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Has Belize lost the Sarstoon?

Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2016. 4:11 pm CST.

Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2016. 3:59 p.m. CST


By BBN Staff: The tension between Belize and Guatemala is at an all time high. Emotions on both sides of the border are running high and the situation is probably the most volatile it has ever been.

Guatemalan aggression towards Belizeans has steadily increased over the past two years and now the Guatemalan government has ramped up its rhetoric placing responsibility for the death of 13-year-old Julio Alvarado squarely at the feet of the BDF soldiers on patrol that day.

Guatemala has decided to flex its muscle, trying to rattle and intimidate Belize, placing about 3,000 troops along border areas in the adjacency zone and in the Sarstoon.

The government of Belize has insisted that its mild diplomatic responses are in accordance with the confidence building measures in place but Guatemala, however, appears to have abandoned those so called confidence building measures.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has pointedly called out and criticized Belize for Alvarado’s death. His decision to put troops along the border is nothing more than a show of military strength.

Belize maintains that the BDF soldiers and Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) rangers were fired at first and the BDF fired back in self-defense in the dark of night. The Organization of American States (OAS) will be conducting an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the shooting and GOB is confident that investigators will determine the BDF acted within their rights to self-defense, as in previous cases.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow said at his press conference on Monday that he had spoken to Morales and steps have been taken to de-escalate the tension between the two countries but that is little consolation to the many Belizeans who feel they don’t have the same freedoms as Guatemalans do in the disputed areas.

At that same press conference the Prime Minister and BDF Brigadier General, David Jones discouraged Belizeans, particularly the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), from visiting the Sarstoon.

Jones told reporters that Belizeans have the same freedoms as Guatemalans to traverse and access the areas but pleaded for Belizeans not to visit the area as the zone is subject to a territorial dispute. When the media pointed out that during a recent visit, BDF personnel did nothing to intercept Guatemalans who were clearly in Belizean waters, Jones said it was because the area is disputed. In the same breath he again asked Belizeans not to visit the area to avoid any conflict.

It is an interesting position: As Belizeans you are free to go anywhere you please, including the Sarstoon, but do not go to the Sarstoon and leave the BDF to work in peace in ensuring that Guatemalans can access those waters freely and without problem. That’s what the message seems to be.

There is certainly a sentiment among the public that Belize’s government hasn’t done enough in assuring Belizeans that the Sarstoon still belongs to this country. For all intents and purposes, it appears that the Sarstoon is completely under Guatemalan control, evidenced by the fact that Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) have said that Belizean military personnel must ask permission to enter the zone.

Belizean officials, of course, have rejected that position but Guatemala has been enforcing its will on Belize in the Sarstoon of recent.

The tension on both sides is at a boiling point, so much so that there were even reports that a Belizean serving time in a Guatemalan prison was attacked just because of his nationality. In Belize, the owner of La Cabana in Belmopan came under fire on social media after she made defamatory comments about Belize and the BDF. In the aftermath, several DJ’s and promoters have decided to take their services elsewhere and there have been calls to boycott the establishment.

The situation has also given rise to suggestions of closing the borders, not allowing Guatemalans to come into the country and ceasing trade relations with the country. These suggestions are based on raw emotions and years of building tensions.

Belizeans have the right to boycott Guatemalan businesses and vendors on either side of the border but any official closing of the border or trade relations would likely do more harm than good for both countries. Still, Belize imports more Guatemalan products than it exports to that country, according to the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI).

There have also been suggestions in some circles that Belize shouldn’t allow Guatemalan students to study in Belize. And in some areas where Guatemalan students cross the border freely to come to schools in Belize there should be more border regulation in those areas but to officially deny Guatemalans access to education in Belize is a step in the wrong direction.

If Guatemala were to do the same, many Belizean students would lose educational opportunities as many students study in that country are currently studying to become doctors, engineers etc.

The tension with Guatemala has also started to impact certain aspects of tourism in Belize.  Tourists to Belize do not want to travel to Caracol because they feel it is unsafe. Tour operators as well as hotels and resorts in Cayo have started complaining that Tikal Tours are being canceled.

And indeed, the government has done very little to properly address the issues in the Chiquibul and along the border. Meager resources have been allocated to protecting and securing the areas along Belize’s western border.

Belize has many issues to face when considering the Guatemalan claim but violence is not the answer. The situation must be addressed diplomatically and Belize needs to do a better job in internationalizing our plight with Guatemala.

The fact that the incident with the BDF and Alvarado happened early Wednesday night and there was no official release from the government until almost a full 24-hours later is a problem. In the time Belize took to issue one flimsy statement, the Guatemalan press had already internationalized the issue and taken Belize to task for it. Meanwhile, it took Belize about five days to get a legitimate press conference from any relevant official on the matter. This cannot be the case.

So while the government must work harder to ensure Belize’s sovereignty is being protected, civilians alike also need to work harder to ensure that Belize’s integrity is not compromised.



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