Flashpoint at Chiquibul
The office of the recently installed Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina, issued a stern statement today, February 2, 2012, on the recent dispute over the killing of Guatemalan Juan Choc Chub, 29, blamed on Belize Defence Force (BDF) officers in what is being portrayed as a significant human rights violation.
Chub’s brother, Daniel, was also seriously injured, according to the official reports.
Today’s statement—the second the Guatemalan president has issued on the incident since Tuesday—noted that Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Harold Caballeros travelled today, Thursday, to Belize, to ascertain whether any progress has been made in investigations into Chub’s death, which they claim occurred inside the adjacency zone – a strip of land along the Belize-Guatemalan border spanning a kilometer on each side of the un-demarcated line.
Belize’s Ambassador to the OAS, Nestor Mendez, told the media in Belize today that the reports from this side of the border have indicated that the incident happened inside Belize’s Chiquibul Forest.
Prime Minister Barrow told Amandala he has no reason to doubt the account that has been supplied by BDF officials.
He said that the reports indicate that Belizean security forces came under fire on the occasion of what should have been a routine link-up with the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) on the border, and that the incident happened further in from the adjacency zone, before the BDF met the GAF.
According to Barrow, it was after the BDF met GAF that the Guatemalan soldiers informed them of the death of Chub.
“Our people here have been screaming about incursions,” said Barrow, reiterating his government’s commitment to continue to step up security presence on the border.
The NGO, Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) has reported $15 million in losses due to illegal logging by Guatemalans in 2011, and there are millions more losses reported due to other illegal activities.
Also, over 30 Guatemalans are reportedly living illegally inside Belize, including inside the Chiquibul National Park, which should have strict protective status and be off-limits to occupation.
Barrow said that his biggest worry now is retaliation against Belizean security forces, since the border outposts are not heavily manned.
“I worry that this can spiral out of control,” he told us.
The presidential statement said that the Guatemalan Foreign Minister, Caballeros, appealed to the Government of Belize for an “exhaustive investigation” into the facts of the case, so that those responsible could be brought to justice. They went on to say that these incidents ought not to continue.
Today’s statement claims that three Guatemalans were attacked this past Saturday. The allegation is that the BDF detained them for interrogation, and Chub’s attempt to escape cost him his life.
Citing a much different account of what transpired last Saturday, Prime Minister Dean Barrow today declared the cross-border tensions surrounding illegal activities inside the Chiquibul—Belize’s most prized forest which has been a target of illegal logging, hunting, poaching, and even settlements—to have reached a “flashpoint.”
On Tuesday, his counterpart, Perez Molina, had issued a statement on the border incident. Of note is that Perez Molina, an ex- military, has taken a marked deviation from the custom of the former president, Alvaro Colom, to leave such pronouncements to the Guatemala Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The statement from the Guatemalan president’s office dated January 31, 2012, said that Belize has been asked to conduct an exhaustive investigation into Chub’s killing, allegedly at a Guatemalan village, Monte de los Olivos, Dolores, Peten.
However, Prime Minister Dean Barrow told our newspaper that the shooting, according to the official accounts provided to him by the BDF, took place well inside Belizean territory, and further east than the 1- kilometer adjacency line, contrary to the assertions made by the Guatemalan officials.
Perez Molina has noted that the current dispute ought not to affect the move to have the territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala settled via a binding declaration by the International Court of Justice.
Interestingly, Perez Molina’s statement went on to get very specific about the extent of the territorial claim. He cited “12,700 square kilometers [4,900 square miles] of the 22,965 square kilometers [8,867 square miles] occupied by Belize”—just over half of Belizean territory.
The presidential statement indicated that their preliminary information is that the incident occurred 1,600 meters (just short of a mile) from the adjacency zone and there was no justification for Chub’s life to have been taken.
However, the Guatemalan officials have called on the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct a verification exercise, to establish the facts of the case.
Perez Molina also called on Belizean authorities to use their best efforts to ascertain who was responsible for the killing. Even if the incident had occurred two, three, five or ten kilometers [inside Belize] the president maintained, Chub’s life ought to have been respected.
The Guatemalan government has established an inter-department commission, including the OAS representatives in Guatemala, police, and human rights representatives, public ministry and military, to look into the allegations.
On the Belize side, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday that “The Police Department has taken command of the investigation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has formally requested the OAS office in the Adjacency Zone to assist in the investigation.”
When Amandala contacted that OAS office today for information, we were told to send an e-mail. At press time tonight, our e-mail was still unanswered.
Prime Minister Barrow has stressed to us that the tensions are not military-to-military, but between Belizean security forces and civilians who tend to encroach on Belizean territory to conduct illegal activities.
Barrow underscored the need for Guatemalan officials to make the requisite land available for their people, to avoid further incursions inside Belize.
As for the call by the Guatemalans for an OAS investigation, Prime Minister Barrow said he will insist on having a Belizean representative there who can ensure that the verification is being done objectively.
Barrow lamented that the OAS has not been able to do as much as Belize would have liked to avoid these flashpoints.
He also spoke of another recent attack in which a patrol commander had to flee offensive fire, allegedly from a Guatemalan, but the Belizean officer responded with restraint, opting to use non-lethal fire instead of live rounds, said the Prime Minister.
As to last weekend’s fatal incident, Barrow alleged, the Guatemalans had fired on the BDF with lethal intent.
With the increased risks facing Belizean security forces patrolling the borders, we asked the Prime Minister whether there is a move to secure helicopters to assist in surveillance operations. He confirmed that this is being pursued, although, he said, they cost about $10 million apiece and would require external funding or a lease arrangement to bring them online.
He said that as a part of US Capital oil explorations operations in southern Belize, the Government is arranging for a specific amount of “flying hours” to assist with border surveillance, to be provided by choppers that US Capital will be importing from Guatemala.