It’s been widely reported that “Territorial Volunteers”, Wil Maheia and Orlando De La Fuente, are planning a patriotic trip to Sarstoon Island on
Sunday. The Government and military officials do not support it, and – if history is any indicator - it can go wrong because of the aggressive
Guatemalan Navy. But the Volunteers are undeterred, and are busy making preparation. Today, that meant doing their own reconnaissance mission of the
River, the route, and the island. But, on what can be considered a dress rehearsal for Sunday, Maheia, De La Fuente and their boat captain came face to
face with 3 Guatemalan naval vessels in the Sarstoon River.
What happened next? Here’s his account of the encounter:
"We want our trip to go perfect. So Orlando De La Fuente and myself along with my boat captain Chukaru decided to make a visit to the Starstoon Island.
We wanted to scout out the island, to make sure we could find properly land spots because we expect well over 100 people to be there. So we didn't want
to have people there feeling uncomfortable. Plus I wanted to get an idea of the size of the island, so I took my GPS so we could get acreage of the
island as well. Upon entering the Sarstoon River, we noticed the Guatemalan gunboat, which appears to be one similar which was stuck on our reef and
two other smaller vessels. Proceeding into the river, we were somewhat by the Guatemalan military. And I didn't want to stop but my captain decide;
look we better stop."
"When we stopped, he asked us where were we going; and we said we are just going to check out the island and we were going up the river and he was
hesitant, he didn't really respond. I told the guy let's move the boat."
"When we stopped, there were several more military personnel on the boat, this was when we were coming back are we did our reconnaissance. Then he
said, he said, what did you guys do? I said well we just checked out the island. And he said, where is your papers? Mr. De La Fuente told him this is a
Belizean boat we don't need to present papers to you guys. He told Mr. De La Fuente to throw the rope from our boat to their dock and I said no; we're
not going to do that. At the same time I instructed my captain to put the boat in reverse, so that we could get out of there; cause I did not want the
Guatemalans to hold our boat. We put the boat in reverse, immediately I said now put it now in forward and take off from here. For their boat to have
caught up to our boat they would have had to manoeuvre through the shallows. So we did that and we just hit the coast line of Belize."
"Did they try to follow you when you went along the coast line?"
"Well no, they pushed their boat off. If they followed me they would have been way into Belize territory. Because we have a relatively fast boat, so
they pushed their boat off but by the time they could get their boat going, we were clearly into Belizean territory. They would have to shot us if they
wanted to catch us."
"Based on that encounter, do you think that they wanted to detain you all?"
"Yes. I believed that they wanted to detain us and what they wanted to detain us for? I don't know because clearly we were in Belizean territory. At no
time were we in Guatemalan territory, except when they demanded and asked us to come to their dock. We refused or I refused to give them the rope from
our boat because we did not want to be tied up to their dock because that would have been a different story."
So, this incident is itself tends to lend credibility to stern warnings that the Government is giving Maheia and the leaders of the BTV to call off the
trip. We put it to Maheia that this little encounter, is proof that Sunday’s mission is a misadventure foretold - here’s how he responded:
"Do you think that these people knew you're intentions? Do you think they know who you are?"
"I don't know if they know who I am, but I think they knew people from the Territorial Volunteers were heading towards the island today because it's
very unusual to see all the military vessels at the mouth of the Sarstoon at the same time. There were 3 military vessels there, along with more than
usual military personnel."
"What do you make of it? Is there anything to be read into it? Do you expect that they will be out there, come Sunday?"
"Well the fact that they have their big gun boat out there, I think that they will be there. I know the OAS tracks all these things so they know who
will be there. I know the route, I've been going there, all the boat captain has been going there know the route. It's not like the last time that was
the first time for that boat captain. We will be briefing them. We know that we will never be in Guatemalan waters, so I want to assure the people it's
going to be safe and if anything should happen, it has to happen inside Belizean territorial waters or inside Belize territory. So again it's only a 10
minute boat ride from Barranco, its close, its shallow waters, its safe; I say nobody should cancel their intention to come to the Sarstoon Island."
"Why you say that sir? You could have easily been detained by these individuals. It's a simple thing; just throw me your rope."
"Yes, easily and I think that we as Belizeans have to be stern. We know when we are in Belize territory. We need to tell the Guatemalans they have no
right to question us inside our territory. I understand all the big picture about drug trafficking, and they want to monitor it yes. They saw our boat
coming from Belize side, clearly there was nothing on our boat but four individuals."
"Is it a fair assumption or a fair conclusion to make that; something could happen and it could be an international incident?"
"It fair, it's real, it's realistic. At the same time we have to take care of our country, at the same time we have to send a strong message to
Guatemala. We cannot continue to cede any territory to Guatemala."
"Belizeans who are coming out I want to commend them. Again, I assure them that nothing will happen. If it happens, it will happen inside Belize
territory. If I walk on Albert Street right now and a gunman approach me, the government needs to protect me. If I walk to Sarstoon, if we go to
Sarstoon Island, the government needs to protect us once we're there."
For days now, the headlines have been dominated by the Territorial Volunteers - who are going to Sarstoon Island on Sunday. The island is the southern boundary of Belize's territory - and the trip is designed to defiantly reassert that the island is within Belize's territory.
Government has been cautioning the volunteers and their supporters not to go - but today their expedition got a shot of legitimacy when PUP Senator Lisa Shoman said she would be joining them.
And she's not just going along for the ride - Shoman is throwing her weight around as a senator and member of the bipartisan committee dealing with the territorial claim. She has written letters to Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington and Guatemalan Ambassador to Belize, Manuel Barillas, basically putting them on notice that she's going in an official capacity and arrangements for security should be made.
Here's how she explained it to the press this afternoon at her Belize City office:..
Hon. Lisa Shoman, PUP Senator "I've written to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the military on my own behalf. I decided to accompany the BTV and also others who are going with them. I believe the media is going and a few other supporters. And the reason that I did so was because I became very concerned yesterday after listening to the declarations that were being made by the Ministry of National Security. It is clear to me that Sarstoon Island is a part of Belize and even if it is an area that Guatemala is claiming, the point could also be made that Guatemala is claiming half of Belize and all of the cayes. That is absolutely no reason for people not to go Sarstoon Island and I became very concerned that enough care and attention was not being taken and I decided that it was my responsibility, since I have been a part of this process to take seriously the concerns that the BTV and others have, particularly after the incident of yesterday and after some reflection/consultation with the Leader of the Opposition who I represent, I decided that I would accompany the BTV. Reached out to Mr. Wil Maheia, let him know that I was interested and received his kind invitation to accompany them."
"I am a member of the National Assembly, among other things and I think that it has to be taken very seriously when any member of the National Assembly is deciding to do something like this because I am well aware that the government is of the opinion that this is some kind of a dangerous move or unwise move. So I am letting them know formally that I will be accompanying the BTV."
Daniel Ortiz "Is it your hope that the office you hold will sway them to take certain actions?"
Hon. Lisa Shoman, PUP Senator "I would hope that the government of Belize would take this expedition seriously enough to provide the safety and concern of all those who are attending. It's not a matter that my office is any special office to need more protection than anyone else, but it is certainly my intentions to highlight that Belizeans deserve the care and concern of their government and any part of their country from internal or external threat."
As you heard in all the stern warnings, all the government officials who have commented on this issue publicly all say that to send the Coast Guard or the BDF along with the Territorial Volunteers will have the effect of escalating any incident if one does occur. So, this afternoon, we asked Shoman, who is a former Foreign Affairs Minister, about that concern, and she asserted that it is ridiculous:
Hon. Lisa Shoman, PUP Senator "That is utter rubbish. For years there have been link ups along the adjacency zone and those are always notified prior. This is not the adjacency zone and there is absolutely no reason why the Ministry of National Security cannot inform their counterparts in Guatemala and even offered to do the kind of link up that they do along the adjacency zone. I am saying that there is absolutely no reason to supposed that because Belizeans military forces are in Belizean waters, that there will be any incident. I am sure that of the Guatemalan armed forces cross over into Belizean territorial waters, that we have enough sense and prudence to speak to them calmly and inform them what we are doing. Which is that simply Belizeans are going to a part of Belize to make a statement."
Daniel Ortiz "If I understand the toughest critics of this issue is that while the persons who lead this charge say its a patriotic effort, some have liken it to and that is what is to be taken as negative."
Hon. Lisa Shoman, PUP Senator "What's next? The Ranguana Cayes, the Sapodilla Cayes? I have not before this made this kind of a move or made this kind of a statement. I am a careful person. I've spent 15 years of my life working through diplomatic channels on this issue. The reason I am going is because I feel very strongly that the time has come for us to make a statement, that when it comes to Belize, we will defend our sovereignty and our territorial integrity and if that means that Belizeans should be able to go to any part of Belize and raise their flag and sing their anthem, so be it."
"I spent years of my life trying to get Santa Rosa out of Belize. Ultimately we were successful. Ultimately that work paid off. I don't see any reason why a Belizean going to Sarstoon Island is a matter of aggression for anyone and I am going to give the Guatemalans the benefit of the doubt until they show me otherwise that they have aggressive intentions towards Belizeans."
As you heard in last night's interview, Wil Maheia explained that a part of the confrontation included a discussion between him, Orlando De La Fuente, and the boat captain. They were trying to decide whether or not to heed the call of the Guatemalan Navy when they were summoned to explain their presence in the area yesterday. The boat captain, who frequents the area regularly, convinced both men that the best thing to do was to concede and speak with the Guatemalans for fear of escalating the situation. Yesterday, our colleagues from CTV3 News asked De La Fuente to expand on that, and he said that he found it offensive, since he was in Belizean territory:
Orlando De La Fuente, member - BTV "Upon entering Sarstoon Island, the Guatemalans have a marine base there and I personally think that we don't have to check in with the Guatemalans. But it's customary that all Belizean boats check in with the Guatemalan. The Belize government has taken no step to stop that practice or tell the Guatemalans to cease and desist and they insist that Belizeans boats check with them at the Guatemalan base. It's just a small pier. I told the captain to go, we don't have to check in with them, because we would not veer onto the Guatemalan side. But he says that we have to, that a situation could escalate if you didn't check in. So we actually stop at the pier and informed them that we were heading up the river a bit."
That's an issue that De La Fuente and Senator Lisa Shoman also have common ground on. When we asked her today about it, she was also outraged at the thought of being questioned by Guatemalans about movement in areas considered to be Belizean.
Not surprisingly, though Shoman and the UDP Government do not see eye to eye on her decision to go with the Territorial Volunteers this Sunday. A release from the Government calls it an outright Political Ploy.
A statement released from the Government today says, quote, "The Government expresses great consternation that Senator Shoman would join the excursion considering she has a particular role as the Opposition's representative on the bipartisan committee dealing with the Guatemalan territorial claim." End Quote.
The Government immediately puts distance between themselves and Shoman's venture saying, quote, "The Government advises the public that while Shoman is a senator she is not going on this visit to the Sarstoon in her capacity as a senator but, instead, as a private citizen. While she is trying to convey that she is going officially, Shoman has no authorization from the Senate. Similarly, she is not visiting the Sarstoon Island as a representative of the bipartisan committee." End Quote.
The end off by giving Shoman a stern scolding, saying, quote, "The Government views this as irresponsible of Senator Shoman and concludes that her actions are totally political. Her actions further demonstrate and expose the desperation of the Opposition to use this all important and deeply emotional national issue of the Belize/Guatemala border dispute for naked political gain." End Quote.
The Belize Territorial Volunteers are heading to Sarstoon Island for a patriotic party on Sunday - but, the way things have been going, the Guatemalan Navy could just end up crashing that party - which could turn ugly. We say that because in the past few months the Guatemalans have given every indication that they consider the island to be disputed territory - even though it is recognized in Belize as the southern boundary of Belize. The Guatemalans recent hostility towards the Coast Guard and the volunteers suggest that Sunday could be another showdown in the Sarstoon - and, we gather, this is causing some anxiety in Belmopan. That's why the Prime Minister called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council this evening.
The PM chairs the council and their statement issued half an hour ago says, quote, "The National Security Council (NSC) of Belize met in a special session this afternoon to consider the security and citizen protection issues arising out of this Sunday's planned expedition" It continues, quote, "Belize's military has been asserting sovereignty over our side of the Sarstoon on a continuing basis. This is done operationally by the ferrying of our troops on a regular basis up the river to our outpost at Cadenas. The changing of the guard there occurs on a weekly basis, and soldiers going in and those coming out are transported by our military boats. This exercise gives rise to countless encounters with the Guatemalans since they dispute our ownership of the river and claim it to be a recognized part of their national territory, but we maintain and act upon our sovereign position." End quote.
It continues, quote, "The incidents arising from this usually take the form of Guatemalan shadowing and sometimes attempted interceptions of our military boats, but the Belizean military have handled and will continue to handle all these encounters….They have thus succeeded in maintaining our sovereign, operational use of our side of the river, and they have done so without having to fire a shot." And here's where the statement turns to the volunteers and Sunday's expedition: quote, "BDF Soldiers are the ones, and the only ones, to continue successfully to do this. Civilians for all the reasons that are so obvious and overpowering, have no business placing themselves in harm's way and complicating and endangering our military's accustomed, tried and true way of dealing with Guatemala's claimed ownership of all of the Sarstoon."
It concludes, "this Sunday's planned civilian expedition to the Sarstoon Island is ill-advised and downright dangerous." Of, we've heard that before but- the release adds, quote, "The Security Council is of course most concerned about the safety of Belizean citizens and has put in place a contingency plan to try to deal with all possible consequences of the action of the Territorial Volunteers. This plan involves local positioning, outreach and coordination with key diplomatic partners and a central role for the OAS who will be in the vicinity of the Sarstoon Island in an observer/peace-keeping role even before the expedition arrives."
So, the OAS will be there, which seems encouraging, but the release concludes, quote, "Notwithstanding all this…the only way to eliminate all risk is for the expedition to be called off; and the Security Council advises those in charge to do precisely that."
So, to encapsulate it, the big takeaway from that release is that Government has activated a contingency plan, and that the OAS will be nearby in a peace keeping role.
Coast Guard Will Stand Down, Advisedly
And so, now that the government has announced that it has, quote, "a contingency plan to try to deal with all possible consequences" - what does that mean for the Coast Guard? They're the ones tasked with keeping Belizeans safe on the sea - but as you just heard, it's the BDF that knows how to handle the Guatemalans in the Sarstoon. The Commander of the Belize Defence Force has already said that they cannot accompany these civilians because their presence could be an aggravating factor.
And what about the Belize Coast Guard? That's what we asked the commander, Admiral John Borland today:
Admiral John Borland, Commander, Belize National Coast Guard "I've seen that latter and as you've said you were hoping that I would entertain you. Unfortunately I can't. The government of Belize has given its position on this matter, on this issue. I go with what my civilian leadership decides. As you know we are a discipline armed organization, we follow orders and we go by the policies of those that we have committed to support in our duty as a member of a military force."
Reporter "Sir, do you know whether or not the government had decided to send the coast guard along?"
Admiral John Borland "The last I have heard when I saw the news last night, there hasn't been any decision to send the coast guard on any mission to support in escorting or providing cover for those people going in on that expedition. I believe that there may be a need to provide for maritime safety, as we saw the last time a expedition went where they went despite a small craft warning and those vessels were overloaded. I believe that that's a role that we will be able to play, but it does not involve or include any form of support in form an escort or providing cover for the people going in to do the Sarstoon Island expedition."
Reporter "Would you advise against it?"
Admiral John Borland "I, as I said go along with what my government position's is. We heard the minister speak just yesterday. We heard the general speak on it and I am not going to go against what they have said."
Daniel Ortiz "Do you appreciate this entire move, so to speak, was sort of a righteous indignation on behalf of the coast guard who went on that reconnaissance mission and were confronted. Do you accept that that is an element of this trip?"
Admiral John Borland "I don't know if it's a consequence of what the coast guard did a couple months ago. We were on a mission, missions are handed down to us from national Security Council. Strategy and policy comes from that direction and we execute. We are operators."
Again, in the release from the security council today, the wording says, that that government has put in place, quote, "a contingency plan to try to deal with all possible consequences."
Security Minister Saldivar’s Facebook Snap
At the top of the newscast, we told you about the emergency meeting of the national security council to discuss contingencies for Sunday's trip to Sarstoon Island by the territorial volunteers. That release spoke about the routine harassment and intimidation from the Guatemalan military that the BDF has to endure when they patrol the Sarstoon. Well, National security minister John Saldivar has also weighed in with a facebook post that went up an hour ago. It says, quote, "Who is promoting this foolishness that we have not been asserting our sovereignty over the Sarstoon Island and River? …every week our Belize Defence Force patrols the Sarstoon River on the way to our permanent outpost up that same river called Cadenas." Saldivar adds, quote, "On many occasions when the BDF enter the Sarstoon they are confronted by the Guatemalan Navy who have made numerous attempts to stop the BDF from patrolling the river and proceeding to Cadenas. On every single occasion the BDF have asserted that they are in Belizean territory and on every occasion they have proceeded to carry out their mission. Each of these encounters have had and continue to have the potential for armed conflict, however the BDF has continued to assert our sovereignty over the area." And he concludes, dismissively, "This is not a job for adventurist men, women and children. This is dangerous work and all we are saying is leave this line of work to our security forces. The BDF has not, is not, and will never abandon its role of protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country." End quote.
And while government continues to urge all parties not to go on the expedition, a release from the national security council says, quote, "the NSC has put in place a contingency plan to try to deal with all possible consequences of the action of the Territorial Volunteers. This plan involves local positioning, outreach and coordination with key diplomatic partners and a central role for the OAS who will be in the vicinity of the Sarstoon Island in an observer/peace-keeping role even before the expedition arrives."
The National Security Council of Belize, which was in
teleconference session for the duration of the Territorial Volunteers Sarstoon Island
expedition today, expresses its profound satisfaction that the expedition ended without
major incident. The Council concluded its session after Admiral Borland of the Belize
Coast Guard confirmed by early afternoon that all participants in the expedition had
returned safely to their staging point at Barranco Village.
The welfare of Belizean citizens, no matter what the circumstances, is always of
paramount concern to the Council and the Government of Belize. Thus, nothing can take
away from the Council's pleasure that no misadventure overtook the hundred plus
Belizean men, women and children that journeyed to the Sarstoon. Nevertheless, there
is confirmation by the Organization of American States (OAS) that four of the Belizean
boats that approached the Sarstoon island did so by transiting not just the north, but the
south channel of the river. Fortunately, the presence of the OAS and the diplomatic safety
net that the Government of Belize had secured in collaboration with key allies as part of
its contingency measures, succeeded in averting any major fallout from this no doubt
inadvertent occurrence. Still, it causes the Council to reiterate the position it took on
Friday: assertion and maintenance of sovereignty over the Sarstoon island and our half
of the river, is best left to the Belizean military and Belizean diplomats.
The NSC offers its thanks to the OAS for the crucial role it played as this issue unfolded,
and to the Ministries of National Security and Foreign Affairs for their continuing critical
work in looking after Belize's national interests.
Sunday may be the slowest day of the week - but yesterday, Belizeans all across the country were on high alert: would there be a showdown in the Sarstoon between the Guatemalan Navy and the Belize Territorial volunteers? Well, there was - and the media captured it up close. Daniel Ortiz was on the ground, and chest high in the waters of the Sarstoon - here's his story:..
Daniel Ortiz reporting
The 4 Belizean boats moved off. The intention was to give everyone a tour of this now infamous Sarstoon Island that has become a flashpoint for the Belize/Guatemalan Territorial Dispute.
There was no sign that the Guatemalan Navy had changed their sentinel mode, and so the Belizean vessels slowly made their way into the Belizean side of the river.
About 10 minutes in, this leisurely throttle in the river became instantly pressurized when 2 Guatemalan Navy boats made a direct path to the lead vessel, cutting off it off from any further movement. There, the most senior officers of the Navy, who had been watching in the distance for about 3 hours, spoke to the leaders for the first time that day and gave them a stern warning that they had entered Guatemalan territorial Waters.
Keep carefully in mind though, that at this location, the river mouth is very wide. Also, out of an abundance of caution, the expedition was keeping close to the banks of the southern landmass of the Toledo district. With that, the expeditioners concluded that it was the Guatemalans who had entered into Belizean waters.
Undeterred, the Guatemalans declared that the expedition overstepped their bounds and crossed over into Guatemalan territory. That caused a stand-off and the biggest Belizean vessel was not allowed to pass. The back and forth over who was in the wrong took another 5 or so minutes, and it was clear to everyone on the boats, that the Guatemalan Navy was not going to allow anyone to proceed undeterred.
At Wil Maheia's urging, the vessel that Orlando De La Fuente was in, which was being driven by boat man Chukuru, broke away from the Guatemalan blockade. Immediately, one Guatemalan boat moved into position and cut him off. Passengers from both boats began shouting back and forth. At that time, the 130 plus persons who were in other boats nearby, started to plead to the leaders that it was time to turn back.
Orlando De La Fuente - Member, Belize Territorial Volunteers "Our captain relinquished and he said that we shouldn't try to pass them, because they armed and a big argument ensued. It was chaos and I told the captain to give me the wheel because we were here and we weren't in Guatemalan territorial waters and there was nothing to be scared of and so I took the wheel and then every time I tried to cross, the pull up in front of us and one time they rammed us. Twice the rammed us and this young man, he has the footage. Eventually they saw that I wasn't going to. Because every time they rammed us, their boat would move front, I go behind, they reverse, I go in front of them and eventually they just backed off and they said that they will just escort us."
That's when the battle of wills in this confrontation shifted from the largest vessel to De La Fuente and Guat boat captain which had cut him off. A series of maneuvers took place where De La Fuente slowly moved forward; the more he defied them, the more aggressive the Guatemalan boat driver became, and that caused them to collide several times - playing a dangerous game of bumper boats:
That happened about 4 times, and it was not until Plus TV's camera man, Cirilo Choco, spoke with the Guatemalans and declared in Spanish to them that he was videotaping their aggressive tactics, that these officers backed off and started traveling beside them, sort of like an uneasy tour guide.
The further down the river the expedition went, the thicker the tension became. At this point, the eastern tip of Sarstoon Island came into focus, and there was growing concern that the Guatemalans were being pushed just a bit too far. De La Fuente would hear none of it.
Orlando De La Fuente - Member, Belize Territorial Volunteers "That never crossed my mind. I went and I was going to go around the Sarstoon Island and there were many in our boat that saying 'turn around, we had already seen enough, we need to listen to the Guatemalans' and I said you knew that we were going around the island and you should have got into a boat at the back, because this little boat is not turning around. I told them that we were not turning around and eventually they settled down, because of a big argument. I really didn't like the big argument and the back and forth with our crew, because I think it doesn't look well when in our boat we are arguing back and forth. So I really ask the crew and the passengers to calm down and I am going to make the decisions."
Victorius Pollard "Our captain was very courageous, because you got to be courageous to have done what Mr. Landy did."
Orlando De La Fuente "It's not a courageous act at all. It's not. Even after we left and things calm down and started throttled beside us around the island, I told them, do you realize you are in Belize territorial waters? I said this is the creek. The river runs south of us here on the other side of the island and he kept saying that we are in Guatemalan waters and then eventually he said that they are going to act as guide and as a escort to make sure that it's a safe trip."
In the distance, the OAS representatives who were observing, came into closer contact with the Belizean boats. They were not spared any of the verbal venom from the Belizeans in the expedition. They kept quiet and closely observed as the trip went along, ignoring the taunts of those who believe that they ought to do more to stop the Guatemalans from aggressing the Belizeans.
In the distance, another Guatemalan boat, which was carrying about 6 members of the Guatemalan press, followed the Belizean expedition. They, like us, were there to document the encounter from both sides.
Their cameras turned back to Orlando and the lead boat as they made their slow pace around Sarstoon Island, this time, staying very close to its southern banks so as to remain in Belizean territorial waters. That was a bit more tricky to do because if the boats veered in too much, they would be grounded. If they veered out too much, they risked illegally entering into Guatemalan territorial waters. There was no such indication from the Guatemalan Navy boat, or the OAS, that this happened, and so, with no more aggression, the guided - albeit unusual - tour continued for the entire length of the island's southern side.
As soon as the Eastern tip of the island came back into focus once again, the Guatemalans completely backed off, and the 4 Belizean boats made their way back to the river mouth. Soon, we got an opportunity to see the controversial Guatemalan Military base at the entrance of the Sarstoon River. That's the one where all Belizean boat captains have been told that they most stop in and report their intent to travel up this river.
Sarstoon Island quickly started to fade out of focus, and back at the initial staging area, the leading Guatemalan commanders waved off the Belizeans. That was so friendly and deceptive a gesture, that had we not known that there had been a tense confrontation about an hour ago, we'd think that they were the kind of next door neighbors anyone would want to have.
So, now that the danger had passed, and the patriotism statement had been made, what was the tally of the score on the issue of the territorial claim? After all, the Guatemalans blocked, and the territorial volunteers refused to back down.
Daniel Ortiz "Sir, while it is a great and powerful statement, there will be those who say you've accomplished everything, but you've really accomplished nothing because when we leave from here, the Guatemalans will still be as aggressive to anyone who enter this channel and has any intentions to go in that location. How do you respond to those people?"
Orlando De La Fuente "Mr. Ortiz, you've heard right, because that's the tradition. That's the custom here. When Belizeans enter the Sarstoon, they check in with the Guatemalans, even if they are not going to venture into Guatemala. Even if they venture, even if they are going up the Sarstoon to fishing or for whatever purpose and it's up to our government to insist that the Guatemalans stop it. You don't have to check in with Guatemalan authorities if you are going to stay on the Belize side. There is no reason and that practice has to stop. The status quo has changed and it has not changed for Belize's benefit. The status quo has changed and our position has eroded. Sarstoon was never disputed before. Now look at what happened today, when the Guatemalan vessels are coming into our waters and try to prevent us, to cut us off from navigating our own waters in Belize while the Belize military stays back in Belize waters and just watches on orders from the government. So the status has certainly changed today. I think our position keeps eroding and our goal is a change of our foreign policy."
Ok, now that's just part one of our story - we've got interviews with all the personalities who were there - and we'll have that package for you tomorrow. But first to the government's position on the trip. The National Security Council issued its second statement at 5:25 pm yesterday - just as the volunteers were making their way home. Apparently, while the volunteers were on the river, the council was having a teleconference, quote, "for the duration of the Territorial Volunteers Sarstoon Island expedition." End quote.
The statement goes on to say, quote, "nothing can take away from the Council's pleasure that no misadventure overtook the hundred plus Belizean men, women and children that journeyed to the Sarstoon." But it adds, quote, "there is confirmation by the Organization of American States that four of the Belizean boats that approached the Sarstoon island did so by transiting not just the north, but the south channel of the river." That means they were in Guatemalan territory - that is, according to the OAS. But, government says nothing happened because, quote, "the presence of the OAS and the diplomatic safety net that the Government of Belize had secured in collaboration with key allies as part of its contingency measures, succeeded in averting any major fallout from this no doubt inadvertent occurrence." End quote. The PUP issued a statement today where the party wasn't so diplomatic, calling government's release quote, self-serving…to cover their naked and cynical act of abandonment."
It says, quote, "The trip was a political statement-that Belize, all of Belize, from Rio Hondo to Sarstoon, from our Cayes and Atolls to our Western border, is ours to protect and defend, and that this is not a task for only the military and diplomats."
It adds, quote, "The…UDP administration via their ministers, the BDF and the National Security Council tried to scold, shame, intimidate, frighten, and prevent Belizeans from making this trip, to no avail….before eventually abandoning them to their fate." End quote. And none too shy about seizing on the Territorial Volunteers thunder for some prime political points, the PUP will have a press conference to talk about it tomorrow.
Rage On the River
As you saw in the story, at the height of the confrontation, Orlando De la Fuente captained the lead boat, and he tried to out-maneuver the Guatemalan Navy vessel which kept chasing after him.
While most of the cameras were focused on that showdown, the biggest Belizean vessel, Dore, was forced to hang back while the other 4 smaller boats managed to escape the Guatemalan blockade. Well, that's the boat Audrey Matura-Shepherd and Wil Maheia were in.
When the trip was finished, they also spoke on how, from their perspective, the Guatemalans rammed their boat as a justification to use force. Here's their account:
Audrey Matura-Shepherd - Participant, Sarstoon Expedition "Well I say what happened when they realize that the other smaller vessels took away and break away because we saw when they were trying to push the other smaller vessels into their waters to try and bully them. But the problem is our vessel was bigger, so Wil said well we are moving ahead. But we told them when they came, we are going in Belizean waters. They came and brought their vessels as to come and jammed us. But of course we can't afford for them to jam us, so we kept going more to the side, but then we had to stop because the water would have been too shallow. So what we told them then is that you are in Belizean waters. You need to move. We made 7 attempts right Wil? The last one we did it in front of the OAS for them to see that these people are in our waters and refuse to give us passage. Every time their intention is to jam our boat. Three times we almost made contact and different one of us push the boat."
Wil Maheia - Co-Leader, Sarstoon Expedition "One time we made contact and then they said 'look you touch our boat, we have the right to shoot.' they did say that. They say 'you touch our boat, we could act.'"
Mike Rudon "Now in terms of the OAS, what were they doing all this time?"
Audrey Matura-Shepherd "Well they had gone ahead with the other 4 vessels. They left us behind. So once they realize that the OAS went with the other 4 vessels, they got farther more aggressive and they kept pushing us, so that they know that our vessel is bigger and we can't make it in that shallow water. So they found a way to push us in the shoal. So clearly we have to pull back because we have to think about the safety of everyone, we have to think about the fact that they have weapons and although it's only 5 of them on the vessel and we have to think about the fact that we don't have back-a-tive from our government. Because if our coast guard was out there to say no wait, this is Belizean territory. So I said to them show us your GPS. Show us your coordinates. We were talking to them in Spanish. You could never have been in your waters in we can see that you are less than 200 feet from our coast."
Wil Maheia "When we were looking the Sarstoon Island was to the left of us. So there is no confusion. There was absolutely no confusion. Guatemalans came into Belize territory and bullied Belizeans."
Mike Rudon "Wil talk to us about the conversation? There was a high ranking officer with the Guatemalan boat that approached your vessel."
Wil Maheia "Actually, almost everyone on the Guatemalan boat were military officers. Not ordinary infantry men, because when they rammed our boat and we continue to try and push, then he told the captain to get the infantry ready."
Audrey Matura-Shepherd "I said look they are calling the infantry. But when they decided to get more aggressive was when they saw the other vessels were coming and the OAS was coming and we weren't backing down and then when they saw the OAS was actually coming close, then I don't know if they call infantry or not, but they pulled back a little, because they didn't want the OAS to witness that they are in Belizean waters - they pulled back. So when we saw them pulled back, we say okay this is our final attempt to make it across. When we tried to make it across that when they came and they did it in the presence of the OAS, who then circled around our boat and we kept asking them 'so are we in Belizean waters?' and they shook their head and say yes when I ask them. But people before were asking, because I was at the bow of the boat. Then I said to them 'are you all seeing what they are doing to us?' - People on the boat were asking why aren't you (OAS) intervening. Why aren't you saying anything?"
And, while that's their narrative of the encounter with the leading Guatemalan Navy Officers, the Guatemalan Press has its own account. One story we've seen from a Guatemalan Broadcast News channel, Canalantigua TV, broadcast a story in which the volunteers are described as scaring the fishermen who were in the river. Their spin on it is that the Belizeans tried to raise flags in Guatemalan territory.
Intentan colocar bandera beliceña en territorio guatemalteco
Guatemalan media claiming Sarstoon Island and the entire Sarstoon River belongs to Guatemala. You can clearly see at 2:40 in this video filmed by the Guatemalan press when the giant Guatemalan naval boat attempts to ram the much smaller Belizean boat loaded with peaceful, non-weaponized civilians. Later in the video you can also see clearly the OAS boat tied up alongside the Guatemalan military boat, when they did not even once engage the Belizeans or the Belizean boats. Sad to say "not one blade of grass" is a myth. Guatemala has already annexed a portion of Southern Belize, if not more. Between Barranco and the Sarstoon, illegal Guatemalan fishing camps dot the coast line.
Civiles de Belice realizaron una incursión de abuso a la barra Sarstoon, Izabal, dando a conocer que es propiedad de Belice.
El Comando Naval del Caribe les solicitaron documentación a los ciudadanos, pero estos indicaron que no tenían que entregar papeles ya que está en aguas beliceñas.
Las autoridades hicieron un movimiento de contención para controlar la situación. Aún así, los vecinos se sienten atemorizados, especialmente los pescadores del lugar.
Translation: “Civilians from Belize conduct abusive incursion to Sarstoon sandbar in Izabal, indicating that it is Belizean territory. The Naval Commander of the Caribbean solicited documentation from the [Belizean] citizens but they indicated that they didn’t have to give them because they were in Belizean waters. The authorities made movements to control the situation. Even so, the [Guatemalan] inhabitants of the area feel threatened, especially the area’s fishermen.”
Belizean Resistance In Southern Belize: The Annexation of Sarstoon Island by Guatemala!
Wake Up Belize show with the revolutionary Belizean talk show host, Mose Hyde, featured Belizean Journalist Bilal Morris of the Los Angeles based Belizean organization BREDAA discussion the resistance movement that has developed against the insidious Guatemalan military oligarchy aggression and annexation of the southern Belizean island of Sarstoon on the Belize Sarstoon River. The two Belizean journalist and activists discussed the revolutionary actions of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) in their relentless resistance against the Guatemalan military oligarchy aggression since 2008 after the signing of the 2008 Compromis between the Belizean government and the Guatemalan government that would have taken both countries into a referendum to take the Belize/Guatemalan Dispute to the international Court of Justice. Since that time, the Guatemalan government has encouraged massive encroachments on Belizean land at the Southern border of Belize, and has violently aggressed Belizeans citizens, the Belize Coast Guard, and murdered a Belizean security personnel, Danny Conorquie. The issue is close to become an international catastrophe with the Guatemalan military blockade of the BTV expedition to the Sarstoon Island on Sunday August 16, 2015, as a show of resistance to establish claim to the island as Belizean territory.
Crisis On Belize's Sarstoon Island: A Progressive Media Forum!
The progressive Belizean KREM TV television show, The Morning Review, hosted by Sister Yaya Marin Coleman, analyzed the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) expedition to Belize's Sarstoon Island on Sunday August 16, 2015, at the advent of widespread objection by Belize government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security. Aired during a climate of political tension surrounding the BTV's relentless struggle to resist by all means the Guatemalan military oligarchy claims that the Sarstoon Island is a 'disputed' territory, the show presented the views and analysis of Belizean journalist, Bilal Morris of BREDAA, and Patrick Rogers of the Vision Inspired by the People (VIP).
Hon. Sedi Says He Doesn’t Believe The Media, He’ll Wait For The OAS Report
Since Sunday, the Sarstoon showdown between the Belize Territorial Volunteers and the Guatemalan Navy has dominated the headlines. As we showed you yesterday, the Guatemalans blockaded the 5 boats carrying 160 persons who wanted to tour the entire circumference of Sarstoon island, which remains the flashpoint for the territorial dispute. All accounts from those on the boat, and our video footage clearly show that it was the Guatemalans who approached first, and they were the ones who moved into positions which caused a dangerous game of bumper boats on the water.
But, Belize's Foreign Minister doesn't believe it. That's what Amandala readers saw on page 3 of the mid-week issue. The Foreign Minister scolded Sunday's participants, and simply doesn't believe the footage which shows aggressive engagement by the Guatemalans. In fact, he says, Sunday's encounter between the territorial volunteers and the Guat Navy officials was polite and civil.
In an interview with Amandala's Rowland Parks, Elrington says, quote, "We seem to be the only people who don't seem to understand the danger we are in…under the misguided idea of patriotism and sovereignty."
Elrington also implausibly asserts that the Government of Belize was monitoring the events from beginning to the end of the expedition. Yet, As we've told you, the Coast Guard was in Barranco Village, but they did not go anywhere near the Volunteers when they left the Barranco pier. Keeping on that topic, Rowland Parks challenges him with this question, asking quote, "How can you say that Government was monitoring the situation on the Sarstoon River, and you still need to await a report from the OAS to act on clear violation of Belize sovereignty?" Elrington then responds that he has received no report that there was an incursion. The reporter continues to challenge him on the video footage and news reports, and that's when he makes the statement, "I am saying to you that I do not take the word of the media as gospel. I prefer to take the word of an impartial third party, participant or witness."
As we showed you, Orlando De La Fuente had to force his way pass a persistent Guatemalan Navy boat captain which kept cutting him off, and it was not until a camera man challenged the team on the boat by pointing out to them that he was recording their aggressive tactics that they sort of left the lead Belizean boat alone and began throttling beside it. Well, Elrington commented in the Amandala article saying, quote, "Yesterday, it was the Guatemalans who extended courtesy to the BTV and allowed 3 of their 4 boats to go around the island."
Commenting further, Elrington said, "To want to go and tangle with a country that is so big, you've got to be idiotic."
Not surprisingly, PUP Senator Lisa Shoman is incensed by the comments. At a press conference held by the Opposition today, she told the press that she would be more than willing to brief the Foreign Minister and the Government about what she observed:
Hon. Lisa Shoman, PUP Senator "I remind the Foreign Minister that Belize is not at war with Guatemala, nor did we seek a casus belli. We went out there to make a political statement which is this: Belize is for Belizeans, we have our territorial integrity and our sovereignty. We were not out there to provoke anyone. There was much criticism that I had written the Guatemalan Ambassador. But I wrote him, to put on paper formally, not only my intention to be there, but to say to him that it was no part of anyone's intention to behave aggressively or to seek a confrontation. I did not ask him permission. I did not ask his approval. I did not expect his approbation nor was I seeking it."
"I am disappointed that the Foreign Minister of Belize is not interested in hearing from Belizeans as to what happened. The Foreign Minister of Belize, if he chooses to take a report from the OAS, has every right to do that. But to insinuate that 200 Belizeans who went there can't tell the truth about what happened. I think is an unfortunate matter. I would have hoped that the Foreign Minister would have reached out to me, because I am fully prepared, so that I could have provided him with a brief, since I am still a member I believe of the bi-partisan commission. I am prepared to do so now. In fact I will be writing to the Foreign Minister and i will make it public. So that he understands what happened yesterday."
Sarstoon, Imagine There’s No Showdown…
Last night, in our coverage of the trip to the Sarstoon, we focused on the confrontation on the River between the Guatemala Navy, and the Belize Territorial Volunteers. But, there is a completely different angle that we've yet to present. That's a look at the lighter side of the expedition, and how it would have unfolded, if there hadn't been a confrontation.
Tonight, we've have that story for you:
Daniel Ortiz reporting
At around 10 a.m. yesterday, approximately 200+ persons gathered onto this pier in Barranco Village. They came from the Orange Walk and Belize Districts, spending anywhere between 3 and a half to 6 hours on the road.
On this Sunday, they were there to travel to Sarstoon Island and see for themselves a spit of land in a wide river that has become ground zero for the Belize Guatemala territorial dispute.
In Barranco, they were pleasantly surprised to find police officers Coast Guard personnel on site. They were there to ensure the safety of those boarding the boats heading to the landing zone, a sand bar with waist deep water, right before the mouth of the Sarstoon River.
The Coast Guard's lead officer for the day took an opportunity to brief the gathering that they were there to ensure that life vests were worn, and that none of the 5 boats making the trip would be overloaded.
Coast Guard Officer "We want to go through preventative measures for your safety. No overcrowding of the vessels. The vessel can take 20 persons, cooperate and I believe there will be one vessel that will be making several trips. So everybody is here to support, we understand that, but we want to be safe at the same time."
Also, they conducted a firearms checkpoint just to be sure that no one was armed if they encountered the Guatemalan military.
But, for this trip, the Coast Guard's Boston Whaler, with armed officers, would not move from its position out in the sea in front of Barranco Village. They were under orders from the Government to observe, and handle citizen safety due to the rough seas, but they were not to accompany the expedition because contact between the two militaries could become deadly.
So, the 5 boats loaded up with passengers and set off to the landing area at the Sarstoon's mouth. Several trips were made back and forth, so that everyone who had made prior arrangements could get out there. In the end, though, only 160 - at $25 dollars a head - could make the trip, because any more than that and the boats would be overloaded.
At the landing area, the persons who had made the expedition gathered for a patriotic ceremony. The leaders were pleased with the turnout, but they would have wanted more:
Orlando De La Fuente - Co-Leader, Sarstoon Expedition "If you think that we have a population of like 350,000 and we have 160 shows up - it's poor. I mean I really would have expected like a ground swell, but we are very grateful for the Belizeans that did show up. They didn't show up here because it's easy, because you could be at home watching TV, watching a game or barbeque. But the ones that are here are patriotic and we really appreciate it. It says a lot."
Nancy Marin, Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "I am happy about the number of persons that came out. I think it's a pretty good turnout for the distance that everybody had to travel to be here. It is a good show. I was hoping to get closer to the island, but I guess this is the point where we can all stand. It is very important that Belizeans stand up, especially for this area. It's a very strategic military area and there are more reasons that one why Guatemala is claiming it."
But, from our observation, this chosen location in the water looked more like a swimming trip, than a high impact statement. It was a bit tough to get into character for the serious role that they had gathered for, yet, the importance was not lost on anyone.
Efrain Alpuche - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "Standing here is quite a pleasure. This is serious fun, but it's necessary to be done. It's about high time I think as Belizeans we stand together and make a stand about our patrimony - about our natural heritage and such. So standing here is worth the while."
Richard Dickie Bradley - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "Glenn Tillett and my son Richard, we have come along to support what Wil Maheia and the Territorial Volunteers are doing, because in the face of Guatemala's ramping up their harassment of our citizens - it is important to remember that while the island is in dispute, while they say it belongs to them or they are claiming it and we say it has always belong to us, we inherited it, in the meantime why we should not be able to come here."
Geovannie Brackett - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth
"A couple of us have made it out here from COLA and we are here to represent, we are here to support the cause to Wil and Orlando, has been advocating for. I think the support we've seen here today, clearly indicates that not only is this issue taken traction, but its having a massive wave of support and I think it's also a symbolism of that while many of us have lost faith in our political leadership, we have not lost faith in ourselves and the people are out here today in more than defiance, but is out here to say that you know what, if the government won't defend - we will."
Marcel Cardona - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "When we say we are Belizean we have to be proud of who we are. Proud of our national identity, proud of being part of this 8,867 square miles."
All around, Guatemalan Boats, some for the military, one for Guatemalan press, and two for teams representing the Organization of American States, moored in different locations. There was even a gunboat which resembled the one which ran aground a few months ago on Belize's barrier reef. One look at the military presence reminded that as beautiful a location as it was, this was no pleasure trip. Guatemala was playing for keeps.
Richard Dickie Bradley - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "It is an interesting thing that our government is telling us 'don't go there, it is dangerous, it is aggravating the situation, it is a place in dispute.' But they are not claiming only the Sarstoon Island, they are claiming Toledo. They are claiming Stann Creek, they are claiming all the southern part of our country from the river Sarstoon down to where we are. So the logic of that argument "don't go to Sarstoon Island, because it is a part of the dispute" then we should not come to PG."
Glenn Tillett - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "I was born a few miles up the coast from behind Monkey River. I've been coming to southern Belize nearly all my life. If you come to the Sarstoon area, to these areas, you will see more Guatemalans than Belizeans. I believe that possession is nine tenths of the law. We do not come to these areas regularly. We will lose them. There is one of the reasons I am here today."
Jose Novelo - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "I have gone to Gracias Adios, the last time when the 37 of us were taken to Livingston and we were made to suffer a night there. Well I decided to come back again and study these Guatemalans."
Audrey Matura-Shepherd - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "I just thought it was important to lend solidarity and support to the group and I was ask if I would be in the background to help, should anything arise. But clearly nothing will happen, because I think kudos to the Belize Territorial Volunteer especially those who travelled from Orange Walk and organize such a big contingency. Kudos to them for standing their ground, despite all the intimidation, despite all the press releases against them - despite everything. They are standing strong and I think that it was just appropriate that if they ask me for my help to just come in the background."
Hon. Lisa Shoman - Travelled to Sarstoon River Mouth "I don't see that there is anything that will be on toward happening here. I think that there is one Guatemalan military boat that I saw, but it was well within Guatemalan waters and I don't expect that we will have any incidents today. The worse that will happen is we will get a bad sun burn."
But, the Senator could not have foretold that as soon as the Belizeans left this location, the Guatemalans immediately stepped up and confronted them on how far they could go uncontested.
About 3 and a half hours later, Coast Guard commander John Borland pensively observed from a clearing far removed from the Barranco Pier. When he was satisfied that the Belizean citizens were all safe, he left the location, no doubt informed that a confrontation had taken place on the water - an area that they are most at home - but today - they had to play an observer's role.
As we said earlier in the news, we'll have the Government's side for you tomorrow.
Guatemalans Give Another Version Of Sarstoon Showdown
And, while the territorial volunteers gets a tongue lashing from the Foreign Minister, right now the expeditioners are also getting blasted in the Guatemalan media. We've seen news stories from 3 different media outlets from Guatemala, all of which slant against the volunteers. We'll get to the newspaper articles, but first, to that report we told you about last night from the Guatemalan news station, Canal Antigua TV. They got an interview with one of the most senior officers who tried to stop the volunteers from going to Sarstoon island. He's Guat Navy's Vice Admiral Carlos Thomas who also said that the Belizeans were the ones who were being abusive and aggressive. Here are his comments, which have been translated:
Carlos Thomas, Vice Admiral "This is a manifestation of a lack of knowledge of some Belizean citizens, by attempting to lodge themselves or a Belizean flag in Guatemalan territory. This historically, the Sarstoon River, the waters of the Sarstoon River, are internal waters which belong to the Guatemalan state. We acknowledged it as such, and the Navy recognizes its sovereignty and it is an important mission which we are carrying out here. Simply, we did a containment movement of this civilian population, which was poorly oriented, I would say, because of their aggressive and abusive approach. They intended to take possession of property which belongs to the Guatemalan state."
So, since a Guatemalan official has explained what they did, Senator Lisa Shoman is demanding that the Government of Belize protests the actions of the Guat Navy:
Hon. Lisa Shoman, PUP Senator "Utter rubbish. There was no way for us to go on Sarstoon Island because it is mangrove. That was actually never the intent in any case. Because the organizers saw that it would have been an issue. What we did is exactly what we were meant to do and this is why I say the words of Vice Admiral Carlos Thomas have been captured by Guatemalan media and it is the duty of our government to demand an explanation from Guatemala, but more importantly to immediately issue a note of protest, saying that they in fact came into our waters and that they have explaining to do."
Today, Guatemalan Newspaper, El Periodico, printed an article which quotes Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Raul Morales as describing the trip as a political issue not supported by the Belizean Government. He insisted that the issue should be resolved at the International Court of Justice, so that all such actions can be classified as, quote, "an invasion of Guatemalan land."
Prensa Libre also printed an article on it in which they report that there was high level governmental intervention to ask the Guatemalan Navy to back down and allow the Belizeans to travel true territorial waters they consider to be Guatemalan.
It’s Official! Guatemalan Military Made Incursion Into Belize, Protest Note Sent
It was an incursion by the Guatemalan military and Belize has sent a diplomatic protest note to Guatemala. That’s what Prime Minister told the media
today in a press conference about the Belize Territorial Volunteers trip to the Sarstoon Island.
The Prime Minister held the press conference at the Biltmore right after a meeting of the National Security Council which was held at the same hotel.
They reviewed the report on Sunday’s happenings from the OAS, as well as the video footage from the Belize Media, along with accounts from the Belize
The PM sat at the head table flanked by with members of the Security Council to say that the Guatemalan military entered Belizean territory, and that
it cannot go unchallenged:
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"The OAS reports that even the four small Belizean boats were at first intercepted by the Guatemalans before they were able to proceed towards the
island. And both that temporary interception of the small boats and the permanent interception of the bigger boat took place, as I understand Ms.
Talamas, at the mouth of the Sarstoon River. It is my belief that what the OAS describes as the mouth of the Sarstoon River, is clearly in
Belizean waters, and that the Guatemalan Navy committed an incursion when they intercepted our boats at that spot. The Territorial Volunteers, and the
Belizean media, confirm the fact of this incursion, and General Jones and Admiral Borland-after viewing video footage-fully concur. Now whether our
four Volunteer boats also went into Guatemala during the course of
entering, circling and exiting the area of the island, must remain unanswered for now. The Volunteers say no, and the OAS doesn't say yes."
"Any unwitting Belizean entry into Guatemala by unarmed, civilian boats is of a different order completely from the deliberate violation committed
against us by a presumably well- armed Guatemalan Navy. An extremely strong protest note has therefore been prepared by our Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, and was approved just now by NSC for immediate dispatch to the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry with a copy to the OAS."
The protest note has been copied to the Organization of American States.
General Says The Territorial Volunteers Are Endangering Soldiers
And so while that protest is one issue, the larger issue is really the Sarstoon – and how the Guatemalans have started to show aggression on the shared
river. That brings into very clear and present danger the BDF patrols that must go up the river weekly or bi weekly to change over personnel at the
Cadenas observation post. And BDF Commander, General David Jones says the Guatemalans have stepped up the aggression since the territorial volunteers
have been active. The General said plainly that it’s putting his soldiers’ lives in danger:
Brig. General David Jones - Commander, BDF
"What we've noticed of recent that; the Guatemalan patrols follow our vessels, sometimes for a kilometer up the Sarstoon. But recently they have been
going all the way to Cadenas to follow patrol and that isn't normal. Apparently they were informed at the lower level that they were not supposed to go
all the way there. But of recent because of the traction of what is happening with the Territorial Volunteers wanting to go to the Sarstoon Island; and
wanting to show their patriotism in the area, they have escalated their interest in what's happening in the Sarstoon. I must add that this can change
the status quo of the relationship that we have military to military. Because we have been going through that river, unimpeded for decades without
incident; and for the first time we've had the interception is after when the Territorial Volunteers is showing their patriotism in the area. That's
the first time we've had any interception of this sort that could have resulted in an incident."
"Sir are the volunteers endangering the lives of your soldiers?"
Brig. General David Jones - Commander, BDF
"They surely are. I have passed this warning prior to the incident. They don't have all the facts together. They don't understand that; we of course as
the military and as Belizeans, we have the position that the mid channel of the Sarstoon, to the north of it belongs to us, which includes the Sarstoon
Island. But the Guatemalans have a different view. It is not prudent to solve it with violence. It is not prudent to solve it with force. It is prudent
to solve it through mediation, that's the best way to get it done."
BDF Wanted To Be There
And so while there’s going to be a protest note, and a meeting at the OAS in Washington, ultimately the BDF has the job of maintaining sovereignty in
the Sarstoon. But they also have to ensure citizen security – and that’s why they have been bashed for keeping their distance when the Guatemalan Navy
was bullying Belizeans on the Sarstoon. General Jones said that the military wanted to be there, but that instead of providing security, their presence
would have had the opposite effect:
Brig. General David Jones - Commander, BDF
"We understand what Guatemala's position is. We know what our position is; and if we had our military forces out there, of course, we're patriotic as
well. You cannot question the patriotism of any of our soldiers because they stand ready to defend Belize and they will continue to do so. Had we been
out there; of course we would have not liked to watch our civilians being bullied by any force. We would have wanted to defend them and we would have
defended them. But it would have resulted, inevitably to gun fire; and they were women and children out there and civilians out there. So we took the
prudent view and not send the military out there for such a trek; because we had advised them not to. And that is still our stance."
Admiral John Borland - Commander, Belize National Coast Guard
"Military to military engagement when both military are on operations and on patrol can be contained, can be averted between the protocols that exist
between both militaries. When we have civilians in the middle, then that is an area where we might not be able to control the action of our opposite
forces. And therefore, the reason why, one of the reasons why the military was not in that expedition on an escort or security role."
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"I have already described the tension and volatility inherent in the situation of our active dispute with Guatemala over the Sarstoon River. It gives
rise to regular confrontations and standoffs between our military and theirs, which thankfully so far have not erupted into any exchange of fire. That
must in some measure be the result of the training and ability as well as the bravery of our troops."
Even The OAS Got Intercepted By the Gung Ho Guat Navy
As we showed you in our coverage, Magdalena Talamás, the Chief of the OAS Chief Fund, which mediates the territorial dispute between Belize and
Guatemala, was out on the river when the territorial volunteers went to tour the Sarstoon Island.
Well, according to the Prime Minister, both his government and the Guatemalan Government, in the person of no less than Present Otto Perez Molina
requested that the OAS be there to monitor the situation as an impartial observer. The militaries of both countries were to have been informed, but
even the OAS was intercepted by the Guatemalans. He noted that this would tend to point to a situation where the Guatemalan officials say one thing
while the military does another:
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"I just wanted to add something to the exchange between you and the general, relating to this question of whether the orders that we are told are given
at the top in Guatemala actually filtered down. Ms. Talamas' report makes clear that before the Guatemalan navy intercepted the Territorial Volunteers,
they intercepted her. She got out there in this Belizean boat; she gave the name I don't know is Lawrence of anybody remembers. Good Times. Hell of a
misnomer. And she said; the report says that before she could reach the mouth of the river, the Guatemalans came to intercept her. She explained this
is OAS, we are here on an observer mission, asked for by your government and the Belize government. The particular vessel captain said, I don't know
anything about that. She said well let me go to where they have a sort of permanent camp on their bank of the river. And as she was proceeding to do
that, another vessel came up and intercepted her; this time commanded by, as she calls him Vice Admiral Thomas, who is somebody our admiral had spoken
to in advance of Sunday's incident. And Vice Admiral Thomas told Ms. Talamas; that he too knew nothing of her mission. She pulled out the note to the
OAS sent by their Foreign Ministry. I know from our foreign minister, that the Secretary General of the OAS had gotten in touch with him Friday or
Saturday; to confirm that he had spoken directly to President Perez Molina. Who, was aware of the OAS mission and who gave certain undertakings. And
then this is what happens when the OAS reaches the spot."
So, even the OAS report points to the aggression of the Guatemalan military. Is that enough to convince the foreign minister Wilfred Elrington? On
Monday, he told the Amandala that he didn’t buy the media’s account – and went further to say, quote, “it was the Guatemalans who extended courtesy to
the BTV and allowed 3 of their 4 boats to go around the island.” Guatemalans? Courtesy? Well, now we know, not even the OAS would buy that line.
And neither, apparently, does the Prime Minister. He said that the media’s coverage of the confrontation confirmed that the Guatemalan military came
into Belizean territory. He also said that the Guatemalan Navy’s actions are inexcusable, and so that’s why the Government had to protest.
So, where does that leave Foreign Minister Elrington? We asked the Prime Minister if the Foreign Minister is the right man for the job:
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"I am not going to comment on what the Foreign Minister said; I heard of some interview, I haven't seen it, I haven't read it. But the line that you
ultimately take is from me. This is a Prime Minister's press conference, you've heard that line and I will tell you that I speak not just for my
office; but for the entire Cabinet and Government of Belize."
"Sir if there is such a cleavage of views between what we call reality; between yourself and the Foreign Minister. Have you then considered that
perhaps Mr. Elrington should no longer hold this portfolio of Foreign Affairs?"
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"How you get there Jules? I repeat that whether you want to describe it as a cleavage or not; whether you want to point to some cleavage that I do not
conceded exists at all. The line that I have given is the official line of the Government of Belize."
"Mr. Elrington is always the flash point or the contact whenever there is any dispute or any sort of issues when it comes to Guatemala and Belize. And
sometimes his comments do not reflect the positions you take; and from time to time it appears that his comments are appeasing to our good neighbour.
So is there some issue that Mr. Elrington is not applying what you believe is the position of the government?"
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"You base your question on a judgement you make of Mr. Elrington's utterances. I don't know that I accept your judgement."
"But it's on the record sir."
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"I'm not saying I don't, I'm not saying I do. But you surely will understand that I can't answer a question that is premised on your judgement."
We’ll have a bit more from the press conference a little later on when the Prime Minister asserts that Sarstoon Island is Belizean territory, and that
the State continues to exert its sovereignty over it, as well as half of the Sarstoon River.
GOB: Sarstoon Es Nuestro
At the top of the news you heard Government’s position on the Sarstoon Showdown between Belizean civilians and the Guatemalan Navy. So, what about the
Sarstoon River, and the Sarstoon Island? As we’ve shown you, the Territorial Volunteers went to the Sarstoon Island to send a statement to Guatemala
and the world that the island is for Belize. More importantly, they were of the opinion that the Belize Government was slowly ceding territory through
So, what is the Prime Minister’s position on these areas considered to Belizean territory? He explained it to the press today:
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"Guatemala claims the River Sarstoon not in the same way as it claims other portions of ourcountry. Their position is that what we know to be Belize never included the Sarstoon River, and that our border in that area stopped at the bank of the river on the Belize side. So the entire Sarstoon was always, they argue, part of Guatemalan territory andrecognized as belonging to them."
"We consider that to be completely wrong, and against both history and geography. We
therefore unequivocally maintain that the boundary between the two countries is the mid channel of the River, so acknowledged from time immemorial and
stated in the 1859
Treaty. And we accordingly continue to declare that we are sovereign over our half of the Sarstoon River. We say this; we mean this; we will never change this. And as it is with the Sarstoon, so it is with all of Belize: this territory is ours, the entire 8,867 square miles of it. And our sovereignty over our country, which not only our military but ultimately all of us areprepared to defend to the death, is unalterable, unshakable, immovable."
"But with respect to the Sarstoon River we don't just lay claim to our sovereignty, we actupon it. Every Tuesday the Belize Defence Force takes a replacement contingent ofsoldiers up our side of the Sarstoon River to our military outpost at Cadenas, and bringsback down the River the troops being rotated out from Cadenas. In doing this, andconsistent with our assertion of sovereignty, we ask neither leave nor license from the Guatemalans."
So, how does the State demonstrate its sovereignty over that area? Well, According to the Prime Minister the military regularly traverses the Sarstoon
while keeping a presence at the Cadenas Observation Post:
Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"Our BDF are routinely challenged by the Guatemalans and, as happened just last Tuesday, frequently told to turn back. Our soldiers never retreat and
are never deterred by these standoffs. They always complete their mission even when, as also happened last Tuesday, they are threatened by the
Guatemalan Navy with the ramming of their boat and/or a firefight. In the circumstances, for anyone to claim that there is a sovereignty vacuum
regarding our half of the Sarstoon; or that our troops are anything less than resolute and courageous in maintaining our sovereignty, does an
intolerable disservice to the brave men and women of the Belize Defence Force and the Belize Coast Guard."
Prime Minister Meets With NTV; Common Cause Reached
Last night, you saw extensive coverage of the Prime Minister's Press Conference in which he discussed the issues and implications surrounding the activities of the Belize Territorial Volunteers. He praised the patriotism of the volunteers, and announced that a diplomatic protest has been made against the aggressive incursion of the Guatemalan Navy, but, after all that, he implored the volunteers not to make another trip to the Sarstoon River and Island.
Part of the reason for that is the danger to civilians, but also because it strains the military relations between the Belize and Guatemalan armies. Brigadier General David Jones said it plainly: because of the actions of the territorial volunteers, the lives of his soldiers are being endangered.
But, still, the Prime Minister today held a meeting with the leaders of the Northern Territorial Volunteers, which is a completely separate group from the Belize Territorial Volunteers - though they share similar ideas and goals.
The meeting lasted for just over an hour, and when they exited, we spoke with the Leader, Giovanni Antonio De La Fuente. Here's what he said about how the conversation with PM went:
Antonio De la Fuente - Leader, Northern Territorial Volunteer "We came here and we met with the Prime Minister and we briefed him on the goals and objectives of the NTV and as you well know the goals and objectives on the NTV (I don't have to tell you again), but I would just briefly outlined - it relates to educating the Belizean people about their border markers. More specifically, the western border markers between Guatemala and Belize. So the Prime Minister has been enlightened and briefed about the goals and objectives of the NTV and we discussed the area of education and we both agreed that more needs to be done in the country of Belize to educate especially the primary school, high school and all students in Belize. More needs to be done by the Education Department to educate the Belizean people about the history of Belize and the border markers of Belize."
"The Prime Minister has indicated that he recognizes the need and the Ministry of Education will be encouraged to do more in educating Belize about their history and border markers."
Reporter "Did you discussed with the Prime Minister any future trips to particularly the Sarstoon Island area?"
Antonio De la Fuente "Listen, our group the NTV is limited in its scope. We as a group are not mandated to be doing all kinds things. Our only function is to take Belizeans to their border markers and try to educate Belizeans about their border markers on the western front of Belize. So we explained our determination to the Prime Minister that these field trips or expeditions will not stop. We will continue and we will continue to work with any Belizean group that is willing to participate in these activities."
So, since Sarstoon has become a heated and somewhat volatile location, will the De La Fuentes be going back there to assert their patriotism? That's what we asked Antonio De La Fuente, and here's what he had to say:
Antonio De la Fuente - Leader, Northern Territorial Volunteer "Most definitely we have not compromise our position. We will not stop in our process of taking Belizeans to their border and so Prime Minister is knowledgeable of that fact and he knows that we will continue these trips."
Daniel Ortiz "The Gracias Adios border marker which you have to pass through Sarstoon River, that is a area that is currently according to the general, a hot zone right now because of the activities of the BTV. Will you be making any trips in that general area?"
Antonio De la Fuente "The NTV would love to make the next trip, a trip to the Gracias Adios area, because as you well know in February 27th, we install a plaque on that monument and the plaque has been stolen and removed and we informed the Prime Minister that that plaque needs to be replaced. But it is not an easy feet. First of all, nobody supports this group monetarily. The first thing we need to do is raise funds and get another plaque and these plaques cost over one thousand dollars. So, if you find somebody that is able and willing to donate another plaque, immediately that will speed us up on returning to that area. But to return to that area we need several thousand dollars."
Daniel Ortiz "Do you take the point that the general has made that going to Gracias Adios which you passed through the Sarstoon River, passed the Sarstoon Island will put their soldiers at risks? Do you accept that point?"
Antonio De la Fuente "Of course I do. It not only puts the soldiers at risk, it puts everybody at risk. But as we outlined to the Prime Minister, there comes a time in your country when the military is called upon to do its duty that they have sworn to do and when that time comes, the military will have to stand up. But you cannot take away from the fact that in most countries that have gone through trials and tribulations, the people, the ordinary citizens have also, the government needs to take into effect that the ordinary people can also be counted on and we made him quite cognizant of the fact that the NTV as well other organizations in Belize has shown that they are ready and more than willing to stand for Belize."
Mike Rudon, CH5 "Do you accept the government's position that it is directly because of the BTV, that aggression in the southern area near the Sarstoon has increased? The BDF Commander went so far as to say that it was never that way before. They were never intercepted before until the BTV went to that area."
Antonio De la Fuente "As far as I know the BDF has been intercepted many times before. And so I don't think that it's a cause for our movement in that area that the aggression has stepped up. It seems to me that they have over many years been aggressing Belize."
There is, however, an unusual development coming from the meeting between the Prime Minister and the Northern Territorial Volunteers. Last night, while listening to PM Barrow discuss the activities of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, it sounded like while he understands their feelings of patriotism, he would really prefer if they would stop due to the headache that it gives to the Government while trying to maintain friendly diplomatic relations with Guatemala. But, it appears the Prime Minister is willing to assist the Northern Territorial Volunteers on their visits to Garbutts Falls in the West and Aguas Turbias in the north. Here's how De La Fuente explained the proposal that he will make to his fellow members of the National Security Council at the next meeting:
Antonio De la Fuente - Leader, Northern Territorial Volunteer "We did explained to and we told him that it's quite possible in a few weeks the NTV will be embarking on another expedition to the Garbutt Falls border monument which is in Benque Viejo area. The Prime Minister has committed himself that at the next meeting of the National Security Council which should be occurring in September, he will present to the members and ask as of that point and in the future they should be finding and looking at different ways how they can assists the NTV and BTV as they visit two different border markers and these two markers that the Prime Minister is speaking about are the Tres Banderas border marker and the Garbutt Falls border marker. So the Prime Minister has stated that at the next meeting of the National Security Council, he will be bringing it up to them and asking for a vote and if it is a positive vote, the details will be worked out and at that point and in the future whenever there is a another field trip planned for these areas and is this group requests their assistance, which we always do, they would be more active than they have been in the past."
The “Battle” for Sarstoon – a first person account As usual these are my observations and opinions solely, and, of course, my conclusions for my own purposes. It is NOT a news report.
The women! Carolyn Trench-Sandiford woke me up a few minutes after 4:00 a.m. and quite adeptly drove us to Barranco Village. Although I had awakened at 3:00 am and had gotten up and made coffee, I went back to bed and for some inexplicable reason fell back asleep. I was awakened from blissful sleep when she hollered for me outside and I cannot thank her enough. I would’ve hated to have missed going to the Sarstoon.
As a citizen I am thankful for the efforts of the Belizean Territorial Volunteers to try and wake up Belizeans from their induced sedation where the existential threat that Guatemala’s claim is to the nation of Belize. The BTVIPNP saying “No” to the ICJ does not make a lot of sense to me but the effort to draw attention to Guatemala’s posture, (stance and action), as well their more critical-than-not analyses of and commentary on the GOB’s dispute management in this regard is very needed at a time when the official opposition has been too circumspect in my estimation.