Last night on the news, you saw the fence that the BDF is building out at the Benque Viejo border - and heard about the slight disturbance it created with Guatemalan Taxi drivers crying foul.
Today we asked the BDF Commander why they chose to send the BDF to build a fence at the border and what was the message sent by that. He said it was a practical decision:
Jules Vasquez, reporter "Usually if you want to put up a fence or cordoned off an area, you hire a contractor and it's just a civil process. Why did you all choose to send in the military in the form of a light engineering company?"
General Steven Ortega, Commander - BDF "What happened is that they have been experiencing some security issues out at the border point and the National Security Council tasked the ministry to assist the border management and the other agencies working along the border checkpoint to fix it. We sent out our team to do the security aspect of it. We realized that it is something that we prefer our engineers to conduct this type of construction that is going to be represented out there."
Jules Vasquez, reporter "You had a little bit of excitement on Sunday when the BDF reached and they had to eject the Guatemalan taxi men from that area who usually use that area. It raised a bit of alarm and the PNC came over and had this tension. Explain to me what that situation was and how you all chose to diffuse it."
General Steven Ortega, Commander - BDF "What happened is that when the guys deployed out there prior to this, all the people who were in this border area have already been warned that there will be construction happening out there. The guys picked Sunday evening believing that it would've been the quietest time to get their equipment and material stationed out there. As anything the military does, we have to secure what we put out there because of our limited resources. The way we secure things is with weapons. When the guys got there, the taxi men kinda refused to move at first. We told them that they've already been told that they were going to use this place for the construction. Afterwards they complied and moved off. The police came over to find out what was happening. We explained to them because they knew about it already. The counterparts on the other side have been informed so when they realized its only that, they moved back across. There wasn't really any tension as such between the neighbors it was just the taxi men who were as usual always reluctant to change."
Jules Vasquez, reporter "After the fence is built, will you all still maintain a presence out there at this border crossing?"
General Steven Ortega, Commander - BDF "We have never maintained a presence there and we never will."
The start of construction of a perimeter fence by the Belize Defence Force at the western border triggered an uproar by taxi drivers from Guatemala who claimed they were being put out of the area. The B.D.F. maintained that the fence was being built to provide security and to ease traffic congestion. Today, we re-visited the area to see the progress of construction since its start in May. Interestingly, some who had questioned the initiative now have a change of heart. News Five’s Isani Cayetano.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
Since it began on May fourteenth, construction of a perimeter fence at the Benque Viejo border crossing has been ongoing. The project is an initiative that is spearheaded by the Ministry of National Security in an effort to better organize and manage the flow of traffic at the western border. From the Belize Defense Force, a team of builders has been working diligently to erect a security booth, as well as a chain link enclosure which will separate certain areas that can and cannot be accessed by the commuting public. Guatemalan tour operator, Roberto Garrido, believes that ultimately the project will be worth the short-term inconvenience it is presently causing.
Roberto Garrido, Guatemalan Tour Operator
“This is not going to be bad, this is going to be better, this fence that they are building here and organizing it it’s going to be better. It’s not going to affect anybody. It’s not going to affect us.”
“Now in the beginning I understand that you guys were abruptly moved from here without being told exactly what the purpose was.”
“Yes, you’re right. That was like that because they didn’t say nothing, they just came like that and, you know, here there’s a lot of taxi drivers and they didn’t know what was going on. But after a little while we knew because they told us so we got to know what was the reason for and why they are building this.”
According to Chief Executive Officer Felix Enriquez, the infrastructure, coupled with the full-time presence of law enforcement personnel should also act as a deterrent to crimes being committed in the immediate area of the Adjacency Zone.
Felix Enriquez, C.E.O., Ministry of National Security
“In terms of incidents happening there, there have been several incidents that lend itself to explain why we need to improve security. Recently there were some deaths that happened at the border. On a daily basis, we have students trafficking to and fro. The Organization of American States, the O.A.S. Office is there as well and so what happens there is very important in terms of promotion of trade and the free flow of traffic to the country, to both countries.”
For that to be achieved, a team of soldiers attached to the BDF Light Brigade will execute an architectural plan for the construction of the barrier.
“What they will do is improve the fencing, so they’ll install a gate that closes off to a certain extent the traffic going out and restrict how that is happening and of course monitor what is coming in, so that the agencies that are there: customs and immigration could have a better hold of things. So they’ll be working in conjunction with the Border Management Agency to get this done. It should be done quite quickly, we expect within six to eight weeks the entire project will be finished.”
Once completed, the movement of people and goods across the border, should see an overall enhancement in the ease of traffic.
“In terms of the traffic, in terms of people coming across either side of the border, what has that been like in your observation, since the beginning of this construction work?”
“Well it’s been a little rough right now because it’s under construction, right. But I think when it’s finished it’s going to be more better, it’s going to be more organized.”
“Now you’re saying to me that with this fence being built, it will be better in terms of the organization of the entire area. You’re someone who travels across the border a lot.”
“Yes, I mean I am here every day because I am a tour guide in Guatemala and I work for some tour operators in Belize and I wait here for my tourists so I think it will be more organized and that will be good, you know.”
“The procedures, however, will change a bit because at the end of the day you will have to go through a different process to cross the border. Do you think that that will slow down your business?”
“No, that will never slow down our business, that will be better, more safe. It’s going to be a lot safer for us, you know.”
Great (Long) Fences Make Great Neighbors At Western Frontier
After about 9 weeks, the fence at the Benque-Melchor border is finally complete. As you may remember, in mid May when the BDF started to build the fence, the Guatemalan taxi-men who operated in front of the Adjacency Zone were not too happy with the project. But as construction continued, the tension and uncertainty died down. The main objective is to establish better control in the area for the heavy flow of visitors crossing the border, protection of border workers and more oversight when it comes to border issues. The gates were opened today along with the ground breaking of another project. Courtney Weatherburne has the story.
Hon. John Saldivar, Defense Minister "Sometimes big problems have simple solutions. There was a big problem here at the border with respect to the security of those who traverse the station and for those who work at this station and it has been resolved with a simple solution."
Courtney Weatherburne reporting
That simple solution came in the form of two iron gates. They were officially opened today at the western border.
The second gate is the longest gate ever built in Belize measuring 46 feet wide and 8 feet high - it is the length of half a basketball court.
So there were no disgruntled Guatemalan taxi-men in front of the OAS office like in May.
There weren't any Guatemalan soldiers inspecting the grounds - there was no chaos - just peace and order.
That's how it should be from now on with these newly installed entryways.
Hon. John Saldivar, Defense Minister "An imperative principle of prosperity is a stable environment, a secure environment and that stability and security can only be assured if the proper security is in place."
And to add to that sense of security, ground was broken for a security outpost.
It will be built on this hilltop overlooking the border and beyond.
Lt. Col. A. Loria, BDF Deputy Commander "If you travel to Mexico you will see that they have their military and here in Guatemala they have their military outpost a couple 100 meters from our border so the Minister of national Security thought it is imperative for us to be, he has always told us that he wants to have military presence along the border for our task, our primary task, our primary role is to secure our borders."
That is surely easier said than done, these fences and this outpost won't completely eliminate all cross border issues but it is a start in marking and protecting Belize's territory.
H.E Said Guerra "There is no such thing as No man's land. The area where you sit, from the border building, all the way to the spraying area is administered by Belize and so it is Belize."
The BDF Light Engineers are still drafting the blue print and estimates for the outpost but construction should start next month. We will keep following this story.