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Apr 2, 2019

Revisiting Sarstoon Island Ahead of I.C.J. Referendum

News Five’s reporters have been deployed to various border communities to test the pulse of Belizeans as we prepare for that historic vote on April tenth which will decide if the International Court of Justice is to determine on the boundaries of Belize.  We will be reporting from areas far-flung, as well as communities where Guatemalan nationals traverse our borders without hindrance. Tonight, we start with a visit to a flashpoint: the Sarstoon. A News Five team, Isani Cayetano and videographer Chris Mangar, travelled south to capture the situation there were Guatemalan soldiers have established a commanding presence.  Our friend, Will Maheia, provided support. Despite a commitment from the Guatemalan government in May 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey, a protocol was never reached so that Belizeans can navigate the Sarstoon safely and smoothly.  During the trip on Monday, the GAF repeatedly tells News Five that the Sarstoon belongs to Guatemala. The coastguard and the B.D.F. escorted our team with the Guatemalan gunboat in tow. Here is that report.

 

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

Since the militarization of the Sarstoon River by Guatemala in 2015, free and unfettered access to Belize’s southernmost tributary has been a challenge.  In fact, it has been pretty darn frustrating to be quite honest.  Gone are the halcyon days when residents of nearby Barranco would venture upstream to trade or simply pass the time of day with neighbors on the other side of the waterway.  Those casual experiences have been replaced by metal sharks, armed officers and a palpable air of hostility that hangs heavily over visitors to that area.  Belizeans are uninvited and setting out on an expedition here amounts to trespassing.

 

Guatemalan Soldier

“This territory is for Guatemala.  You need documents to navigate in this river.”

 

Wil Maheia

“No. This is Belize’s island.  This island is for Belize.”

 

Guatemalan Soldier

“This is not Belize’s island.”

 

Wil Maheia

“Yes, this is for Belize.  You are in Belize’s territory right now.”

 

Guatemalan Soldier

“That is not right.”

 

Wil Maheia

“You should not be here.  Do you have permission to be here?  Do you have permission to be in Belize?”

 

Guatemalan Soldier

“This is Guatemala.”

 

History has, from time immemorial, taught us that the sovereign territory of Belize covers everything terrestrially, from proud Rio Hondo to old Sarstoon.  The country shares a border in the north with Mexico, it is also bounded on the west, as well as the south by Guatemala, and to the east by the expanse of the Caribbean Sea.  But with the ramping up of military presence in these parts, freedom of access to Sarstoon and her virgin, namesake island has been severely restricted.

 

Wil Maheia

“We are visiting our island.”

 

Guatemalan Soldier

“Yeah, but you are not allowed to be here.”

 

Wil Maheia

“Do you have permission to be in Belize?”

 

Guatemalan Soldier

“Excuse me?”

 

Wil Maheia

“Do you have permission to be in Belize?”

 

Guatemalan Soldier

“Do you have permission to be in Guatemala?”

 

Wil Maheia

“This is Belize!”

 

Guatemalan Soldier

“This is Guatemala!”

 

So what are we doing here?  Ahead of the April tenth ICJ referendum, we decided to visit the farthest point south to test the waters, in a manner of speaking, to prove that the status quo and conflict between both countries over this controversial location persists.  The GAF, as they are called, attempted to thwart our passage upriver.  It wasn’t until our vessel was joined by a coastguard launch that we were able to encircle Sarstoon Island with military escort from them.

 

The journey around the hundred-acre landmass was tense.  The coastguard officers were outnumbered and outgunned by the Guatemalan Armed Forces, but their steely resolve was on full display and deserves commendation.

 

Julet Vernon-Austin

Julet Vernon-Austin, PG Resident

“It was very curious that we were on Belizean waters and Guatemalan military officers came over and said we were in Guatemalan waters, amazing.  I didn’t expect that that would have happened out there and to see two military boats as opposed to just one that usually comes out there from the Guatemalan side.  Luckily, we got to experience the actual B.D.F. and the coast guard in action and they came to our side and showed us that it is Belizean waters so far.  I am gratified to have seen that.”

 

Dr. Joseph Palacio is a son of the soil and has returned home to Barranco in retirement.  His perspective on what has taken place at the Sarstoon, in the broader context of Toledo District being neglected, speaks to a dire need for the establishment of a protocol.

 

Joseph Palacio

Dr. Joseph Palacio, Barranco Resident

“Unfortunately, Toledo remains the forgotten district and I say that deliberately and unfortunately and because of the proximity between us and Guatemala there is a need to work out a modus operandi.  There has to be some solution.”

 

That solution may or may not come, depending on the result of the April tenth I.C.J. referendum.  For activist Wil Maheia, the experience today only serves to concrete his decision.

 

Wil Maheia

Wil Maheia, Belize Peace Movement

“I go back to a few years ago when Lisa Shoman came with us on this very trip and upon her return or sometime after, she said that look, we owe nothing less to Belize and that we should not be dealing with Guatemala until they begin to behave like a good neighbor and so far they’re still not behaving like a good neighbor so I mean, I think that Lisa Shoman pointed out that they were not a good neighbor and we should not be dealing with them until when they begin to behave like a good neighbor.  Clearly today they were not that good neighbor and that’s another reason why Belizeans should say no to the I.C.J.”

 

Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.


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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