Monday, March 2, 2015. AARON HUMES Reporting: Belize and Guatemala appear to have avoided a full-fledged international incident this past weekend, after a 36-member party and the captain of their boat was detained by Guatemalan military authorities near the mouth of the Sarstoon River on Saturday evening around 5:00 p.m.
The group, ages ranging from 14 to 81, was on their way back from an expedition to the border marker at Gracias A Dios where they placed a plaque marking Belize’s name.
The trouble started on their return as expressed by tour leader of the Northern Territorial Volunteers, Giovanni de la Fuente.
He says that in planning the expedition, the group got no support from Belize’s authorities, though he notes that they never asked for it.
According to de la Fuente, the group had written to Minister of National Security John Saldivar and others to appear at the ceremony but they never got a response.
Nonetheless, he maintains that they should be paying more attention to securing Belize’s borders against continued Guatemalan incursions, noting that Guatemala “runs” the area they visited with no sign of Belizean presence, military or otherwise.
De la Fuente and his cohorts are glad to be back home; but he says they are equally as eager to go back to plant Belize’s marker on the borderline.
The need to protect the border, he says, is part of the overall confidence building measures agreed to by both countries under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS).
The group was welcomed home on the dock in Punta Gorda with a spontaneous burst of the national anthem from a cheering crowd.
Overall leader of the Belize Territorial Volunteers Wil Maheia says that whoever believes they were trying to make trouble is missing the point.
According to Maheia, several diplomats and other very important persons were on board, which helped facilitate the relatively speedy resolution of the case.
Meanwhile, the other side of this weekend’s international incident is the machinations of the Guatemalan authorities, who by the accounts of those we spoke to in Punta Gorda, shadowed the vessel to and from the marker point and only picked the crew up when they were at the mouth of the Sarstoon.
They tried to transfer the group to their ship, only to be thwarted by heavy seas and high winds.
But the alleged violation occurred much earlier in the day around 9:00 in the morning, leaving the Marines and Coast Guard enough time to intervene.
But they instead accompanied the group and never threatened them. As soon as the group landed back on Belizean soil they were debriefed by local authorities.
Attorney Audrey Matura-Shepherd was present on behalf of the boat captain, Guillermo Avila, and said on his behalf that he insists that he never crossed into Guatemalan territory – and if he told the authorities in Livingston that, he only did it to ensure that passengers got home safely.
She says the boat was stopped for a marine violation having to do with the vessel rather than any alleged straying into Guatemala.
Avila nonetheless signed a document for authorities saying the opposite – that around 9:00 a.m. he “accidentally” took the boat down a tributary off the Sarstoon for about 100 yards and on realizing his mistake he turned back.
Avila regularly travels the area and authorities were apparently keeping an eye on him.
Also keeping an eye on events in the South was the Government of Belize.
Ambassadors in both countries and the main executives in the Ministries of National Security and Foreign Affairs, along with the Prime Minister’s office, were in communication and later on the ground in Punta Gorda, managing this swiftly blown-up crisis.
We got a first-hand perspective from CEO in the Ministry of National Security, Retired Colonel George Lovell, who while not going into details, said that he personally is concerned enough by what he was told by the members of the party that the Government is going into action to get to the bottom of Saturday’s events.
However he cited the need to have all the facts and respect the confidence building measures as the reason he could not get into details yet.
Ambassador of Belize to Guatemala Alexis Rosado says he is equally concerned.
Once the task of getting the Belizeans out of Guatemalan hands was complete, the next step would be to find out how they got there and whether the Guatemalan military deliberately crossed boundary lines to pursue a reported violation that took place hours earlier.
But there is a mechanism established, he said, to pursue that report.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow, currently attending the summit of CARICOM heads of government in the Bahamas, will be among the first to be briefed on the matter.
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