerning to the Guatemalan Army but it does send a strong message to Guatemala. 

RADM Elton Bennett, BCG Commandant: “I don’t believe that we should be surprised by the follow-on actions of the Guatemalan military. What we did was to reconstruct the forward operating base at the Sarstoon. Obviously that would raise the alarm and the Guatemalan military may very well be concerned of perhaps increased presence, a new structure. But that is exactly the message that we want to send. That the Government of Belize and the military of Belize is here for the long haul. We’re here to stay. So our presence on the Sarstoon is a demonstration of the Government of Belize policy that particular area will be manned by the military. And so that interaction with the Guatemalan military was expected. Nothing new there. What we saw over the weekend… where the Guatemalan Chief of Defense staff conducted patrols in the era and held a press conference, I think was for the most part very immature on his part. I do understand and I do appreciate that he is new in his post. There’s a new government in Guatemala. I suspect that it will take them some time to understand the importance of military diplomacy rather than militarizing and increasing the unnecessary stress and tensions in the Sarstoon. Knowing that we don’t have a Sarstoon protocol is a major issue on both parts. So… their response, I want to believe, is very shy of what we want to achieve. We want to have an area that is free of stress and tension where the militaries on both sides can cooperate where we can, understand that we will confront where we must, and those confrontations may very well be where we draw the lines with territorial integrity. The Government of Belize and Belize Coast Guard and Belize Defense Force will be patrolling Belizean territory and this includes the Sarstoon.”

Bennett added that while the Belize Coast Guard is not seeking to create any escalation with the GAF, its seamen will continue to patrol the river and protect the country’s sovereignty. He also touched on the importance of the 1859 Treaty between Britain and Guatemala and how it guides the military in its patrol efforts.  

RADM Elton Bennett, BCG Commandant: “The navigable channel within the Sarstoon demarcates exactly where the boundary lies and we’re going by that treaty. Any change from that must come out of the International Court of Justice and they have not made any ruling so there cannot be any change to that treaty and I want to hope that at some stage the Guatemalan military would be able to understand that. That listen, let’s not make any change to the situation until the International Court of Justice says so. Further to that, I want to think that the actions taken by the Chief of Defence Staff in Guatemala really puts them at a very unfavorable position because they’re claiming the entire Sarstoon. There is nowhere in international law, there is nowhere in our treaty that makes provision for such. Which means the court ruling will have to be dependent on the treaty. Which means you will have to go back and tell your people that you know what, we had initially claimed the entire Sarstoon and now we’ve lost it in international court. So there is only to lose. There is only… territory to lose by that behavior. My advice to them is to hold on, let’s try to cooperate where we can to avoid any unnecessary confrontation.”

Notably, yesterday marked 165 years since Belize’s borders were established. In 1859 Britain and Guatemala signed a treaty that defined our borders from the Rio Hondo to Sarstoon. The Treaty included an article that said both parties would make their best efforts to build a cart road from Guatemala City to the Atlantic Coast. After a few years, the road hadn’t been built and Guatemala blamed Britain for it. They said that the Treaty was a treaty of cession and because Britain violated it, they were supposed to get their land back.

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