Prime Minister Dean Barrow returned to the country from New York yesterday. He wasn't here when reports went out that Guatemalan troops were amassing at the border, but he was in the right place to meet Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales.
Both were there to sign the UN Climate Agreement and the two leaders had a sit down on Friday. That's one day after Morales recorded an inflammatory statement in response to the BDF's killing of a 13 year old Guatemalan boy. Morales also deployed the Guatemalan army to the western and southern border - an unprecedented move which sent shivers up the collective national spine.
But, as we reported on Friday, PM Barrow talked him down, and this weekend we saw the Guatemalan Minister of Defence say that there never really was any mobilization of three thousand soldiers.
So, with that the Prime Minister chaired a National Security Council meeting this morning, and then segued directly into a press conference, with the entire security council at the head table.
His main message was that the worse is behind us, and relations between Belize and Guatemala are on their way to being normalized:...
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister
"There has therefore been success in defusing the situation to a point where the return to normalcy has begun, I regretted the unfortunate loss of life of the Guatemalan minor but recollected that the BDF had several times before come under fire in that very area from armed and dangerous Guatemalans engaged in illegal activities. Our military had every right to defend itself and our patrimony."
"President Morales said that the killing of Guatemalans by the BDF could not continue, and that Guatemala must protect its citizens and would, among other things, seek redress for the death of the minor from the Inter American Human Rights Commission. But he agreed with me that while the OAS inquiry and Guatemala's petition to the Human Rights Commission were proceeding, it was absolutely necessary to dial down the tension between our two countries. He therefore committed to de-escalation."
"Yesterday afternoon I consulted once more by phone with OAS Secretary- General Almagro, who briefed me on a meeting he had just then concluded with President Morales. The SG reported that President Morales had also confirmed to him, Guatemala's commitment to de-escalate and proceed in peace with Belize as we try to work through our difficulties."
"Then last night the Guatemalan Foreign Minister spoke to our Foreign Minister and repeated the position of his President regarding the commitment to peace and de-escalation."
"You put all this together and on that basis, Ladies and Gentlemen, that I say, I repeat that any immediate danger has passed and our nation can, for the moment, rest easy."
BDF Reinforces Self Defence NarrativeSo now that the military threat seems to have receded - we can look a little closer at the trigger event - which is Wednesday night's fatal shooting of 13 year old Julio Alvarado in the Cebada area of the Chiquibul Forest. As we have reported, around 7:00 at night, the BDF reports that they came under fire, and returned fire in the dark. This was two hours after they had taken a Guatemalan into custody.
Well, we learned today that the BDF was in the area because of aerial reconnaissance flight which saw cultivation within Belizean territory. The BDF had gone there to clear it out:...
Brig. Gen. David Jones, Commander - BDF
"The patrol deployed in the area because of a reconnaissance that was conducted by our defender aircraft. Whenever we do such reconnaissance operation, we do subsequently send foot patrols on the ground to confirm what we've seen from the air. We saw the encroachments, so BDF and FCD decided to go and do the investigation to see how they can arrest the situation. Unfortunately the incident occurred on Wednesday night where the patrol, at approximately 5 o'clock in the evening, detained the first gentleman who was about 33 years of age. He was detained and questioned as to what he was doing in Belize and he explained that he was planting illegally inside of Belize. They had asked him if he knew where he was and he admitted that he knew he was in Belize. He also said that he has been doing that for years, planting illegally in Belize. He was detained and two hours after, while the patrol was in there harboring position, the patrol came under fire, where they returned fire. Bear in mind this is in the dark, so the soldiers and the members could not see who was firing at them and could not see who they were firing at. It was their right for self-defense, they defended themselves, and unfortunately there was fatality. A young boy was killed."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister
"But what is undoubted is that FCD, as it were an impartial participant, confirms that that patrol which included themselves was fired on first. That all the Belize contingent did was to return fire in clearly what were absolutely chaotic circumstances."
Misunderstanding: Guat Army Says It Never “Mobilised” 3k Troops
And there was reason to relax just a little yesterday when we saw a press conference hosted by the Guatemalan Minister of Defence, William Mancilla who said that the whole thing about three thousand troops being mobilized was an exaggeration.
He explained that there are three thousand total troops in the Peten, and a few hundred of them were simply being moved, not mobilized, to the border areas. Here are portions of his press conference with captions in English:...
William Mancilla, Minister of Defence - Guatemalan
(Translated)"In this regard, of those three thousand men, what was done was reinforce the adjacency zone. So if we had five hundred, right now we have about one thousand men. So then, as soon as that act of mobilization of three thousand men from here, the capital, to the city is a lie- that is false. What is being done is that the mechanism in place at Peten reinforced the detachments at the adjacency zone, and I repeat again, to guarantee the life of the persons living in those, approximately 35 communities, in the entire adjacency zone and of course the naval base of the Sarstoon River was also reinforced with 40 persons."
"So I want to say, if it was misinterpreted, this was not a mobilization, it was a movement of the zones already in Peten and well those are the actions that are being carried out."
"Yesterday I went to that area and we met with the Ambassador of Guatemala to Belize, with the OAS, who administers the adjacency zone, and we made it clear that we were not doing any operations of intimidations or to escalate a situations, which is not the intent of the Government of Guatemala."
"What we offered was to bring the father of the child, because he needs attention due to the injury to his knee, and to the little brother who has an injury in his elbow, we offered transportation, and if it is not possible for a hospital to see him, we will take care of him at the medical military center. The commandant is in communication with him and that is the most concrete thing I can tell you about the help that he is receiving."
So, to clarify, he said 20 to 40 troops were sent to the Sarstoon Naval base, and another 500 troops along what they call the adjacency zone - which is the western border of Belize. He says that if they had 500 troops across those 35 Guatemalan communities, they now have one thousand. The Minister had to also defend the spending on this movement of troops, saying that they did not require any additional budgetary allocation. This is an indication of the acute domestic pressure that the Jimmy Morales administration is under in Guatemala.
PM Strongly Cautions Territorial Volunteers To Stay Away From Sarstoon
And so while all parties wait on the outcome of that investigation - there's another event that could cause another flashpoint in Belize Guatemala relations. The Belize Territorial Volunteers are going back down into the Sarstoon this weekend. They say it is a special April 30th expedition to mark 150 years since Belize's borders were established. Wil Maheia told us this evening, he is dead set on it, but today the Prime Minister very strongly cautioned against it:..
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister
"In the current circumstances where we just went through an absolutely harrowing weekend, the entire country - all of us sitting at this table where we have come through unscathed and where our diplomacy and face to face meetings with Guatemala have produced this resolve to de-escalate tensions and to find a way rooted in peace and mutual respect forward. In those circumstances, for these people to maintain that they will still go to the sarstoon on Saturday would in my view be absolutely and utterly unacceptable. We now have a forward operating base at the mouth of the river. If they go and the Guatemalans (as the Guatemalans will) seek to intercept them, our people who are there will have to react, hopefully in a way that would not cause the situation to get out of control. But that could potentially provoke just that occurrence. I am appealing to the Territorial Volunteers, give peace a chance."
Maheia told us that since the press conference he has gotten a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking him to meet on Wednesday with senior diplomatic and military officials. They plan to dissuade him from taking the expedition into the Sarstoon, but Maheia told us that the NTUCB called him to say they are supporting him and intend to participate. With that, and the support of his executive, he says he remains fixed on Saturday's expedition.
Statement by the Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister of Belize on Recent Increase in Tensions between Belize and Guatemala - April 25, 2015
"We have just concluded a meeting of the National Security Council of Belize, and this is a follow-on from the meeting held on Friday when I was in New York, and in which I participated by phone. I am wholly satisfied, based on the NSC’s review of all the facts and its discussion of the pathway forward, that the immediate crisis provoked by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’s extraordinary address to his nation after the exchange of fire between Guatemalan civilians-who fired first-and the BDF leading to the death of a Guatemalan minor, is over. I am convinced that diplomacy, Belize’s invocation of the Confidence Building Agreement, and its call for peace and the de-escalation of the threat and tension created by the Guatemalan response and the measures that had been announced by President Morales, has worked. Our position has been noted and supported by the international community, and ultimately accepted by Guatemala. There has therefore been success in defusing the situation to a point where the return to normalcy has begun, and the two countries can start again to work on the reiteration and expansion of the protocols governing the complex relations between us.
I had already reported to the nation by phone on Friday from New York on my meetings and discussions that day with the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations; the Secretary-General of the OAS; the Secretary- General of CARICOM; and, most importantly, President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala.
I repeat now that President Morales committed to me his agreement to our mutual de-escalation of the tensions that had arisen over the Cebada incident. It is true that he maintained at all times his strong and vigorous protest over what he described as the unprovoked BDF attack on innocent Guatemalan civilians and the ‘murder’ of the Guatemalan minor; and it is true that he repeatedly insisted on the need for justice for Guatemala and its citizens. But it is also true that I placed on record, and repeated throughout, the fact that the BDF patrol had come under fire first, and had responded in self-defense, firing in the direction from which they had been shot at. I made the further point that the civilian members of FCD, who had accompanied the patrol, confirmed the BDF’s version of events. I regretted the unfortunate loss of life of the Guatemalan minor but recollected that the BDF had several times before come under fire in that very area from armed and dangerous Guatemalans engaged in illegal activities and pillaging of Belizean forests, environment and resources. Our military had every right to defend itself and our patrimony.
I also pointed out that the OAS had already commenced an impartial investigation into the incident, and suggested that Belize would be willing, as we had done in a similar incident some time ago, to seek additional expert forensic help from the Americans to aid the OAS inquiry. Belize and the BDF had nothing to hide in circumstances where our actions were necessary and justifiable.
President Morales said that the killing of Guatemalans by the BDF could not continue, and that Guatemala must protect its citizens and would, among other things, seek redress for the death of the minor from the Inter American Human Rights Commission. But he agreed with me that while the OAS inquiry and Guatemala’s petition to the Human Rights Commission were proceeding, it was absolutely necessary to dial down the tension between our two countries. He therefore committed again to de-escalation, and accepted that I would make public to Belize and to the international officials to whom I would speak, his commitment.
Yesterday afternoon I consulted once more by phone with OAS Secretary- General Almagro, who briefed me on a meeting he had just held with President Morales. The SG reported that President Morales had also confirmed to him Guatemala’s commitment to de-escalate and proceed in peace with Belize as we try to work through our difficulties.
Then last night the Guatemalan Foreign Minister spoke to our Foreign Minister and repeated the position of his President regarding the commitment to peace and de-escalation.
It is on the basis of all this, Ladies and Gentlemen, that I say that any immediate danger has passed and our nation can, for the moment, rest easy.
Of course, our diplomatic outreach must continue full force. Baroness Scotland, the new Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, visits Belize later this week. I will fully brief her and ask for a meeting of the Commonwealth’s Standing Ministerial Committee on Belize. Foreign Minister Elrington attends the UK/Caribbean meeting on Friday in the Bahamas, and will brief a CARICOM caucus convened for the morning of that meeting. I see the Mexican Ambassador this afternoon and our American and British friends are fully in the picture. I will also on Wednesday have a visit from, and update, Canada’s High Commissioner to Belize.
President Morales and I agreed that as we go forward an operational modality must be found to eliminate the possibility of conflict between our two countries in the Adjacency Zone, and especially on the Sarstoon. The work will proceed in that regard at both the military and political levels.
Before I take your questions let me conclude by thanking Belizeans for the solidarity and resolve that was evident as the crisis was unfolding. The statements made by the Leader of the Opposition, and various organizations and social partners, were also extremely helpful.
Finally, I thank the Security Forces of this country for their steadfastness in daily carrying out their job of protecting our country in the face of overwhelming odds."