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Nov 14, 2016

Guatemalan Forces Stop SATIIM Again; Secret Protocol in Place?

Following a period of relative calm and somewhat downplayed encounters, activities by the Guatemalan armed forces in the Sarstoon, are sparking up again in southern Belize.  A few days ago, the rangers of SATIIM, the N.G.O. that monitors the area, were stopped by the GAF while on patrol. The encounter was recorded and the video captures the Guatemalan military telling the rangers that they need to get permission to traverse the river, after which they will be escorted by a GAF patrol.  This is in the face of reassurances by the government that Belizean civilians are free to go up the Sarstoon, without let or hindrance. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.

 

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

Is there a unilateral, Guatemala-enforced Sarstoon Protocol being revisited that Belizeans unaware of?  A recent encounter involving a team of rangers attached to the Sarstoon and Temash Institute for Indigenous Management, and personnel from the Guatemalan Armed Forces, seemingly echoes a growing belief that there exists an unspoken set of codes being imposed by the government of President Jimmy Morales.  On Thursday, stewards of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park were on a routine patrol of the forest when they were approached by Guatemalan soldiers.

 

Froyla Tzalam

Froyla Tzalam, Executive Director, SATIIM

“We have been conducting monthly patrols now for quite a while and this patrol was no different than the others, except [that] after doing the patrol on the Temash River and embarking on the Sarstoon River patrol we stopped at the forward operating base and informed them of our trip.  They gave us permission and we commenced.  About a kilometer from the base GAF intercepted us and in that exchange GAF calmly and clearly stated that there now exists a protocol and that protocol means that we can no longer travel the river unaccompanied.  We need to get permission from what I understand is their foreign ministry through our foreign minister asking permission from them.”

 

That episode comes on the heels of another chance meeting between members of the Belize Defense Force and the Guatemalan army.  Foreign Minister Wilfred Elrington spoke succinctly on that encounter.

 

Wilfred ‘Sedi’ Elrington

Wilfred ‘Sedi’ Elrington, Minister of Foreign Affairs [File: November 11th, 2016]

“I had heard very briefly that there was an incident.  As a matter of fact, I think I was coming back on Saturday with the general, both of us were abroad and we met in Miami and I think he mentioned briefly of an encounter but he said that it was dealt with immediately and very, very positively.  All he had to do was to contact the general commanding the Guatemalan army.”

 

Curiously, that is not the case with civilian traffic.  As it pertains the monthly SATIIM patrol, permission has to be sought and granted prior to any excursion into the area.

 

Froyla Tzalam

“Thereafter, once permission is granted they would accompany us on any trip up the Sarstoon.”

 

Isani Cayetano

“How often do rangers attached to SATIIM traverse that area for their routine patrols?”

 

Froyla Tzalam

“We try to do it every four to six weeks, depending on the weather because this last, you know we have a rainy season and it really makes walking within the park difficult.  And even if we go up the Sarstoon, going from the river inland, it’s difficult with all the water.  So [every] four to six weeks we try to go up.”

 

While park rangers are simply traversing the Sarstoon River for the sole purpose of overseeing the vast protected area, there are apparently others on the other side of the border who are intent on further disrupting an already delicate situation.

 

Wilfred Elrington [File: November 11th, 2016]

“Just like in Belize, you have people in Guatemala who would really want to see this matter spiral out of control.  I don’t know why Belizeans would want to do that because the consequences can be very, very grave but I get the sense that there are people who would want to see that happen.  Our job is to try to make sure that that never happens because it is never good for people to be in dispute, whether it’s nation to nation or individuals to individuals.  The more we can avoid having disputes the better it is for us.”

 

According to Executive Director Froyla Tzalam, it has been made clear to SATIIM that the remote reaches of Toledo where it borders Guatemala in the south, is now a militarized zone.

 

Froyla Tzalam

“I guess that’s the other concern that I have because he referred, he being the GAF spokesperson, the lieutenant in charge basically said that this now a military zone, hence [the reason] why no civilians can go unaccompanied and without permission in this area.  Until the referendum occurs, this remains a military zone.”

 

Tzalam says that B.D.F. personnel are aware of the incident and that a report will subsequently be provided to other relevant government departments. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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