The GAF: bullies of the Sarstoon
The latest military-to-military incident on the southern border between Belize and Guatemala occurred on the Sarstoon River on Tuesday, May 3, when Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) intercepted and blocked a Belize Defence Force (BDF) boat that was on its way to Cadenas. This week, video footage of the incident went viral on social media and resulted in limited official comment.
On that same day when the GAF intercepted the BDF boat, Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow held a press conference, but failed to update the country on the disturbing encounter on the river, over which Guatemala has been asserting its sovereignty while the Belize Government has been steadfast in its diplomatic quest for a “protocol” for the use of the river – “protocol” being the word the Guatemalans use, which is a thin veneer for their demand that Belizeans, military and civilians alike, respect the fact that they “own” the Sarstoon River and Island, and so we must ask them for permission to traverse the area, which is, in fact, Belizean territory.
By Thursday, the Prime Minister was briefing the country on the progress of the bilateral talks in Washington, but again, the PM failed to give any disclosure of the incident between the BDF and the GAF.
In fact, when he was pressed by reporters for more information about the bilateral talks in Washington, which took place around the same time as the Sarstoon incident, Barrow replied: “I really am experiencing a bit of puzzlement. The media complain loud and long if they ever are of the view and get the sense that government is not in fact ensuring a full information flow. This business of the difficulties with Guatemala and in particular the question of the Sarstoon has gripped this nation – has exercised this nation. It is clearly the duty of the government to report and to report fully …”
If it were not for the leaked cell phone video, more than one of which is in circulation, the media would never have known that the incident took place.
In one of the videos, the GAF is heard clearly telling the BDF: “Respecte El Protocolo! Respecte El Protocolo!” Two bigger Guatemalan boats loaded with soldiers who had their fingers on their triggers were seen blocking the path of the BDF boat.
Not only that, but on Monday, May 9, when the government issued a press release titled, “Government announces limited access to Sarstoon,” the government said, “GOB notes that the BDF not only remains permanently at the Sarstoon FOB, but continues to go upriver to effectuate the rotation at Cadenas, as was done last Tuesday.”
Again, there was no mention that the GAF had prevented the BDF from going to Cadenas or that the BDF has been having difficulty traveling on the Belize side of the Sarstoon.
This afternoon, retired Colonel George Lovell, the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Security, told Amandala that he does not know about, and neither has he seen a video of, Guatemalan military boats blocking the BDF boat on the Sarstoon River.
When pressed further about the incident, Lovell told us that Prime Minister Barrow had already dealt with that issue at his last press conference.
Amandala informed the National Security CEO, who had mentioned that he had been out of the country and had just returned, that Prime Minister Barrow absolutely did not mention the incident at his press conference, and that Belizeans are only now beginning to learn about it through the cellular phone video footage that has been posted online.
Prime Minister Barrow spoke glowingly about the talks in Washington with Guatemala, under the umbrella of the Organization of American States (OAS) with a US State Department official present last Thursday when he said: “In other words, as I understand it, the two countries are to agree on an operational protocol regarding the Sarstoon and the OAS statement commends their willingness to do this. As the Secretary General put it, he ‘welcomes the readiness of both parties to advance in the negotiations of the cooperation mechanism for the Sarstoon.’”
“The government of Belize regards the results of the Washington meeting as something of a breakthrough,” Barrow had said.
The Prime Minister’s report of a”breakthrough” with the Guatemalan government, however, does not appear to be in sync with what is happening on the ground (or on the Sarstoon River) with respect to the continued belligerence by the Guatemalan military.
Guatemala is almost five times the size of Belize, with a correspondingly larger army.