O.A.S. helps ease tensions at Guatemalan border
Thanks to a well oiled O.A.S. publicity machine and unprecedented cooperation between the Belizean and Guatemalan military forces, there has been no shortage of press reports on the latest round of "confidence building measures" at the border. But beyond the hype, those measures are not only building confidence but also helping solve some very real problems that continue to plague the frontier.
Janelle Chanona, Reporting
Our journey to the southern border begins aboard the B.D.F. Defender, with pilots Ravei Nunez and Christopher Neal at the controls. The first stop on our flight plan is the Central Farm airstrip, where officials from the O.A.S. are waiting.
But thick fog blanketing the airspace above the runway make for whiteout conditions and for a few hairy seconds, there was no telling what dangers might lay ahead.
Altimeter readings reveal the cloud cover extends down to fifty feet above the ground ... so the plane is diverted to the Hector Silva airstrip in Belmopan.
With Director of the O.A.S. Adjacency Zone Office, Miguel Trinidad on board, we head due south to the Punta Gorda landing field.
In P.G., we are introduced to company leader Captain Daniel Mendez. Soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, S and G companies, as well as officers from Force Headquarters, will form part of the official escort to the border.
By truck, we travel to the remote village of Jalacte, located some thirty miles from P.G.
Like many border communities in Belize, thick jungle and bad roads have created a distinct isolation from municipal life. That reality has forced the people to forge close relations with nearby Guatemalan villages, like that of Santa Cruz located less than a mile away.
Pedro Tush, Principal, Jalacte R.C. School
”Last two years, last year, we’ve had like sixty-eight children coming from across the border, coming to our school. And the comment that we get from parents [is that] they like the school here, prefer their children to come here to learn to speak English.”
Principal Pedro Tush has been teaching in Jalacte for nine years.
”There is that relationship that they build here with them. Everybody, you know, they have to live we have to find food, do their living.”
But of late, that traffic has translated into daily incursions by a large number of immigrants with contraband including illegal livestock. On the ground this has meant the construction of several fences and even crop cultivation on Belizean territory by Guatemalan farmers.
In Jalacte, Captain Mendez briefs our party on the mission ahead.
Captain Daniel Mendez, 2nd Battalion B.D.F.
”The area where we are going to be working today, is generally this area, south of Jalacte. As you can see on the sketch map, these lines represent fences which have been erected during the past year. This area is farmed by Belizean and Guatemalan farmers, however, since it is inside the adjacency zone the regulations state that there should be no construction of any kind without the consent of both Guatemala and Belize.”
Last October attempts were made by a B.D.F. patrol to dismantle the fences, but the soldiers met strong resistance from people in the area.
Captain Daniel Mendez
”Most of the fences belong to Guatemalan farmers. The reaction is normally negative because we’ve had instances a few months before where we had quite a violent reaction towards one of our patrols destroying fences. However, we have had the O.A.S. come out to educate the people and to teach them and to tell them, remind them about the confidence building measures. So since that instance we’ve had a bit more positive response.”
With the O.A.S. in tow, today the Belizean soldiers have come prepared to make sure the fences have been removed.
Still within the confines of Jalacte, we get our first glimpse of the illegal encroachment ... Guatemalan farmer Carlos Estrada has constructed cement pillars within Belize to form part of the fence around his cattle pastures. Part of the fence was already dismantled, but Estrada simply redirected the barbed wire. The fancy footwork left in the mud is a stark indicator of the sheer number of animals that are taken from Guatemala into Belize. This truck bearing Cayo license plates is waiting to transport its next load further inland.
The company pushes on the beaten track despite the quagmire of mud left by the recent rains.
Carefully, we cross the flooded waters of a nearby creek, continuing on our muddy hike. The well worn path cuts through fields of beans and acres of corn. A short distance away, a road provides a way for vehicular traffic. According to the B.D.F., that road begins in Guatemala, takes a few curves onto Belize and then goes back into Guatemala.
For much of the trail, we must pass between or under barbed wire fences that crisscross the landscape.
Finally we arrive at our destination. The O.A.S., the B.D.F., and Guatemalan military officials have made four previous visits to this site to verify that this fence is in Belize. The barbed wire has been removed, but the posts remain. And more disturbing, fresh barbed wire in another area reveals that a new fence has been constructed.
Again, G.P.S. readings are taken at the spot by the B.D.F. and the O.A.S. officials.
Finally, the B.D.F. gets the go-ahead to take down the posts and tree trunks used for the fence, measured at one hundred and sixty-one meters in length.
Miguel Angel Trinidad, Dir., O.A.S. Border Office
”It’s part of the agreement, confidence building measures between the Belize and Guatemalan governments to give instruction to the O.A.S. along the border to verify in each place if the people are living or if the activity is on the Belize side or Guatemalan side. In this case, this fence, the owner is from Guatemala, we talk with him about the exact situation, and through the goodwill from him to take off part of the fence. Our activity is to verify with the B.D.F. to complete this activity.”
”According to the B.D.F. we are approximately one hundred and sixty two meters within Belizean territory. The border is running somewhere in the middle of that field behind me. But as you look around and see Guatemalan power lines, crops in the fields and fences, it’s easy to become confused over exactly where the border is.”
Director of the O.A.S. Adjacency Zone Office, Miguel Angel Trinidad, maintains his mandate is to support and enhance cross border relationships between Belize and Guatemala. Trinidad hopes the cooperation of the Guatemalan farmer will be duplicated by the other people responsible for similar encroachment.
Miguel Angel Trinidad
”Permanent—this is the permanent activity for the O.A.S. with the close cooperation of the B.D.F. or Guatemalan army, depends.”
“How have the people responded to you all being here saying, this is Belize, this is Guatemala?”
Miguel Angel Trinidad
”Some cases, or majority of case, the people don’t know exactly the place, that’s the only reason, mistake. They don’t know exactly the knowledge of the place. It’s normal in the border in this situation, is normal.”
“But some people know exactly where it is...”
Miguel Angel Trinidad
”It’s possible, yeah, true, it’s possible in some case; depends the situation too.”
For much of the day, people ranging from barefoot women to men on horseback, have passed by, apparently oblivious to the presence of the Belizean military.
Captain Daniel Mendez
”This is actually everyday life in this area. Since I’ve been coming here, this is what I’ve been meeting. This is over and over, this is what you meet everyday. This is how people live in this area. Unfortunately, they do things that are illegal and we try to stop them, but there is only so much we can do while out here.”
“The fences will come down today but the O.A.S. admits there are no guarantees that they won’t be back up within a week. But officials maintain it does set a precedent, visually reinforcing the point that this is Belizean territory.”
According to the Organization of American States, the local office will launch an intensive education campaign for the communities along the western and southern border to point out the exact location of the frontier. As for the fences and crops left behind by the B.D.F., Trinidad says once they are able to verify that they are within Belizean territory, the structures will be removed.
In related news, we understand tonight that the community of Santa Rosa, located along the western border in the Toledo district, continues to flourish as a completely Guatemalan settlement within Belize.