In the recent weeks, our newspaper has been reporting on continued incursions into Belizean territory by Guatemalans living illegally on the Belize side of the border and many others who slash and burn otherwise pristine areas inside the Chiquibul Forest—Belize’s most expansive verdant terrain—for farming. The recurrent problem speaks volumes about the inadequacy of the country’s national defense strategy.
“As a country, we have to take a serious look at this Guatemala issue in all its forms,” said Retired Major Lloyd Jones, who spent 15 years in the Belize Defence Force, rising to the rank of Commanding Officer of the BDF Maritime Wing, and who is now head of the Institute of Maritime Studies. Jones has also served as Belize’s Ports Commissioner.
Jones said that the Government of Belize and the Minister of Defence, in particular, should be held accountable; and Belize needs to seriously reassess its national security strategy.
“I think that when we look at what is going on in our protected areas along the border and this kind of sustained incursion by the Guatemalans, I think that it can only be described as a gross dereliction of duty...” said Jones, insisting that the Government can put in an effective system to minimize incursions.
He also pointed out that a lot of Guatemalans are coming to Belize illegally and then being granted citizenship. From a security perspective, he said, that raises concerns.
If Belize finds itself in armed conflict with Guatemala, Belizeans would have to be watching their backs, so to speak, because right within Belize you’d have a significant amount of people who have allegiance to Guatemala, he said.
Jones explained that the primary task of any government has to be, to defend its territorial integrity. The Belize Defence Force, said Jones, needs to have a constant presence along the border. That presence, he indicated, has not been adequate, given the circumstances Belize continues to face.
The country’s operational defense plan, said Jones, has to suit the situation on the ground. “If the two are out of sync, you end up with what we see in Chiquibul, where it appears that the Guatemalans have a free rein,” he remarked.
The operational success of the BDF on the ground is hampered by the lack of helicopter support, Jones indicated. A chopper costs about US$5 million, he said, agreeing that Belize should invest in a few to strengthen military operations.
One major concern Major Jones expressed is that Belize’s position on defending its border has shifted dramatically.
He recalled that in the 1990s, he was a part of a military team that was deployed to remove an illegal settlement at Edwards Central. They had to dismantle the dwellings but allowed the Guatemalan settlers—albeit illegal in Belize—to reap the harvest of what they had planted inside Belize.
Previously, Jones pointed out, the patrol was empowered to immediately burn down illegal dwellings and the illegal crops and lead the people to the border. Belize has, however, softened its approach to the point where dwellings are dismantled and illegal migrants are escorted out, but they are allowed to return to harvest crops, even though they were acting illegally.
There has been a further softening of policy, said Major Jones: “Now you can’t even get into the adjacency zone (an area spanning a kilometer on either side of the Belize-Guatemala border) without informing the Guatemalans and the OAS.”
“You have lost the element of surprise,” said Jones. The Guatemalan military knows the patrols are coming and the more people know, the less secure the operational plan is, said Jones. “The entire process has been compromised,” he added.
He noted that often, the BDF have found evidence of incursions but seen no one to apprehend. “It appears they have been alerted. They know the patrols are coming and they make themselves scarce,” he added.
Jones’s observation is that since Belize entered into an agreement for Confidence Building Measures (CBM) with Guatemala under the guidance of the Organization of American States (OAS), the degree of incursions within Belize’s protected areas has increased significantly.
Patrols have eased up within those areas not only because of CBMs, but also due to other commitments tossed upon the BDF – such as policing the streets of Belize City.
“The evidence on the ground suggests it is nonsense,” Jones said.
Under the Defence Act, the primary function of soldiers is to defend Belize. The Act also says they are to support civil authorities in maintaining order—that is where the police duties come in.
“They have been on the street since 1995. The crime situation has gotten no better,” said Jones, asserting that he would like to see the BDF get back to defending our territorial integrity.
Soldiers in the streets lose their combat edge: they no longer think and feel like a soldier; the behavior is not the same, said Jones. He suggested that Government should return the BDF to the border, and then they can ease back the numbers in a sensible way, while keeping a firm eye on what is happening on the ground.
Government needs to increase the budget as well as the operational tempo of the BDF, which would mean more effective patrols deployed to the border, Jones stated.
“There has to be some airlifting, and there has to be increased numbers in the BDF,” said Jones.
The official policy of the government seems to be one of appeasement, Jones commented. There is “passive appeasement,” in that Government is, in relation to the border incursions, looking the other way and accepting the status quo; but it has also signed the Confidence Building Measures – a form of “active appeasement,” because of the formal agreement signed.
Belize knows the problem exists and we pretend it is not there, said Jones.
He urged Belizean leaders to use the elements of national power, bringing to bear more than the military option that has been exercised. Belize, said Jones, can employ its diplomatic efforts to cry out about the problem to the international community, appealing for Guatemala to help by dissuading its citizens from moving illegally into Belize.
When the Guatemalans are found in Belize, said Jones, they always say they thought they were in Guatemala, although they accept that the borderline does exist.
He urged that Belize needs to get some of our best minds together and figure out how it is that we are going to address this problem.
He is also concerned that Belize could be adversely affected by a spillover of members of the drug gangs at war in Mexico and now in Guatemala, as traffic does move back and forth through the unprotected border. In early 2008, said Jones, the government drafted a national security strategy with 11 national security goals. First on the list is national defense; second is the illegal drug trade.
When you have an unprotected border—Jones doesn’t like the word “porous,” because what is happening can be contained—it raises questions of “undesirables” coming and using Belize as a safe haven to launch illicit activities, he warned.
Study and thought are required on Belize’s way forward, said Major Jones. “We must be prepared to defend....,” he said. Amandala