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Apr 20, 2016

Sarstoon Forward Operating Base Inaugurated Amid Ongoing Tension

The inauguration of the joint military and law enforcement Forward Operating Base has certainly taken on new importance with the rejection of the protocols. Government has been criticized for not maintaining a presence in the Sarstoon as Guatemala has done for many months now. The base is located at the mouth of the Sarstoon, immediately across from the Guatemalan base there. It will be a multipurpose facility, and its importance was underscored today by the presence of personnel from the different agencies which will be making use of it. Mike Rudon went south this morning and has the story.

 

Mike Rudon, Reporting

At nine this morning, three B.D.F. boats and two Coast Guard vessels prepared for the half hour journey south to the mouth of the Sarstoon and a new Forward Operating Base to be officially inaugurated. On board were ambassador from Panama and the Chargé d’affaires of Honduras, along with staff from the Ministry of Security, the B.D.F., Coast Guard, Customs and Immigration Departments. The day was beautiful and calm but the military was alert and armed for anything, the bows of the Coast Guard Boston Whalers carry fifty caliber large arms locked and loaded. As we neared the Sarstoon, there was a sense of uncertainty. What would the Guatemalans do? Would they respect the occasion and stand down, at least for today? Or would they come out in force to claim a river they claim is all theirs? We got our answers soon enough. Maintaining a presence just on the border line in deeper waters was the usual Guatemalan gunboat. And in Belizean waters, in the left channel of the Sarstoon, G.A.F. vessels were stationed and alert. That vessel you see there, called a metal shark, is a Guatemalan boat, identical to one which carried personnel to the base today and then patrolled nearby. The reality of it was shocking to those seeing it for the first time, but it is what it is, and what it will be for the foreseeable future in an area which is under dispute.

 

John Saldivar

John Saldivar, Minister of National Security

“I think we would be naïve to assume that the Guatemalans do not claim Belize and as a result, they act accordingly. We say Belize is ours and we act accordingly and so that is why I refer to it as an area of conflict. But we will stand our ground in terms of defending our territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

 

Brig. Gen. David Jones, Commander, Belize Defense Force

“It shows that they’re alert and they are going to continuously be alert. And apart from the B.D.F., the Coastguard, our security forces, our civilians also have to be aware that the Guatemalans are alert. This is an international border; it is shared between us and them and so they are rightfully concerned if anyone comes into the river; that they may be going into Guatemalan waters. So I am not surprised that they are here; I expected them here because that’s what they should do. If there was some activity occurring on their side and we would see a lot of vessels coming into the river, we equally will be alert as well to take a look and to be concerned of what’s happening in the river.”

 

David Jones

Mike Rudon

“Sir but these are not unknown, unmarked, civilian vessels circling in the river; these are our military vessels and I am absolutely sure that the Guatemalans knew that there would be the opening of the forward operating base here today.”

 

Brig. Gen. David Jones

“Yeah, despite that, they should still be alert. And as you know politically, they claim the entire river. So as far as they are concerned, we don’t belong here unless they have approved it. We are of a different view.”

 

That interesting scenario played out for the duration of the visit to the new Forward Operating Base. Belize vessels circling, vigilant – Guatemalan vessels doing the same. That military circus didn’t affect the inauguration of what has become a critical military fixture in the Sarstoon – a concrete presence, certainly, but a base with many purposes.

 

John Saldivar

“Mainly law enforcement, the various laws of Belize as they pertain to whether it be fisheries, whether it be immigration, whether it be trafficking—trafficking of humans, guns, drugs—law enforcement is going to be our main focus. But our presence here certainly establishes our intention to maintain our sovereignty and integrity at the same time. We have to recognize that it’s an area of conflict, an area of dispute; I should say where the Guatemalans do not agree in terms of our boundaries and so on. So we are looking for mechanisms to make sure that we can get along properly in this area, but recognizing what our boundaries are.”

 

Brig. Gen. David Jones

“We’re going to have first of all members of the B.D.F. here and members of the Coastguard, members of the fisheries at times may work with us and even Customs, Immigration and of course the police. They are going to enforce Belizean laws here. There are a lot of illegal activities apart from fishing that occur in this. There is illegal logging, encroachment, there is marijuana plantation, there is deforestation that occurs all along the river. And so this base is going to police what is happening along the river. When our Defender, which will continue to patrol along the border now—at least once a week—the men here will be tasked to investigate it and arrest the situation. So it is going to be an active base, it is going to be a busy base, but it is going to enforce Belizean laws all along the Sarstoon River.”

 

In these duties the Coast Guard will play a critical role. As we stood on the mainland at the mouth of the Sarstoon today, fishermen in canoes passed by on the Belizean side, not a care in the world. Approaching the Sarstoon, we had passed many buoys and nets where fishermen, illegally ply their trade.

 

John Borland

Rear Admiral John Borland, Commandant, Belize Coast Guard

“One of the Coast Guard’s responsibilities at this location will be to deal with illegal fishing and what we saw here today will be addressed in the very short span of time because the Coastguard is coming out here to do its job—to act responsibly, but to enforce all our maritime laws within our sea spaces. Joint services means it will be occupied by members of the B.D.F.; there has to be a police officer as well and then the Coastguard that will take care of the maritime component. The responsibility of policing the river is for the B.D.F. along with the police. And everything in the littorals is the responsibility of the Coastguard so we are going to be conducting joint operations here. The facility is built, as you saw, to occupy at least a dozen people and we are looking at a staffing of eight B.D.F. members along with four Coastguard and perhaps a single policeman to staff the facility.”

 

For security reasons we were not allowed to take footage of the interior of the base, constructed at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars. Mike Rudon for News Five.

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