From the The Reporter Online (www.belizereporter.com
Guatemalans in Belize!
by the hundreds, in Chiquibul!
Hundreds of armed Guatemalan forestry workers are roaming free in the
Chiquibul Forest Reserve, harvesting a rare decorative plant known as Xate
but also killing off forest animals for meat. Reporter sources say there are
hundreds of these forestry workers, and some have penetrated as far as
Chaperal and Reforma, forty miles in Belizen territory. The Government of
Belize knows all about this activity but is keeping quiet because of
'confidence building measures'.
Hundreds of Guatemalan Xate (a decorative palm) harvesters are working and
living illegally within a huge area of Belize - and not just along the
Belize/Guatemalan border but up to 26 miles inside Belize. These illegal
incursions are common knowledge in the area, but the wider Belizean public
don't know what's going on because it appears that the government considers
the issue too sensitive for public consumption.
After weeks of rumor and information about these incursions from various
sources living and working in the Chiquibul forest area, I drove in last
week to check the stories out - and to find out just what Xate is.
My visit confirmed the allegations made by forest workers, archaeologists,
loggers and scientists. I am deliberately NOT naming any of my sources
because the illegal gathering of Xate leaves is a multi-million dollar
business and exposing the trade could present a very real danger for those
living and working legitimately in the area.
1. Estimates suggest that from 400 to 600 Xate harvesters are occupying a 60
to 70 square mile area stretching for 30 miles along the border and up to 26
miles inside Belize. They have establishd a number of semi-permanent base
camps 5 and 10 miles inside the border and a score or more Xate packing
camps in as far as Blue Hole Camp and almost to the Maya Mountain divide.
Scores of jungle trails made by the Xate cutters run like a road network
beneath the jungle canopy. They are hard to find but reveal a constant
traffic of men, mules and pack horses. These pack animals are used to
transport the Xate leaves back to Guatemala.
2. Xate is a $30,000,000 a year business (worth $4.6 U.S million in Peten
alone) and Guatemalan authorities - and evidently a Dutch company which buys
and ships the Xate leaves to Europe and the Middle East - know very well
what is going on in Belize. If anything, they encourage this illicit trade
as Xate stocks in the Peten decline through over-harvesting. Recently,
$5,000 bond money quickly appeared from Melchor to meet bail for two
apprehended Xate cutters when they appeared at the San Ignacio Courthouse.
3. The Xate, which could in the future be a sustainable and profitable crop
to be harvested by Belizeans, is being wiped out by the careless
over-cutting methods of the Xateros.
4. Precious wild game and bird species, including Scarlet Macaws, other
parrots, peccaries, baby howler monkeys and even baby tapir are being hunted
not just for the pot but also for resale in Guatemala.
5. Mayan artifacts are being robbed on a wholesale scale from ruins at
Mountain Cow and even from parts of the extensive Caracol complex - despite
the presence there of over 100 field workers and archaeologists.
6. The tourist season is just beginning in the area, and the presence of
tomb robbers turned bandits could put travellers to Caracol in real and even
7. There is evidence of mobile saw mills at some of the big camps closer to
the border and reports of mahogany and hardwood planks transported by horse
and mule back into Guatemala.
The first evidence you see of what is happening in the Chiquibul area is as
you travel through the now almost deserted village of San Augustine in the
Mountain Pine Ridge. Horses and mules are grazing along the roadside; they
have been taken from arrested or scared-off Xate cutters and are now being
fattened up to await sale by the Forestry Department. I saw 6 of the score
of horses which have now been seized, their cargoes of Xate confiscated and
The taking of the horses is a new policy by the Forestry Department to
cripple the principal method of transporting the leaf out of the country.
I went first to Caracol, which is now being publicized as a major Belizean
tourist attraction. While I did not speak to the archaeologists working
there that day, I did talk to several of the workers at the site - many from
villages in the Cayo area.
"The Xate cutters come right into this camp," one told me. "They know the
forest around better than we do and even casually stroll through at night
with their dogs. We are scared to confront them, most of them are armed.
Those of us who live in camp here keep well clear of them."
The loggers I met along the Punta Natural road, forest workers and
scientists working in the Chiquibul forest explained what they knew about
the incursions.The Xate plant (pronounced (Shatae) is a small palm prized for its
decorative fronds or branches.
Guatemalan forest workers are paid to harvest these fronds, which are used
to accentuate floral displays, and when they do they usually take all the
good fronds from a palm, leaving it denuded and too weak to survive.
I examined several plans near the abandoned San Pastor packing camp, deep in
the forest. Two plants had no fronds at all, and the third had only one
Although Xate fronds are harvested all year round, the peak demand for
Europe occurs between March and June. What we are seeing now may be just a
prelude to many more harvesters coming in for the peak season.
Legitimate scientists, foresters and villagers are apprehensive, and the
villagers avoid these armed bands who roam the forest.
Xate is a plant which can be cultivated, and could provide a sustained
industry for Mayan villagers since the plant grows only in a few areas of
Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.
There are four major incursion points along the border.
1) Onto the Vaca Plateau not far south of Melchor and leading in to Spanish
Water Hole via jungle trails and even by the old forest road via Caballo to
2) Via Valantin Camp, not far from the Caracol ruins, and by trails into the
immediate Caracol area and to Mountain Cow, where recent and extensive
illegal excavations have taken place at the Mayan ruins there. Quantities of
Mayan artifacts have been unearthed and transported to Guatemala for sale.
Trails from this camp continue inland and are wide enough for pack horses.
These trails cross the main Caracol road and reach as far in as Blue Hole
Camp, Chaparel, and the Monkey Tail River area.
Hidden in the jungle throughout this area are dozens of 'packing' camps.
These are collecting points where the Xateros establish short term living
camps for up to 5 persons who bring their Xate leaves back there every day
to stack and fold them in crocus sacks for the journey out. The leaves are
stacked one on top of the other in bundles of 40 to 50 leaves. Each sack, of
which the horses carry from 2 to 4, can weigh up to 80 pounds.
3) The border near Retiro. Here, a few miles from the border and going
towards Cowboy Camp, is a major semi-permanent camp. These camps can have 60
or more Xateros (including families) in residence at one time, and - even if
quickly abandoned when the BDF, British Forces, or Forestry Department find
them - they are equally quickly re-occupied. Trails from this particular
incursion point network to a dozen or more OpackingO camps hidden throughout
a 16 square mile area. I visited one of these camps which had been cleared
by forest officers just the week before.
4) A major entry point just south of Cabada Camp leads directly to
Resutradero, once the Belize Timber Company base and now a major base camp
for the Xateros. At one time this base supported a mobile timber milling
operation. The mill is now kept on the move
Another recently evacuated packing site, which I visited in the vicinity of
Son Pastor (some 16 miles inland from the border), told its own story of
what the Xateros survive on. Wild turkey feathers, unburied animal bones
near the firesite, and empty Guatemalan crisp and chip packets lay
carelessly strewn around the camp site.
The route into Belize for Xateros has become such a 'cake walk' that,
according to one of my sources, forest officers recently apprehended a male
Guatemalan and his 9 year old son. They let the pair go - after taking the
The forest officers working in the Chiquibul are the real heroes of this
extraordinary unacknowledged war that is going on daily within Belize's
sovereign boundaries. Under-manned, under-budgetted and with little or no
proper equipment or resources, they are expected to somehow patrol, contain
and apprehend this wave of intruders. They are expected, in fact, to do the
job that Government is not only not facing up to but pretty well ignoring
completely. Top representatives from the British and U.S. governments - and
our own MInister of Natural Resources - went to the area recently, and so
what is happening there cannot be a mystery to them.
And the BDF? The description of their occasional sorties against the Xateros
amounts to a script for a Keystone Cops routine. Help does come at times
from the British Forces when exercising in the area but, all in all, it is
the Xateros who control the forest and therefore the area.
These Xateros are not just a few hungry border dwellers trying to feed their
families but are well organized groups operating with the full knowledge of
CONAP (the Guatemalan equivalent of our forestry service) and presumably
with the help and assistance of what appears to be a Dutch company which
buys the illegal leaves from the Xateros for shipping to Europe and
Proof of this is evidenced by the speed with which $5,000 cash bonds
recently turned up at the San Ignacio courthouse from Melchor for bail when
two Xateros were arrested - and soon thereafter left the country and
forefeited their bail. Then again, a group of Guatemalan officials recently
crossed into Belize and held two days of talks with various groups from the
Chiqubul. These talks were held in San Ignacio and in the Chiquibul.
Where was Foreign Affairs.?
What has happened since?
A number of the apprehended Xateros have shown Guatemalan stamped papers
with permission to harvest Xate leaves in the Peten. According to one
source, such a paper also listed the Chiquibul area. And it is going to get
worse. The main Xate season runs from March to June and so the war in the
Chiquibul is only just beginning!
The reality of what is happening along this border and the occupation of
this huge area of Belize is that there is really no longer any way to stop
the traffic except by border posts no more than 6 kilometers apart, placed
where the border monuments are. They could be manned by a joint, specially
trained unit of Belizean/Guatemalan rangers, possibly augmented by rangers
from the Commonwealth. Heat sensors set up between the border posts could
alert and identify all cross border traffic and it would very soon bring a
halt to the illegal Xate trade.