Tonight, the uncertainty surrounding that volatile zone known as the Sarstoon is alive and well after Guatemalan Armed Forces denied a News Five team passage down the river this morning, claiming that we were trespassing in their national waters. If it had happened last week, as it has on multiple occasions in past months, it would not have been surprising since Guatemala has aggressively asserted its ownership of the entire Sarstoon River. But coming out of the Istanbul discussions on Tuesday, there was talk of a breakthrough in the form of an informal accord between parties allowing Belizeans free and unhindered access to Belize’s side of the Sarstoon. In fact, solely premised on the promise of mutual understanding coming out of that meeting, Prime Minister Dean Barrow revoked his controversial Sarstoon Prohibition S.I. and declared that Belizeans were free to go into the river. But rather than a breakthrough in Istanbul, was it more of a breakdown in effective communications? You can judge for yourself. Reporter Mike Rudon and cameraman Darrel Moguel have returned from the Sarstoon and have put together a story showing the reality on the ground, as opposed to the reality coming out of diplomatic meeting rooms.

Mike Rudon, Reporting

It was a beautiful day as a team of News Five headed to the Sarstoon. We wanted to be the first to go into that previously volatile and even potentially dangerous river. We say previously because all indications were that peace and harmony in the Sarstoon were the order of the day, at least pending the formulation of formal protocols. But we wanted to see for ourselves, and at first it looked good. There were no Guatemalan gunboats on the horizon as we cruised toward the B.D.F.’s Forward Operating Base – no hurried mobilization of vessels at the GAF base just across the river. We were told that we couldn’t dock at the F.O.B., but given the go-ahead nevertheless to proceed. And we did…just cruising. It almost seemed a letdown, and we were already trying to figure how to get in some fishing to make the trip worthwhile. And then we saw it behind us, the GAF’s metal shark coming fast with five soldiers on board. They approached us, very respectfully asking our business in the Sarstoon. That led to the first exchange.

GAF Military Personnel

“But you are here in Guatemalan waters.”

Belizean Captain

“This is national?”

GAF Military Personnel

“Yes.”

Belizean Captain

“This is not Belize over this side?”

Reporter

“Our leaders told us that after the talks in Istanbul last weekend, meanwhile they decided on a protocol for the Sarstoon, then there would be free access to both sides. We represent three media houses in Belize and we are here to verify if this is the case.”

GAF Military Personnel

“I understand what you are saying, but since that situation just happened then it has not yet been defined. We would like for you all to inform us beforehand, follow due process so that you can take you pictures and we could do the same as well, without any problems whatsoever. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Reporter

“Just to be clear…what you are telling us is that we cannot continue?”

GAF Military Personnel

“To travel down the river – no. but you can take pictures that are pertinent. If you need more information, I don’t have the authority to do that. my leaders or bosses would have to do that.”

Reporter

“Where exactly can we take pictures? For example, can we go around the island to take pictures?”

GAF Military Personnel

“I would need to get authorization to do that.”

Reporter

“Meanwhile our leaders negotiate a way forward on how to navigate in this area, an informal agreement was reached in which both countries can use the river. If you need to verify that with someone else then we can wait here.”

GAF Military Personnel

“We will do that.”

Reporter

“Okay.”

The metal shark stopped a couple hundred feet off while the senior officer on board checked with his commander. It didn’t take too long before they returned, still respectful but firm – we were in Guatemalan waters and we would have to leave.

GAF Military Personnel

“Effectively, you are in national (Guatemalan) waters and so you cannot continue down the river.”

Reporter

“Exactly who gave those orders?”

GAF Military Personnel

“I cannot give you more information because you are not understanding me. You are in Guatemalan waters; you cannot continue so I will ask you to please leave.”

Reporter

“Yes, but who exactly gave you those orders? What is his name?”

GAF Military Personnel

“I cannot give you that information.”

Reporter

“And what is your name?”

GAF Military Personnel

“Likewise, I cannot give you that information. That is all. Have a nice day.”

We wished him a good day as well, and departed the Sarstoon. The encounter with the GAF was not aggressive and there was no real show of force, which isn’t to say that there wouldn’t have been if we had soldiered on. Still, it was crystal clear that whatever agreement there is, or not, formal or informal, the memo hasn’t reached the military at the Sarstoon just yet. Mike Rudon for News Five.

PM Responds to Guatemala’s Restriction of Access to the Sarstoon

Dean Barrow

Even as our team headed back to Belize City, deterred from entering the Sarstoon but having made the point that Guatemala isn’t playing on the same checkerboard, Prime Minister Dean Barrow weighed in on the incident with extreme prejudice. Apparently he had been briefed by C.E.O. in the Ministry of National Security George Lovell, likely alerted by the B.D.F. at the Forward Operating Base. The PM, who just Wednesday stated in a news interview that Belizeans are now free to go into the Sarstoon, called our team to say that he will get to the bottom of this latest, unexpected move by Guatemala.

On the Phone: Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“I am extremely distressed, extremely disturbed by what has happened. We’re trying to get to the bottom of it. As near as I can gather the people in Guatemala are saying well, the Foreign Minister is still travelling and he had not or has not returned to Guatemala since the meeting in Istanbul so that in fact the military had not been apprised of new instructions regarding Belizean civilian traffic along the river. I do not find that satisfactory. Let me put it clearly. I find that most unsatisfactory. We have already alerted the O.A.S. Secretary-General, both his representative and I believe Ambassador Andrews may have spoken to him personally. In any event a formal memorandum is being sent to the S.G. What this tells us is that we need to have the formal meetings to come up with the written protocols convened as quickly as possible and quite frankly I think that we should bypass a straight bi-lateral meeting, Belize/Guatemala and have recourse instead to the good offices of the O.A.S. Secretary-General. You will recollect that he had made plain that if progress was not happening he would be prepared to convene and host a meeting between the two sides with the participation of his officials to ensure that we can make rapid progress on the protocol. That’s where things are. Again I am extremely disturbed. I certainly feel that your having been part of that mission that was turned back cause me to make clear to you personally as well as to the country that what was done was unacceptable especially after the meeting that was held in Turkey.”

PM Says There’s a Clear, Unwritten Understanding Between Belize & Guatemala

Dean Barrow

A release issued by government on Tuesday, announcing the revocation of the Sarstoon Prohibition SI, stated that, “While the formal mechanism is being worked on, the two sides have informally accepted a situation in which there will be untrammeled traffic for Belize’s military and civilians along the Sarstoon.” So what exactly is an informal acceptance? The PM says that simply means there’s a clear understanding, but with nothing put in black and white. And more than that, Barrow told News Five that his briefing on that informal acceptance has been corroborated by comments made by Senator Eamon Courtenay.

On the Phone: Prime Minister Dean Barrow

“I was happy to see that Senator Courtenay who was part of the talks confirmed what my understanding was, what the report that I used as the basis for the press release that we put out…the accuracy of that report is now vouched for by Senator Courtenay so, but an informal understanding it means in my view exactly what the words in their normal sense convey – while there was nothing in writing because in fact there was and that was made plain that the meetings, the actual negotiating sessions would take place and until those concluded there would not be a formal protocol in writing. In the meantime normalcy meaning that Belizean military and civilians would be able to traffic in an uninterrupted fashion along our portion of the Sarstoon was clearly understood by both sides so I stick by that. That is my report from the meeting and as I’m saying now that Senator Courtenay who participated is back and is saying absolutely the same thing I will maintain that that was what took place.”

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