On Tuesday, at the OAS Building in Washington DC, delegations from Belize and Guatemala spoke for 5 hours, and when it was all done, Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington and Ambassador Alexis Rosado were unable able to tell us anything more than that the negotiations over the Sarstoon River Mechanism had started.
The Statement from OAS would only say that quote, "good progress was made during the meeting", and that, quote, "best practices for the de-escalation of tensions in the Sarstoon River" would be used. But, it was unclear what "best practices" truly refer to, so, today, we decided to visit the Sarstoon for ourselves to see if the Guatemalan military had truly stopped harassing Belizeans in the river.
Daniel Ortiz left the Toledo Coast a little after 7:00 this morning and he has the story:
When our news team entered the mouth of the Sarstoon River, the first thing we noticed was that there were no Guatemalan military vessels present and ready to intercept at a moment's notice. In fact, apart from a few other Guatemalan civilian boats, there was almost no traffic.
We got the sense that we had arrived unannounced to the soldiers on duty at both the Guatemalan and Belizean base. But, that was the point of this trip, a spot check to see if the Guatemalan vigilance and rapid response across the entire river had subsided.
Our boat captain slowly took us through the northside of the Sarstoon, and still, nothing. So far so good, untrammeled access was happening in real time. We saw a few Guatemalans paddling their canoes, going about their business a little further up, and by the time we passed the Western edge of the Sarstoon Island, it was clear that we would not be harrassed today.
After about another 15 minutes of slow travel further into the river, the boat captain informed us that we had already come further than Channel 5 managed to go last week when they were intercepted by the Guatemalan military. He was the one driving the boat when that happened, and he knew exactly what happened, and how it happened.
At that point, we were certain that we wouldn't be bothered, and our captain decided to take a pass around the southern side of the Sarstoon Island.
While on that side, we encountered a number of Guatemalan civlians on the Southern Banks of the Sarstoon. Most of them observed us warily as we passed, but apart from that, there was no military personnel.
It wasn't until we arrived in front of their Forward Operating Base that they appeared to have noticed our presence. The Guatemalan soldier sat in their metal shark, which was parked on the banks of the river. A little further down, other Guatemalan soldiers caught sight of us, and that's the first time we saw any sort of movement in reaction to our presence.
Shortly after that, the Guat military launched their drone which zoomed out above our heads. No doubt they were watching and recording us the very same way our camera was watching them.
Our captain then took us near the Belizean Forward Operating Base and we engaged the on-duty soldiers who told us that we didn't have permission to dock.
Satisfied that the Guatemalans knew we were there, and they had still not come out to intercept us, we then started making our way back Punta Gorda Town. At this time, it is uncertain why the Guatemalans had left us alone. But, one possibility is that there actually was underestimated progress in the Washington Talks, and this was the first example of what the joint press release called a de-escalation by the Guatemalan military.
Reporting for 7News, Daniel Ortiz.
We purposefully planned the trip as only media and asked activist and provocateur Wil Maheia to sit this one out. We did that because we have credible information that the Guatemalan military has marked him as their chief trouble maker in the Sarstoon River.
So, we strongly suspect that Maheia's absence may have contributed to a calmer response from the Guatemalan military based at the Sarstoon. Our boat captain told us that he also made a different approach to the navigable channel this time around which placed our vessel in a blindspot for the Guatemalans, for most of the journey.
As we told you, we suspect that we caught them off-guard, and our captain reasoned that if they had time to prepare, they may have mobilized to intercept us. Of course, we were in no rush to get out of the river, so if the Guatemalans did indeed intend to stop us, they had ample time to do so.