When it comes to border towns you can get to without too much hassle: there’s the high living of Chetumal to the north and then there’s the cheap products of Melchor De Mencos to the west. But, say what you want about Melchor – crossing that border is a breeze compared to the strict, militarized crossing you now find in Chetumal. And that’s because, despite the unfounded Guatemalan claim and the whole “Belice es nuestro” delusion – the residents of Belize’s western towns have learned over the years how to get along very well with their Guatemalan neighbors. So much so that hundreds of Guatemalan students choose to go to school in Belize – from pre-school right up to sixth form. Yesterday Courtney Weatherburne travelled west to find out why they do it:…

Courtney Weatherburne Reporting…

Belize and Guatemala may be going through a difficult patch as neighbours. But while there is unease between Guatemala City and Belmopan, on the ground, the true state of relations between these neighbouring countries is being proven daily by the hundreds of Guatemalan School Children who cross the border from Melchor to Benque Viejo to attend school in Belize.

Just looking at these students it might simply seem like another regular day as they make their way to school. And it is, but regular for them is not regular for an average student: These Guatemalan students wake up early every morning to attend school in another country.

Gerson Gomez Alvarez, Mount Carmel High School

"My daily routine is I woke at 5 and I start get ready for school and I come out here and I need to pass the border, I need to, sometimes we need to check our name at the border and then we can go in the school."

14 year Gerson Gomez Alvarez is one who makes this journey every day to get an education they believe will put them ahead in life.

Gerson Gomez Alvarez

"Maybe because we know another type of language and we can get a better job."

Juan Carlos Aldana Veliz, Mount Carmel High School

"I feel very comfortable to study there because I can understand what I say and I want to tell people out here that it is a good school and we can learn better here than in Melchor."

Amy Hernandez, Mount Carmel High School

“The bus comes at 7, at my house passes at 7 and at school it gets at 7:30, 7:45 and yes it does not get us there in front of our school, but close."

Approximately 680 students cross over to Belize daily and it’s been going on for about 30 years now. That explains how Fernanda Contreras went to primary school in Belize. She's now in high school:

Fernanda Ashley Morales Contreras, Sacred Heart College

"From since primary school, since Infant 2, so I went like them in Mount Carmel primary school and now I am going to Sacred Heart."

It has become so much a part of their lives and ours that many can simply walk or ride over the border with ease as compared to the strict regulations and checks implemented at other border crossings – like the one with Chetumal.”

Ramona Guerra, Mount Carmel High School

"We just pass."

Courtney Weatherburne

"There is no verification, no ID check, nothing" So you simply can walk pass the border with no trouble at all?"

Ramona Guerra

"No, just with your uniform."

According to officials, this is illegal and extremely inefficient but they basically throw up their hands, saying it’s been out of hand so long that it’s not easy to stop.

But it is a reality and transport services have definitely found a way to benefit from this steady wave of movement.

Edwardo Guerra, Bus Driver, Guerra’s transport

"Daily I transport 250."

Courtney Weatherburne

"Primary school students?"

Edwardo Guerra


Courtney Weatherburne

"In terms of cost you were telling me that some pay for the entire week?”

Edwardo Guerra

"The ones that pay 50 quetzals per week they stay for lunch at school. The ones that pay 60 per week, they come to their home here in Melchor.”

Courtney Weatherburne

"Tell us more about how many buses run daily and how many runs?"

Edwardo Guerra

"There are 4 buses, I am in charge of two buses and Mr. Coleman is in charge of the other two."

That 50 quetzales is $13 dollars per week and 60 quetzales translates to about $15.66 per week. So roughly these students have a monthly transportation expense of about $60 Belize dollars. But these buses are only designated to transport primary school students and so the High schools students take the taxi.

Oscar Ochaeta, Taxi operator

"Well daily it as a lot of students but we just transport about 100 and that’s high school not primary school. So it's 2 dollars per student."

And so while diplomats seek confidence building through diplomatic channels, the future of Belize Guatemala relations may be unfolding here at the western frontier where our neighbours learn the Belizean way of life, it’s a grand and worthy social experiment but whose paying for it?

Well according to these students and the schools, it’s the parents.

Fernanda Ashley Morales Contreras, Sacred Heart College

"For my experience it’s more cost but I guess it is more worth it and I have really good grades here so my parents said if you can have your grades up. So it really cost because I do not have a security card or anything like that so I pay another fee. It’s just $500 because of not being a Belizean."

Sacred Heart College has 923 students this year and out of those 10 are from Guatemala. They say they must charge this foreigner fee because the government does not.

Karim Juan, Academic Principal, Sacred Heart College

"Non-Belizeans pay and addition $500 registration/tuition fee for the year that the Ministry of Education does not pay for non-Belizeans so that fee is to compensate for the short fall."

This is not the case with all high schools. Mopan Technical High School has cut the cost to $225 per year. 95% of their students are Belizean natives.

It is much cheaper at the Primary School level. Ardulfo Velasquez, principal of Howard Smith Nazarane School told us the fee was already set when she began to work 3 years ago.

Ardulfa Velasquez, Principal, Howard Smith Nazarene School

We have about 80 of them coming from Melchor. Ok as Belizeans, we have a policy of Belizeans first so what we do when we have registration we cater to our Belizean students first. Let me say that some of these students coming from Melchor have Belizean documents, so not all of them coming on the bus are from Melchor but some of them are Belizeans living in Melchor. Melchor children pay a fee of $15 monthly."

At Mount Carmel primary School, with a student population of over 900, the 15 foreign students occupying each standard, pay the same $15 a month. While the Adventist primary school has a slightly different fee.

Esmay Neal, Principal, Hills of Promise Primary School

"Since I came here the children pays $60 a month if you are a Belizean. If you are from Melchor, you pay $120 a year and past 3 years parents have been paying that."

And the fees add up. At Howard Smith Nazarene – it’s building a shed:

Ardulfa Velasquez

"The fees that we charge Melchor students we use it to do projects in our school and along with the registration fee of non Belizeans right now we are working with our shed out there so part of that money went in to that, we have our fence, part of the Melchor money went into that. We have other projects and that money is included."

And while there are tangible economic benefits – the key is the social aspect: the education the Guatemalan students received in Belizean-ness.

Ardulfa Velasquez

"One incident and I can recall is a student from Melchor coming in with a book having the entire Guatemalan map and attached to the map was our Belizean map and it was brought to my attention and I told the child Belize has it’s border, we have our flag, we are independent. Yes miss he said and the child took the page and tear it up and it shows that in Social studies that Belize has its borders and they respect that."

Esmay Neal

"I really haven’t had incident that I am aware that a child from Melchor is fighting with a child from here, never in fact it is our own fighting without own. But the kids from Melchor they come catch the bus from right here and the bus drops them off at the gate and they go back and the warden puts them on the bus in the evening, we don’t have any problem like political or international type of thing."

A counsellor from Sacred Heart, a Guatemalan born who is now a naturalised Belizean, says that the process of social integration is an organic and beneficial one.

Bertha Morales - Counsellor, Scared Heart College

"So in previous years we has lots of students coming over the border ,they are now professionals, doctors , engineers you name it, some of them are in Guatemala or in the US and all over. For me it has never been a problem, the social interaction has been good excellent and we never had coming here because of bullying or personal conflict, no they do well, they do wonderful, they are very disciplined and responsible about 80% of them are on the honour roll while they are here, others we have to push but they do well."

Amy Hernandez

"I think in Belize City they think that here at the border there are soldiers with their guns but it is not through, no one is here going to kill someone."

Indeed, when you get to see the ease of it’s daily workings firsthand – the pace and mood of this border seem out of step with the tensions between Belize and Guatemala. Seeing this you’d think it’s the border between the two friendliest neighbouring countries on earth. And, maybe, buried beneath the unfounded territorial claim and all its baggage and recriminations, we are that: neighbours trying to navigate an uncertain future.

As we have said, the hassle free crossing has been a long-standing convention and those we spoke to at the Immigration desk told us they have been trying to regulate the flow of persons crossing the border but without much success.

When we travelled to Santa Cruz, Guatemala years ago – where there is a crossing but no border post, we found much the same. That village borders Jalacte in the south, and every day students cross over to Belize to go to school.

Channel 7