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Jun 2, 2015

A Visit to Sarstoon Island

From proud Rio Hondo to Old Sarstoon…sounds familiar? Well it should, but right about now the Sarstoon is patrolled twenty-four hours by personnel at a Guatemalan outpost on the banks of that river. In fact, last Thursday those Guatemalans tried to chase the Coast Guard out of the Sarstoon and off the Sarstoon Island which, at least on charts and maps, lies within Belizean territory. A lot has been said about the altercation, and a lot about the island, so today our News Five team decided to take a quick trip to the site of all the talk. We found out that if the Guatemalans are indeed practicing intimidation tactics, it’s working – on our government and on Belizeans who traditionally use the Sarstoon. Mike Rudon has the story.

 

Mike Rudon, Reporting

It is in the waters off this island, known as Sarstoon Island, that a Coast Guard patrol was approached by a Guatemalan skiff with approximately nine soldiers on board. The island is located in the mouth of the Sarstoon River, about forty minutes from Punta Gorda Town on a calm day. According to established maritime and land borders, when facing the mouth of the Sarstoon the right course of the river, including the island, is in Belizean territory. The far side of the river, where you see these huts, is Guatemalan territory. It is from that small settlement that the Guatemalan vessel was dispatched to approach the Coast Guard.

 

Following the incident last week, the Guatemalans have for all intents and purposes claimed ownership of the Sarstoon River, island and all. Today our guide refused to approach the mouth of the river, even though it is clearly in Belizean territory. Instead we stayed far back, even past these nets which Guatemalan fishermen have set up in Belizean waters to catch fish. We are told that every evening this area, in Belizean territory, is festooned with these nets. It’s illegal fishing, we assume, but it’s not like Belizean authorities are going to march in there and arrest anyone.

 

In fact, maybe a mile before reaching this point Guatemalan fishermen have set up buoys to which they attach their lines and hooks to fish overnight. In the early morning they come to reap the illegal bounty, but again, they can do so with impunity.

 

So how have we come to this point? Well ironically the incident between the Guatemalan military and the Coast Guard happened just days after Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington expressed nationally that Belize does not have any clearly defined maritime borders with Guatemala.

 

On Thursday, members of Belize’s Coast Guard, on duty for their country inside Belizean waters, were ordered out of those waters by Guatemalan military personnel, who were reportedly aggressive, and told them that the island belongs to Guatemala. In the end, the Belizean patrol was ordered to retreat from Belizean territory on directives from Prime Minister Dean Barrow, while the Guatemalans who ordered them out of Belizean territory received the praise from the government.

 

 

Wilfred Elrington

Wilfred Elrington, Minister of Foreign Affairs

“What I will say very clearly is that the Guatemalan officials were very professional and very mature. They did not know what was happening. It was something that caught them by surprise. They wanted to be informed as to what the situation was. And once that was done and it was clear to them that there was no hostile act on the part of Belize…once they were satisfied that there was no hostility from Belize I think the matter was resolved quite easily by the Prime Minister and the people here.”

 

And today it is little wonder that following the show of force by the Guatemalan military and the response by Belizean officials, that Belizean tour operators and guides are hesitant to enter the Sarstoon, a river claimed in our National Anthem.

 

Wilfred Elrington

“The difficulty that we are faced with is that the whole thing is disputed. It’s not a clear cut case where there is not a dispute. This is happening at a time when there still remains and exists a dispute with respect to our territory. These border issues are prone to get violent if they are not dealt with very carefully and properly. So it’s something that we’ve got to be very mature about. There is a dispute. They claim it, we claim it. So we’ve got to make discretion be the better part of valour and act in a mature way.”

 

Today, we were able to confirm that a protest note has indeed been sent to Guatemala. Mike Rudon for News Five.

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