Following an incident on the Sarstoon River on August 16, in which the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) on an expedition to Sarstoon Island were subject to intimidating tactics by elements of the Guatemalan navy in Belizean waters, Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow held a press conference at which he told the nation that, “An extremely strong protest note has therefore been prepared by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was approved just now by the NSC [National Security Council] for immediate dispatch to the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry, with a copy to the OAS.”
On August 16, the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), led by its founder Wil Maheia, and Orlando De La Fuente, leader of the Northern Territorial Volunteers, led an expedition to Sarstoon Island, where they were accosted by elements of the Guatemalan Navy inside Belize territorial waters in the presence of Organization of American States (OAS) observers, who themselves also were subject to acts of aggression by the Guatemalans until they were able to identify themselves.
Prime Minister Barrow, however, never told the Belizean people that Guatemala responded on August 24 to the protest note Belize had sent.
At the meeting of the Senate on Friday, however, snippets of the exchange between Belize and Guatemala were revealed by the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) Senator Lisa Shoman, who is also a member of the Belize Bipartisan Commission on the Guatemalan claim, and who has also tabled a motion calling for a Senate inquiry by the Chief Executive Officers in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
In speaking on the BTV issue, Senator Shoman told the Senate that she is bound by rules of confidentiality as a member of the Bipartisan Commission on Guatemala, but said, “I am invoking my immunity in this House for this reason, that Belizeans have a right to know the full contents of that diplomatic note.”
The diplomatic note to which Senator Shoman was making reference was sent on August 13, the same day that she wrote to Minister of Foreign Affairs Wilfred “Sedi” Elrington, who did not answer her correspondence.
In that diplomatic note that she had seen, the Belize Government told the Guatemalans that, “It [the Government of Belize] has publicly denounced the expedition of the BTV”, and that “Lisa Shoman, who is a senator, is not going in any official capacity, nor does she have the support of the Government of Belize,” Senator Shoman told the Senate.
Senator Shoman said, “On the following day, August 14, the Secretary General of the OAS submitted a letter to the then President of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, requesting his assistance with regard to the activities of the BTV and asking that the navy be coordinated with the representative of the OAS to avoid unnecessary friction, errors, accidents or misunderstandings that could harm the important work that has happened so far.”
Since the BTV’s formation about two years ago, the Belize government had taken a hands-off attitude towards the BTV, and PM Barrow also said at his press conference that there was no need for the BTV to visit Sarstoon Island in the future to assert Belizean sovereignty, because the BDF has been doing that from its military base at Cadenas for years, and every Tuesday, there is a changing of the guard posted there.
Speaking at the Prime Minister’s press conference, the Belize Defence Force leader, Brigadier General David Jones, said that the BTV presence in the Sarstoon would create difficulties for his soldiers, and upset the “good relations” the BDF has with their Guatemalan counterparts.
General Jones also said that their thinking now is that Sarstoon Island is not a suitable location for the construction of a Forward Operating Base.
When the media asked PM Barrow whether he would reveal the contents of the diplomatic protest note to Guatemala, he responded by saying that he did not see anything wrong with that, but he would have to check into it to see if he could, because it was a diplomatic note.
Senator Shoman went on to tell the Senate that the Government of Belize did write a protest note to Guatemala, but she noted, “It has never said to Belizeans, Mr. President, that the government’s diplomatic note to Guatemala called the BTV expedition ‘the visit of a few unarmed civilians,’ and said that it was out of prudence and restraint and out of an abundance of caution to avoid any possible confrontation or mishap, that the GOB withheld its own armed forces from being in the vicinity of the activity.”
Senator Shoman told the Senate that what the protest note should have said was, “how dare you come into our territorial waters, unno come in ya illegally!”
“But that’s not what it said. What it says, is, yes, the Guatemalan vessels rammed Belizean civilians, obstructed free navigation and entered illegally into Belizean waters, and that it reaffirms its position in the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty, and as such time as this thing is settled in the ICJ, that the Government of Belize will stick to the Confidence-Building Measures and will not do anything that will cause incident on the ground, and that it agrees to exercise caution and restraint,” Senator Shoman went on to state.
Senator Shoman further explained, “It does not say that unno gone deh, gone do badness, and unno better no do it again, or we wan deal with unno diplomatically or otherwise. Certainly, that may not be diplomatic language, but certainly we would have liked to see the kind of language that we received from the protest note back from Guatemala, where they [the Guatemalans] basically said, ‘we hear everything that you say in your note, and we reject it totally and completely. We blame you for what happened, because you are the one who allowed this organization and this Senator Lisa Shoman to go.’
“And moreover, no come tell we nothing bout the Sarstoon, because in precise diplomatic language, we do not recognize the existence of borders with Belize.”
“That was Guatemala’s response,” Shoman told the Senate.
Senator Shoman told the Senate that “Guatemala tells us formally in writing in that diplomatic note, that they are allowing us to go to Cadenas; they are providing us with escorts and we better be grateful for that, because that is their river, their island, their water, and we enter at their sufferance.”
“I have heard everything, with all due respect to the Commandant of the Belize Defence Force, the Brigadier General. I have heard everything he had to say on television. From where the Guatemalans sit, they were escorting him, but they were doing everything out of ‘courtesy,’ and they made sure that they followed the Belizean BDF boat at a high speed all the way into Belizean waters before withdrawing.
“And they have said that they will continue to do so in a spirit of goodwill and cooperation, which has been distorted by the Government of Belize, which has interpreted their cooperation as a non-existent act of sovereignty,” Shoman told the Senate.
Prime Minister Barrow has said that the Guatemalans often accost the BDF when they are on their way to Cardenas, and sometimes even tell them to turn back.
That information has never been released to the Belizean public, and at the press conference, the Prime Minister did not say how long Guatemala has been adopting this belligerent posture.
Brigadier General Jones, as recently as six days ago, told Love FM, “So historically, we have been patrolling the Sarstoon River and we have always patrolled south of the Sarstoon Island, because we believe it belongs to us and that is the belief that we continue to have, but it’s just recently that we’ve learnt that they believe the entire river belongs to them, and we have no jurisdiction over the river, that is their belief.”
General Jones also said that the Sarstoon area, “is strategic not just for Belize; it’s also strategic for Guatemala, and it’s also an important area for Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and the United States, because there is a lot of illegal transshipment of drugs that goes through there. There is human trafficking that occurs there; there is also other illegal activities that go through there so it comes in through the region and it goes through, and there is only one military force operating there, Guatemala, so my discussion over a year now is for us to work together as neighboring countries, military to military; the response is yes, it’s a wise idea, let’s do it.”
“These conferences I’ve had with all the Central American generals and also with the officers in Mexico and also with the generals in the United States, we’ve all agreed that it’s something that needs to happen; Belize needs to have a base there,” General Jones said.
General Jones also said that when they go into the Sarstoon River, they travel at high speed “and if the Guatemalans want to follow our vessels, that is their issue.”
The general apparently did not have an issue with the Guatemalan military being in Belizean waters.
He denied that the Guatemalans are chasing the BDF vessels, even though they were recorded by Wil Maheia’s Belize Territorial Volulnteers (BTV) as travelling at a high speed into Belizean waters.
With that assertion, the General is probably right, because as the Guatemalan diplomatic note states, they “escort” the Belizean military vessels, through what should be Belizean waters, “as a matter of courtesy.”
Senator Shoman told the Senate that the time has come for Belize to build that forward operating base, to bulk up the Customs and Immigration department to deal with illegal fishermen and gill nets in the Sarstoon River and to re-internationalize Belize’s just claim.