So, to recap where we are tonight - no amassment of troops or arms were seen on the Guatemalan side of the Chiquibul today. But the Guatemalan government continues to post pictures on its twitter feed, like these which show the military attending the funeral for 13 year old Julio Alvarado - who was fatally shot by the BDF. They also continue to post pictures of their military mobilizing to the adjacency zone. And there are also photos of his injured father recovering in the hospital. The BDF says they came under fire from the Guatemalans on Wednesday night 380 meters inside Belize, and were forced to return fire in the dark. The child's body was not found until they were clearing out the area.
But, the Guatemalans President met with the Prime Minister in New York today and agreed to de-escalate. We'll see what that means on the ground.
PM Barrow Meets President Morales In NY: Pledges to “De-Escalate”Tonight, Belizeans can breathe just a little easier - because the news at this hour is that Prime Minister Dean Barrow met with his Guatemalan counterpart Jimmy Morales in New York - and Morales agreed to de-escalate. It happened in the margins of the signing of the UN Climate Change Agreement - which both leaders are attending at the United Nations. Via telephone, the Prime Minister sent a synopsis of the meeting to Belizean media houses. Here's how he explained their meeting.
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister
"I have today met with President Morales in the marching of the UN Climate Change signing ceremony. I have indicated to President Morales that the position taken by him and his government cannot conduce to peace and that there is an immediate need to de-escalate tensions. We agreed that all measures will be taken to achieve end. We agreed that while we are awaiting the results of the inquiry, contact/dialogue must be maintained to ensure that there are no breaches of the peace that exists between Belize and Guatemala. We also spoke about the Sarstoon and again, we agreed that there is indeed the work of some kind of a protocol to govern the operation of the two countries on the Sarstoon. So, I am satisfied that our message has been deliberate, while I cannot pretend that the government of Guatemala is other than insistent that their version of events is correct and while they continue to say that in their view the BDF murdered this minor. We reiterated that there cannot be that kind of a rush to judgement especially in view of our conviction that the BDF was exercising its right to self defence. In addition to that, in Belize from Belmopan, officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from my office of the Prime Minister, are in touch with the Americans, British and others of our partners and to keep them completely in the loop as we proceed as to ask them as well to urge that the Guatemalans do what in fact, I repeat, President Morales has promise that he will do - that is de-escalate tensions, have us return to a state of normalcy, continue the dialogue and the communication while we await the findings of the inquiry. Pending the result of that exercise, Belize maintains its position, which is that our soldiers came under attack or fired upon and that what happened was a consequence of their returning fire in an effort to defend themselves. While clearly the loss of the Guatemalan life is regretted and while we are particularly anxious because it was a minor that was killed, we insist that the Belize Defence Force, based on the reports they have submitted, confirmed by the members of the Friends for Conservation (FCD), as a civilian portion - as part of the civilian complement - as part of the patrol, their confirmation makes us even more insistent that pending the results of the inquiry, the position is as we have officially. I recollected for the President, that Sgt. Lambey was shot perhaps just two weeks ago and also recalled the murder of special constable Conorquie, but while of course we cannot prove that Guatemalan civilians were responsible, that is certainly the thought, the feeling, the conviction and it goes to show how dangerous the situation is. We will also as we have done on previous occasion seek the assistance of the United States asking them to deploy a forensic or number of forensics experts to help with the reconstruction of the incident. We are confident that in fact there will be this lessening of tension."
The PM's telephone message in its full ten minute entirety will air after the news. But to go over the key points, the two leaders met this evening in New York, and Morales agreed to de-escalate. Second, the OAS will do an investigation, and third, the Americans will help in doing a forensic investigation. Now, the Prime Minister has not disclosed specifics, such as whether "de-escalating" means Morales will call back his troops. As we reported last night, Morales yesterday recorded an incendiary statement saying that his army would be sending troops to the western and southern border. This is in response to the BDF fatally shooting a 13 year old Guatemalan boy in the Cebada area of the Chiquibul. The Guatemalans says he was shot eight times; the BDF says they came under fire in the dark, and returned fire in self defence. Pictures posted on the Guatemalan government's facebook page show those deployments - including the feared kaibil special forces. The Prensa Libre reports that three thousand troops were being deployed.
National Security Council Meets
And while Belize City citizens are ready to go to war to protect their home, they might be consoled to know that the National Security Council has also taken a hardline. Security Minister John Saldivar met this morning with the senior command of the security forces. A press release says that quote, "all security forces have been placed on high alert and a short term strategy has been devised to deal with further possible incidents along the border areas and in the Sarstoon."
To follow up on that, a meeting of the National Security Council was held this afternoon at the Prime Minister's office - and it was chaired by Acting Prime Minister Gaspar Vega. It finished at a few minutes to six, and he briefed the media on the most important decisions taken today:..
Hon. Gaspar Vega
"This afternoon the National Security Council held a special meeting to discuss the events that took place at the Chiquibul National Park. At that meeting the Rt. Hon. Prime Minister participated via a telephone conference and he informed us that he has already met with the President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales, where they both agreed that they will do whatever it needs to be done to de-escalate the tension at the borders and to avoid any military confrontation, and has met with the Deputy Secretary General of the UN, he has met with the Secretary General of CARICOM and later today he was to have a meeting with the Secretary General of the OAS, who is at headquarter at the moment, due to the crisis they are going through."
The View Across The Sarstoon Clear
According to the Guatemalan Government's twitter feed, most of those troops will be deployed to the Sarstoon area, which the Guatemalan's seem to want to annex - even though half the river is theirs, and half is for Belize.
Now that river is right at the edge of the Toledo District, so today we flew down to Punta Gorda to see if they had started any amassing of troops or arms on their side of the river. Daniel Ortiz reports:...
Daniel Ortiz reporting
Shortly after arriving in PG, the Belize City based media houses quickly boarded the boat arranged by Border Activist Wil Maheia.
The intention was to go the Sarstoon Border, since hearing the bold public statements from Guatemalan President, Jimmy Morales to increase military presence at the Borders.
File: April 21, 2016
Jimmy Morales - Guatemalan President
"We have decided that from this moment we shall exercise strict protection of the sovereignty of the Sarstoon River and all the adjacency zone to ensure that there is no more abuse on the part of the Belize Defense Force against the territory and people of Guatemala."
Along the way, we saw the usual illegal fishing, which was business as usual, just another ordinary day in Belizean waters.
After about an hour or little more later, we arrived at the mouth of the Sarstoon, and it looked more or less like it has in the recent past trips.
From what our cameras could catch, there had not been any increased military presence. The number of vessels or personnel at the Guatemalan Naval Base didn't appear any bigger than it had the last times we saw it. The Military Presence wasn't beefed up in any measurable way that these tweets from the Guatemalan Government suggest. That could mean a number of things, including the fact that the new troops hadn't deployed yet, or that they could still be en route.
But, being out at the entrance of the Sarstoon, it was tense. When our boat finally arrived near the Belizean Sarstoon Forward Operating Base, the BDF made us know that our presence was not welcomed. It was quite a contrast to Wednesday's Ceremonial Opening, when they warmly invited the entire media unto the compound of their base.
Sarstoon Patrol Officer
"You can't dock here. We haven't grant you permission to dock here."
"Can we are asking permission to dock?"
Sarstoon Patrol Officer
"Even in an emergency, you could see the engine shutdown."
We saw a ranking soldier making a phone calls, more than likely signaling their Commanders in Central Belize that civilians were at the border.
Unfortunately, another vessel followed the media out to Sarstoon, and a few of the men onboard appeared drunk and were behaving belligerently.
The corresponding demeanor of the soldiers suggested that our mere presence was aggravating. That certainly was made clear because as soon as the Guatemalan military spotted 2 civilian vessels in the river, they revved up the engines of their riverine vessels and raced out in front of Sarstoon Island.
That apparent blockade, plus the stony silence from the Belize Military was enough and we got the message. It was time to leave before we attracted hostile attention.
PUP Says Pres Morales’ Motives TransparentAt the top of the news you heard about the Prime Minister's meeting with the Guatemalan President who has agreed to de-escalate. Time will tell what that means on the ground, but in some sense, the damage is already done. Observers say President Jimmy Morales has already shown his hand as a reactionary. One who completed his one hundredth day in the Presidency today and is not getting rave reviews in his home country. In fact, a huge protest was held today in Guatemala City by tens of thousands of indigenous people. So he could be using the old Belizean threat as a distraction. And the PUP didn't mince words in accusing him of that today. The PUP held an emergency executive meeting today - and when it was done the new representative in the Belize Guatemala negotiations Eamon Courtenay addressed the media.
Eamon Courtenay, PUP Rep., BZ, Guatemala Relations
"The People's United Party condemns in the strongest possible terms, the aggression by Guatemala by amassing troops at the border. We also condemn and reject its assertion of sovereignty over the Sarstoon. The deployment of its Naval and Military forces in the Sarstoon contributes a threat to peace and security in the region and between our two countries and that is a breach of international law. The government of Guatemala is not acting in good faith and that we cannot continue to take them at their word. We continue to express concern about the way in which we appear to be focused solely on going to the ICJ. Whilst at the same time, the facts on the ground are changing to our detriment. The death of a young person, regardless of who is at fault, does not justify the action that Guatemala has taken in the Sarstoon. It does not justify massing 3,000 troops and ammunition and equipment along our western boarder. He grabbed on to this death as the basis and justification for advancing his new full frontal military approach towards Belize. The response of the Government of Guatemala is not only disproportionate, but it is designed by military men. It is designed by a president who is held hostage by generals and that they have adopted a non-peaceful approach to their relations with Belize. The international community needs to understand that, the PUP calls on the government to be aggressive, to deal with these matters in the most effective way. And we believe that the most effective way is to launch a diplomatic offensive where we can convince those persons and those countries who have an interest in maintaining peace and security in the region will call upon the government of Guatemala to desist from what they're doing, to take effective measures to stop their people coming across the border into Belize and plundering our resources and acting illegally. That responsibility falls squarely on the Government, we are saying that the government must do its job and we are saying that we are prepared to continue to work with the Government to attain the just objectives for the Belizean people. We think as a first step we should recall our ambassador to Guatemala to Belize for consultation. The situation is this, we have not heard from the Prime Minister personally, we have not seen the Prime Minister and in this day and age that can easily be arranged. It is his duty and his responsibility to address the Belizean people and to give them confidence that this matter is being attended to and that we will remain safe and secure. We have not even heard from the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of national security appeared to be, in my view, somewhat contradictory in the positions and statements that he was making. What the Belizean people want now is an assurance, not that we will go to war, but that war will be avoided. That every effort is being taken to ensure that there shall be no breach of the peace. We call on the Government to do so, to give the people that assurance. We want to see, we want to hear, from the leader of our country."
"Is it as serious as it seems? Or is it, in your opinion, just table rattling?"
Eamon Courtenay, PUP Rep., BZ, Guatemala Relations
"I think we are at the worst that we have ever been in at least 40 years. What the President of Guatemala said yesterday has to be taken seriously. It is unprecedented, as far as I am aware, for the Guatemalan forces to exercise the sovereignty that their currently exercising in the Sarstoon. My understanding from speaking to people high up in the military of Belize, they are very concerned about the amassing of troops along the western border, because it creates a real risk for something to happen, for somebody to get jumpy on either side and for hostilities to occur."
Of course, since that press conference, which was at midday, we have heard from the Prime Minister in a recorded statement by phone, which was delivered to media houses around 6:00 this evening.
Situation at Western Border Sensationalized on Social Media
The social media timelines and pages were filled with sentiments and reactions to the current relations between Belize and Guatemala. While some were merely expressing their concerns or opinions on the issue, there were some who were sensationalizing the issue and making reports of the western border being closed and high tensions in the area. Our reporter, Judy Thurton was at the western border today and those reports posted on social media were false as operations remained as per normal. As dozens of pictures with Guatemala’s Army being deployed to the Sarstoon River and western border had fed the rumor mill around the country, when we got to the border all the rumors turned out to be nothing but just….rumors. The border was functioning as normal, all workers were accounted for and no barbed wires were to be found. Officials from the Immigration Department did confirm though that there was an arson threat made to Consular Affairs Ambassador Said Badi Guerra. We understand from Immigration officials that there was a blockade in Peten today. Guatemalan civilians from Peten have called on their mayor Sonia Rivera, for immediate action since the 13 year old minor that was shot was from Peten. The only actual change that was made today at the western border was the removal of Guatemalan Taxi men. They are usually situated between the immigration building and the OAS office, today they were asked to conduct business from their side of the borders. Immigration Officials described today as “just a slow day for a Friday.”