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Apr 25, 2017

1 Year Later, Did Sarstoon Clash Produce Results?

The Government, a year ago this week, passed legislation to stop Wil Maheia’s Belize Territorial Volunteers and others from peacefully traversing Belize’s southern boundary, the Sarstoon River. Later the B.D.F., Coastguard and Police physically blocked the dock to prevent the expedition.  But the Government’s promise that it could get a deal with Guatemala on managing travel in the waterway fell through. The incident came in the wake of increased military build-up by Guatemala following the death of a thirteen-year-old in the Chiquibul Forest, a shooting which was later found by international experts not to have been caused by the Belize Defence Force, as the Guatemalans alleged. In the intervening twelve months, the Government has not achieved any sort of agreement with the Guatemalans on respecting the Sarstoon, with multiple travels to the area stopped in one form or another. There are rumblings that Guatemala wants to search for oil and annex Belize once again to its official maps. Tonight, News Five’s Aaron Humes takes a look back at that momentous occasion and asks, what’s really changed since that Saturday at the Sarstoon?


Aaron Humes, Reporting

Following the Government’s passage of the controversial regulations under Section Two of the Public Safety Act which proposed to, quote, “prohibit persons and vessels, without lawful authority, from entering into Belize’s portion of the Sarstoon River,” unquote, for a full month, it seemed Wil Maheia and his Belize Territorial Volunteers would be subdued by force of law from entering the Sarstoon on an innocuous trip to Sarstoon Island where persuasion had failed to work. As it turned out, law enforcement had to be placed on the dock in Barranco and throughout eastern Toledo District on that Saturday morning.


Wil Maheia

Wil Maheia, Head, Belize Territorial Volunteers [File: May 3rd, 2016]

“The situation at this point is that when we were getting to the dock, we were blocked from getting on the dock. When we were getting here our boats were at the dock, but all of a sudden they moved off the dock. I couldn’t see inside the boat, but it looked like some military personnel boarder our civilian boat that was going to take us down.”


Elton Bennett

Commander Elton Bennett, Belize Coast Guard [File: May 3rd, 2016]

“We received information yesterday that the Coast Guard will be required to conduct safety and security operations somewhere between Punta Gorda and Barranco. We understand that the BTV had plans to depart Barranco in vessels and it was the Coast Guard responsibility to ensure that those vessels were seaworthy. We commenced operation this morning; so far we have detained three vessels…all or maritime safety offenses. Those three vessels were detained and taken back to Punta Gorda.”


Despite widespread condemnation and plans by the Opposition to test the law on the ground and in court, it continued in force until the end of May, while the Government tried and failed to get Guatemala to agree on a protocol for shared usage of the river. As News Five showed in June, the Guatemalan armed forces had no hesitation in declaring that all of “proud Sarstoon” was Guatemalan, not Belizean.


Guatemalan Military Officer [Translated] [File: June 16th, 2016]

“This is water for Guatemala; welcome to the river of Guatemala.”


Mike Rudon

“Over there is Guatemala; this is Belizean waters.”


Guatemalan Military Officer [Translated]

“Respect the protocol.”


Mike Rudon

“There is no protocol.”


Wil Maheia [Translated]

“What is the protocol?”


Guatemalan Military Officer [Translated]

“Respect the protocol, sir.”


Mike Rudon

“But there is an agreement that we can come in here. No man, there is an agreement that we can come in here.”


Guatemalan Military Officer [Translated]

“What’s the problem?”


Mike Rudon

“There is no problem.”


Guatemalan Military Officer [Translated]

“Ask your authorities. Leave and go to Belize. Bye.”


And that “protocol” would repeatedly be maintained by Guatemala over the course of the next several months, prompting Defence Minister John Saldivar insisted in December that – subject to checking in with Belizean authorities – Guatemala exercised no control over Belizean affairs in the area.



John Saldivar

John Saldivar, Minister of Defence [File: December 16th, 2016]

“Belizeans also have free access to the Sarstoon however, due to Guatemala’s position with regards to sovereignty over the entire area our civilian are asked to check in at the Belize Forward Operating Base located by the mouth at the north of the river. Civilians may go in without being question or followed by GAF patrols to ensure they are not doing anything illegal or that the B.D.F. F.O.B. is aware of their presence in the area. We continue to exercise our sovereignty in the area by having our military patrolling and conducting operations along the river and our aircraft conducting air presence along the river. Our civilian interest groups are also able to conduct patrols in the river and may be questioned in the area and maybe questioned of their activities only and not to their legitimacy to being there. We do share the river with Guatemala.”


As for the Sarstoon Protocol promised ever since the B.T.V.’s confrontation with Belizean armed services, it failed to materialize in the six months promised by Foreign Afffairs Minister Wilfred Elrington – but he says it’s the Guatemalans’ fault.


Wilfred Elrington

Wilfred Elrington, Minister of Foreign Affairs [File: April 7th, 2017]

“We had raised it a week or two before when we had a meeting of the anniversary of the signing of the Tlatelolco agreement in Mexico, so there was no need to raise it again.”



“And what was the outcome of that discussion?”


Wilfred Elrington

“You appreciate that because of the difficult situation we had over the killing of the kid, we could not move as fast as we wanted to move on it, but it’s something that we know has to be dealt with in some time, because if there is one thing we know, it is that there’s going to be incidents if not accidents, and it is only common sense that we have a protocol to deal with those difficult times, so that is what we are basically trying to arrive at. We have had some reversals but we can’t give up on the idea; but they have their own constraints.”


So what has changed? Not much. Guatemala maintains de facto, if not legal, control of the river, and for all intents and purposes has annexed it to their territory. Belize continues to navigate tricky currents in an effort to change that, as the feuding neighbors draw closer to what each hopes is a shared destiny – though with differing consequences. Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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