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Aug 17, 2015

Territorial Volunteers Successfully Complete Expedition to Sarstoon Island

The incident with the Guatemalan military occurred in the early afternoon…actually close to the end of the expedition to the Sarstoon. The morning was spent further north, where about one hundred and twenty-five men, women and children stood in knee-deep water off the coast to send a message to the governments of Guatemala and Belize. Mike Rudon has the story which started very early that morning at the main pier in the southern community of Barranco.

 

Mike Rudon, Reporting

From the north, west, south and Belize City, Belizeans came to this small pier in Barranco, the starting point of an expedition to the Sarstoon, which the government has suddenly declared a prohibited zone. Dire warnings from the ministries of National Security and Foreign Affairs, the Belize Defence Force and the National Security Council could not deter this group. On the pier, coast guard personnel and police officers took count of those headed out and verified the safety of the vessels and passengers.

 

Dickie Bradley

Dickie Bradley, Member of Expedition

“Their presence is important. It says a lot about the kind of attitude and in fact anybody who had an opportunity to speak with those Coast Guard who were out here on the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth of May before the instruction snot to say anything…will know that in fact they stood their ground. They were not intimidated by the presence of Guatemalan military…even the reinforcements – they stood their ground and it was the Belize authorities who instructed them to retreat.”

 

Five vessels carrying Belizeans, flags waving, travelled to this point south of Barranco but north of the mouth of the Sarstoon. This sandbar, in about two to three feet of dirty brown water, is where the expedition members took a stand to hoist the red, white and blue standard in a show of patriotism.

 

Sylvia Gillett

Ironically, the anthem mentions the Sarstoon prominently…the same Sarstoon that the government has now told us is a disputed area…the same Sarstoon that is now off-limits to Belizeans.

 

Sylvia Gillett, Member of Expedition

“We need to start to show these people that we are determined. We are determined to show the government and anybody who thinks otherwise that the Sarstoon Island belongs to Belize. If Guatemala has a claim that doesn’t stop us from coming to the island! It is ours. So why should we be afraid to come out to a part of our country that belongs to us.”

 

Dickie Bradley

“That is the most shameful thing I’ve ever heard. First of all the anthem says Sarstoon – I don’t know if it’s the Sarstoon Island or Sarstoon River – but ever since we have always treated the Island as being a part of our territory. And as I was saying even if there is a dispute over it, in the meantime we should be free to come and go. Because if you use that fool-fool argument that there’s a dispute and the Guatemalans claim Sarstoon Island…don’t they claim Toledo and Stann Creek all the way up to the Sibun River? So that means we shouldn’t come down to look for people in PG then? You see the idiocy of that argument. You mean Guatemala would tell us listen, better you stop coming to PG because that is also being claimed by us. That shows the stupidity of the government’s argument.”

 

Lorraine Arzu

It’s an argument, and a warning that has scared off some people. Originally over two hundred persons had signed on for this trip. Many bowed out after the B.D.F. and government advised them that if they came to the area they would be on their own. PG resident Lorraine Arzu was a little afraid to come along.

 

Lorraine Arzu, Member of Expedition

“I was before, but after that I ketch courage. I felt so good this morning when I saw the Coast Guard in Barranco, you know, so I feel much safer, I feel much better coming here this morning.”

 

Lisa Shoman

Lisa Shoman, P.U.P. Senator

“I think the Coast Guard is here because if anything did happen to Belizeans and the Coast Guard was not around they would take a lot of liability issues, so that’s why I think they are here. And I think the Coast Guard in fact is glad to be here. This is their job. This is what they do. They are here to make sure of the safety of Belizeans, not from a military standpoint but simply from a safety standpoint and it is good to have them.”

 

For the territorial volunteers, this is one of their most critical expeditions because suddenly, it appears that our territorial integrity is in question, with Guatemala seeming to be gaining ground.

 

Jesus Cantun

Jesus Cantun, Member of Expedition

“I don’t think they are serious about this issue. I think they’re supposed to pay more attention, keen attention to see how Guatemala is acting. Guatemala is very aggressive. And all the time the Belizean government they are just sitting down and they are not doing anything.”

 

Efrain Alpuche

Efrain Alpuche, Member of Expedition

“It’s time that as Belizeans we stand together and do something about it. I’ve missed out on the past seven trips and I would be damned if I had missed out on this one which is crucial and needs to be done. We are Belizeans and this is clearly Belizean territory.”

 

Giovanni de la Fuente, Head, Northern Territorial Volunteers

“If you look over there you see all the huts. If we as Belizeans don’t occupy our land and visit our areas, if you come back here in a couple years and we haven’t been visiting, along our mainland you will see huts as well and so as Belizeans we just need to visit and occupy our land.”

 

An occupation which seems much less likely now that the Government of Belize has taken to actively warning Belizeans out of the area of the Sarstoon.

 

Giovanni de la Fuente

Giovanni de la Fuente

“Half of Belize is under dispute and occasionally the whole of Belize is under dispute. So what are the authorities trying to say? Should we avoid going to the half of Belize that is under dispute? No, I don’t think so. I think we need to press the reset button on the foreign policy of Belize. It’s failing us. Look at us here having to stand in water and trembling and looking over there and wondering what would happen. Let me remind you. Prior to 1981 twenty-five miles up this river there was an active police station, immigration and Customs building. It’s still there in total ruin. It has been abandoned. Our position has eroded since 1981 to now, that we’re questioning if we can even come to the bar mouth of the river.”

 

Orlando de la Fuente

Orlando de la Fuente, Northern Territorial Volunteers

“This is just one small step. We’re still lighting the fire. Sarstoon is just one small step and we cannot stop. The thing is we’re shooting for no less than a no to the ICJ and for Belize to reset its foreign policy regarding its negotiations with Guatemala. While negotiations are underway, there’s no reason for us to cede access to any territory, any territorial waters, any insular areas. There’s no reason that we have to cede anything. Negotiations can continue. Guatemala can claim. That doesn’t mean they will get, but they can claim.”

 

From the events which were to unfold, it appears that Guatemala is not only claiming, but actually taking. Mike Rudon for News Five.

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