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May 29, 2017

B.T.V. Heads Back to Sarstoon

Two years ago, Guatemalan Armed Forces bullied their Belizean counterparts from the Coast Guard off Sarstoon Island, where the Coast Guard men had been seeking a platform on which to build a Joint Forward Operating Base with the Belize Defence Force. It was never confirmed who in Belize gave the order to back down, but it has been seen as the beginning of a sustained and ruthless campaign of attrition by Guatemala to assert control over the entire Sarstoon River, which along with a substantial portion of Belizean land, they claim as theirs. After several run-ins between the Belizean Territorial Volunteers and Guatemalan military, including a kidnapping of a party to Livingston and local politicians actually enforcing decades-old law to stop potential confrontation, things appear to have settled down. But as Aaron Humes observed this morning when he accompanied the BTV’s Wil Maheia to the area, Belize has not regained control of the entire river.

 

Wil Maheia, Belize Territorial Volunteers

“So we good? We wah just tek wah lee circle round… (Gestures)”

 

Voice of Coast Guard Officer

“Just that unu caan go round the island, right? (Gestures)”

 

Wil Maheia

“Okay.”

 

Voice of Coast Guard Officer

“Just right ina this area pah dis side.”

 

Wil Maheia

“Okay.”

 

Aaron Humes, Reporting

Those were our marching orders on this Monday morning, and admittedly much closer than we had expected to get to Sarstoon Island or indeed the river. It used to be that, as late as two years ago, Guatemalan armed forces personnel would have been in our faces almost immediately, big guns in tow. Today the Belize Territorial Volunteers got five minutes to plant a Belizean flag on the island and briefly remember that solemn incident. But even with the Belizeans now giving the orders, the moral of this story, at least for Wil Maheia of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, is that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

 

Wil Maheia

Wil Maheia

“This year is the second anniversary, or two years since they instruct the Coast Guard to leave the island. Now we come back. We can’t let this day go unnoticed; because that was the day when, for the very first time, Guatemala came into Belize territory and basically ordered our armed forces to leave the island, but clearly, [the] 1859 Treaty shows that this island belongs to us, it’s our island and we have to take this island, we can’t allow it to go away.”

 

In the intervening two years, the Forward Operating Base overlooking the mouth of the Sarstoon River has given Belize permanent residence in the area, though we observed Guatemalan fisherfolk in full view of the F.O.B. conducting their illegal activities. So we asked Maheia: is this progress?

 

Reporter

“Do you consider it progress that we were actually able to make it on to the island, after so many instances where the Guatemalan Armed Forces stopped you cold, minutes away from actually getting here and actually traversing on the river?”

 

Wil Maheia

“The fact that we could come here – yes, I don’t know that it’s progress; but we are here today and the fact that we are here – so far, we have not been harassed by them – but we are here and we will continue to be here because Belizeans need to know that this belongs to us.”

 

The flag could not stay, and neither could we. But for those few moments on the island, at least, the meaning of “from proud Rio Hondo to old Sarstoon” was established and we were all Belizean. Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

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