The last time the PUP made a plan to head to the Sarstoon - there was all kinds of media hype, and when it fell through, all that buildup turned into backlash. And that's probably why there was absolutely no announcement made about today's trip to the Sarstoon. It was kept on the political down low - and we didn't find out about it until yesterday evening. But that didn't stop Daniel Ortiz and Codie Norales from getting up before dawn and racing south to see what would happen. They squeezed into a spot on the bow of the big blue boat and what they saw on the Sarstoon surprised them. Daniel Ortiz has this report from the south:...

Daniel Ortiz reporting

This morning, 18 senior members of the PUP converged on the docking area by Joe Taylor Bridge, just outside of Punta Gorda.

Those intending to make the trip to Sarstoon included Opposition Leader John Briceno; his representative in the Bilateral Talks, Senator Eamon Courtenay; fellow Parliamentarians Oscar Requena, Rodwell Ferguson, Kareem Musa, and Cordel Hyde; Senator Paul Thompson; standard Bearer Major Lloyd Jones; PUP Chairman Henry Charles Usher; National Communications Manager, Anthony Mahler, and a few other important party personalities.

About an hour or so later, they all boarded the chartered vessel and set off on the now very familiar journey to mouth of the Sarstoon River.

s The majority of the trip was uneventful, but as we got closer to river, members of the party started seeing for themselves the illegal fishing by Guatemalans that had become the norm. They began documenting the activities for themselves.

About half an hour or so later, the chartered vessel pulled up to the Belize Sarstoon Forward Operating Base. This time, unlike our news team's last trip here, the current lead officer, BDF Staff Sergeant Cal, welcomed the Opposition Party Members cordially, and invited them to tour the base's grounds.

The PUP members with military experience greeted their one-time brothers in arms with a sense of familiarity. The Opposition Leader and the PUP lead negotiator chatted to the soldiers about the current relations with their Guatemalan counterparts based right across the river.

The reality is, though, that this trip's participants had become part of a small handful of Belizean civilians to ever plant foot on this base's compound.

Senator Eamon Courtenay - PUP Representative, Belize-Guatemala Bilateral Talks
"There are two parts to the visit. The first is to continue like most Belizeans have been trying to do to assert our sovereignty and to demonstrate to the world that as far as Belize is concern, we have a right to come here unimpeded and without being interfered with by the Guatemalans. The second part is to educate ourselves as to the geography of the area and to the tensions, the mood and the general layout of this entrance to this river. We have just arrived and we have stop at the Forward Operating Base and we have gotten a very brief explanation from the members of the Belize Defence Force as to what's happening here. From here we will proceed into the river and going to Sarstoon Island. I am expecting that the Guatemalans will respect our right and understand that we are on the Belizean side of the river and that there will be no incident."

Hon. John Briceno - Opposition Leader
"Being here taking a firsthand look at what's taking place - it allows you that whenever you are thinking about policy, that you can visualize what really is taking on the ground. It is important for us as a party and to bring some of the leaders so that we could all take a good look and have a better understanding and appreciation about the challenges that we are facing here on the southern tip of our country."

And the calm of the Belize military on the Sarstoon Base was reflected, on this day, by the Guatemalan Armed Forces on the other side of the river.

Viewers know very well that the norm, even up until last week Friday, was to immediately set up a blockade in the Belize portion of the River, at the slightest sign of any Belizean civilian boat.

Today, however, the Guatemalan soldiers did not do that. Their riverine vessels remained parked near their dock, and there was no watchful presence for the entire time that the PUP's chartered vessel remained in the location.

Hon. John Briceno - Opposition Leader
"I did inform the Prime Minister that we were coming. We are parliamentarians, we are elected members in this country and I felt that it was the right thing to advise the Prime Minister that we were coming and I am told that he did indicate that he sent message to Guatemala that we were going to be visiting the area. But apart from that, as I was speaking to different members of the BDF, they are saying that tensions have eased down quite a lot. I hope that it's a good sign."

Senator Eamon Courtenay - PUP Representative, Belize-Guatemala Bilateral Talks
"I think it is a good sign. I am not particularly confident that that will remain the situation. I think as you are aware there was some information given to the Guatemalans to expect this visit and therefore they are perhaps under good behavior. What we need is a permanent longstanding arrangement that the Guatemalans respect our right. I mean, we understand that they have a dispute, but you don't settle a dispute by enforcing what you believe to be your right is. So, even though toady so far we have not experience any stopping by the Guatemalans. It is indeed a good sign that they understand that we have a right to come here. But as I say, this was told to them that we will be visiting and the situation is what happens when there is no advanced notice. How will they behave?"

Then, it was unto the calmest tour yet of Sarstoon Island. Usually, visitors to the Sarstoon River are well aware of the heat they could bring on themselves for their intention to circle the island. Again, today, with no Guatemalan military vessels blockading or shadowing the Belizeans, they made a clock-wise trip around the island, very unusual because that meant first traveling southern side of the island - something which the Guatemalan military prevents usually.

It gave us the opportunity to really observe the Island up-close, and to also capture the activity happening in the Guatemalan Village of Sarstun. Of course, our captain made sure to avoid getting to close too much south, closer to the deepest navigable Channel of the river. That was to prevent an incursion into Guatemalan territory.

We also observed these two Guatemalan women rowing their canoe right up to the edge of the island, clearly a regular practice, but quite unusual for Belizeans who aren’t really allowed to come here.

After that, with a pass in front of the northern side of Sarstoon Island, the PUP started making the journey back, after completing what, to their mind, was a successful mission.

Senator Eamon Courtenay - PUP Representative, Belize-Guatemala Bilateral Talks
"This is not intended to be provocative. It is to assert our right and to educate ourselves and not to create a problem."

Major (Ret) Lloyd Jones - PUP Standard Bearer, Belize Rural North
"I am happy to see that we are asserting our sovereignty. We are attempting to assert our sovereignty. We've got to find a way now to roll the Guatemalans back from this position that they have taken that all of the Sarstoon belongs to them."

The familiarization tour went from 11:00 in the morning to 2:30 this afternoon.

Channel 7


The PUPís June Swoon In The Sarstoon

On Friday night, we showed you how a PUP contingent sailed sweetly down the Sarstoon River and coasted around the Sarstoon Island easy as cheese. The always aggressive Guatemalan Navy didn't even bat an eyelash at Johnny Briceno and Company.

In brief, it was a an exceptional event - made even more pronounced because in the context of all the territorial theater that has unfolded on that same river. Tonight, we compare and contrast at all that went before and what went down on Friday:...

Daniel Ortiz reporting
On Friday, The leadership of the People's United Party headed down to the Sarstoon River for their familiarization tour. And, when they arrived at the river mouth, they were greeted with courtesy from the BDF Soldiers at the Sarstoon Forward Operating Base.

The lead officer was more than willing - and probably authorized - to allow them to dock their vessel, and take a tour around.

Hon. John Briceno - Opposition Leader
"I was speaking to different members of the BDF, they are saying that tensions have eased down quite a lot. I hope that it's a good sign."

As you would remember, our last trip to the Sarstoon as only the media, checking to see if troops were amassing at that Southern Border, the BDF absolutely refused to allow our boat to dock near their base.

File: April 22, 2016
Sarstoon Patrol Officer

"You can't dock here. We haven't granted you permission to dock here."

Boat captain
"Can we are asking permission to dock?"

Sarstoon Patrol Officer
"No boss."

Boat captain
"Even in an emergency, you could see the engine shutdown."

But, even more startling than that, was that the Guatemalan soldiers across the river did not spring into action at the sight of the PUP's vessel on Friday. That's a very stark contrast to the norm, something the public has seen for itself multiple times since August of 2015.

File: March 18, 2016
River of Fire

"Yow! Come back this way!"

Geovannie Brackett
"Come back, come back!"

Passenger
"Come back!"

River of Fire
"They're hauling you!"

But, on Friday, the Guatemalans appeared as though they couldn't be less bothered by the Opposition's vessel in the river. The PUP got to travel up-close to Sarstoon Island.

They coolly throttled around the southern side of the island, observing at a leisurely, non-stressful pace. All that while, there was no passive-aggressive Guatemalan vessels acting as unwanted escorts, the kind I remember vividly from last year.

File: August 17, 2015
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.

Even the BDF, has been prevented from coming to this side of the island, and this happened only earlier this year.

File: May 12, 2016
Guatemalan Soldier

"What is your intention? You cannot pass from the southern way."

Belizean Soldier 1
"What did he say?"

Belizean Soldier 2
"You can't pass on this side?"

Belizean Soldier 1
"Why not?"

Guatemalan Soldier
"Those are my orders."

Belizean Soldier 1
"Can't we circle this side?"

Guatemalan Soldier
"No sir."

Belizean Soldier 2
"He says we can't go this way because the other side of the island is theirs."

Belizean Soldier 1
"That is what he says?"

Belizean Soldier 2
"He says it's his orders that."

So, what accounts for the PUP's peaceful trip? Well, they believe that it was because the Guatemalan Government had prior knowledge that they were coming. They are concerned that this type of quote, "good behavior", will not last.

Senator Eamon Courtenay - PUP Representative, Belize-Guatemala Bilateral Talks
"I am not particularly confident that that will remain the situation. I think as you are aware there was some information given to the Guatemalans to expect this visit and therefore they are perhaps under good behavior... So, even though today so far we have not experience any stopping by the Guatemalans. It is indeed a good sign that they understand that we have a right to come here. But as I say, this was told to them that we will be visiting and the situation is what happens when there is no advanced notice. How will they behave?"

Channel 7