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Old Sarstoon- Embedded in the hearts and souls of Belizeans

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2018. 1:48 pm CST.

those of Breaking Belize News.

By Lisa Shoman: In 2016, the Bar Association of Belize held its annual law conference entitled – The Belize Guatemala Border Dispute – When and How Do We Draw the Line?

I was invited to present a paper and I chose as my topic, the Sarstoon.

The following (and it is long, so bear with me) was my presentation :


Mary Tudor, is reputed to have famously said that when she died, Calais would be found engraved on her heart. Calais was the last English possession in France, and after holding it for an unbroken period of over 200 years since 1347, it is an understandable remark.

I’m no royalist but I dare say that no Belizean who has ever sung those words from our National Anthem “from Proud Rio Hondo to Old Sarstoon”, feels any less of an emotional and sentimental attachment to our southernmost border…

In fact, in 1982, at a meeting between Belize and Guatemala (and the British), then Attorney General Said Musa told the Guatemalans that “the Sarstoon is embedded in the hearts and souls of Belizeans”, to which the reply came swiftly – “that just as the Sarstoon is embedded in the hearts and souls of Belizeans, it was a bitter thing in the hearts of Guatemalans.”

To know more about this famous encounter, you will have to purchase a copy of Assad’s upcoming book about Belize and Guatemala, the entire episode being one of those fascinating pas de deux in the long running fencing match of wits between our neighbor and ourselves.

The remark proved prescient, because although Guatemalans never dared to make incursions into Belize while it was still a colony, blatant incursions began after our independence into our land territory. For the most part, though, incursions were limited to the land, and although Guatemala continuously pressed its claim to the Sarstoon and indeed to effectively half of our nation and all its cayes except St. George’s Caye, until 2007, no move was made by Guatemala to act in a hostile or aggressive manner in respect of our portion of the Sarstoon, or even the island in the Channel.

Last year it became fashionable in some quarters to declare that Belize had “lost the Sarstoon”, but emotional rhetoric and national angst notwithstanding, Belize has not YET “lost the Sarstoon”.
BUT – if we do not act NOW and decisively, we will lose ground on the position of primacy that we have always held in relation to our southernmost boundary.

Assad Shoman’s presentation later today will go on, in some detail as to the entire Guatemalan Claim and I don’t want to focus on the same issues, but some history is required.

This history of the Settlement known as Belize is that “By 1802 the settlers had occupied areas in Stann Creek and Deep River, by 1816, the Moho River, and in 1825 the British Superintendent in Belize described the Sarstoon as being the southern boundary. “

The signing of the 1859 Anglo Guatemalan Convention by Great Britain and Guatemala on 13th April, 1859, brought further clarity and resulted in Guatemala recognizing the present boundaries of the settlement of Belize as definitive.

The first article of the Convention declared that “the boundary between the Republic (of Guatemala) and the British Settlement and Possessions in the Bay of Honduras, as they existed previous to and on the 1st day of January, 1850 and have continued to exist up to the present time, was, and is, as follows:

Beginning at the mouth of the River Sarstoon in the Bay of Honduras, and proceeding up the mid-channel thereof to Gracias a Dios Falls; then turning to the right and continuing by a line drawn direct from Gracias a Dios Falls to Garbutt’s Falls on the River Belize, and from Garbutt’s Falls due north until it strikes the Mexican frontier.”

The Convention went on, helpfully, to state as follows: “It is agreed and declared between the High Contracting Parties that all the territory to the north and east of the line of boundary above described belongs to Her Majesty and that all the territory to the south and west of the same belongs to the Republic of Guatemala.

It is therefore absolutely clear, that the wording of this first Article, established an acknowledgement and a legal recognition that there were pre-existing boundaries to the settlement of Belize, to which as contracting parties, Guatemala and Great Britain were in agreement would remain.

There is both a description of the boundary between Guatemala and “the British Settlement and possessions in the Bay of Honduras” as Belize was referred to – with SPECIFIC reference to the “River Sarstoon” – and three markers – Gracias a Dios Falls, Garbutt’s Falls on the Belize River and the Mexican frontier.

The reference to the “River Sarstoon” also made it clear that the southernmost boundary between “Guatemala and the British Settlement and possessions in the Bay of Honduras” began from “the mouth of the River Sarstoon in the Bay of Honduras, and proceeding up the mid-channel thereof to Gracias a Dios Falls.”

Lawyers like clarity of meaning, and there is no doubt, and never has been on Belize’s part, that the actual words of the 1859 Treaty must be given their plain meaning and that the term “mid channel” is plain – not the deepest point of the Sarstoon River – but the mid channel.

In 1860, work began on the placing of border markers by representatives of Guatemala and Great Britain at Gracias a Dios and Garbutt’s Falls. Seventy years later, in 1929, Boundary Commissioners were appointed by Guatemala and Great Britain who “inspected the boundary markers placed in 1860-1861 at Garbutt’s Falls (near to Benque Viejo del Carmen) and Gracias a Dios (at the Sarstoon) by representatives of both countries and replaced them with concrete markers.”

In 1931, there was an exchange of notes between Britain and Guatemala, between Britain and Guatemala. The Guatemalan Foreign Minister, HE Alfredo Skinner Klee wrote:
“The Government of Guatemala agrees to accept the concrete monuments erected at Garbutt’s Falls and at the Gracias a Dios rapids on the border of Belize and Guatemala which were set up by the Commissioners of both Governments, Engineers Fernando Cruz and Frederick W. Brunton on the 8 and 26 May 1929 on the frontier between Guatemala and British Honduras according to the report drawn up at the Sarstoon River Bar by both delegates on the 29th day of the same month . . .

These monuments, thus determined, form part of the border line between Belize and the Republic of Guatemala.”

This Exchange of Notes has always been regarded by the British and Belize as having the force of a treaty and it does confirm and re-validate the 1859 Treaty, particularly in regard to the boundary in the area between Garbutt’s Falls and the Sarstoon River.

Belize has held always, despite every Guatemalan attempt to get us to agree otherwise, that we claim as our boundary in the Sarstoon River, up to “the mid-channel” of the river- which of course very helpfully puts Sarstoon Island squarely on OUR side of the Sarstoon River.

On various occasions, the Guatemalans have argued the version of the 1859 Treaty does not refer to the mid-channel, but to the “madre del rio” which they claim is the deepest part of the river but not the mid channel. We have always roundly rejected that notion, and argued that this divide of the river was not only been defined in the Treaty, but that both parties to the Treaty recognized the Sarstoon River mid-channel for years as the de facto boundary.

When we became a Crown Colony in 1871, the Sarstoon was the southern boundary of British Honduras. As far as Belize is concerned, it has been so from now until then.

Schedule 1 of the Constitution of Belize which describes a and defines Belize’s territory declares that “the frontier with Guatemala is the line prescribed by the Treaty between the United Kingdom and Guatemala signed on 30th April 1859.”

When did the current serious problems with Guatemala start up in relation to the Sarstoon?

There was, at some point in time in either 2006/2007, a suggestion from the Guatemalans that their military vessels should use the main, southernmost channel of the Sarstoon for navigational purposes and that the BDF/ newly formed Coast Guard should use the northernmost channel of the Sarstoon “to avoid confrontation.”

It is my firm recollection that the Foreign Minister of Belize, one Eamon Courtenay in proper diplomatic language, firmly and absolutely rejected that notion in no uncertain terms, telling the Guatemalan Foreign Minister that we could agree to no such suggestion because we were within our rights to navigate the Sarstoon within our internal waters which were up to the mid channel of the main channel of the river, and that we would not cede our right to use those waters for navigation by our armed forces.

To my mind, the beginning of serious problems in the Sarstoon, really goes back to 2007 and the encounter of SATIIM (Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management) rangers with a Guatemalan gunboat on October 9, 2007.

Greg Choq, SATIIM’s Executive Director at the time, reported the incident to national news media and I refer to the Channel 7 news report on the matter.

Greg Choq reported that he and his SATIIM rangers were in their boat on the north side of Sarstoon Island on that day, within Belizean waters heading to a meeting at Graham Creek, one of the Belizean communities along the river when a Guatemalan gunboat came directly towards them. The encounter is best described in Choq’s own words:

“And I believe and the other people that were there, if we had stopped, we would have definitely collided into the vessel that they were in because they were moving at fast speed to intercept us. We had no choice but to stop.

We had to stop or we were forced to stop and they asked us who we were and where we were going and what we were in the region for and there were some exchange of words in terms of telling them what we were in the region for and it was not going anywhere so I identified myself as the Executive Director of the organization and that we manage the park and that we were on a routine visit to the community.

They were insisting on us showing our documents and any other registration numbers for the vessels and so on. After we refused to disclose any ID cards, they told us well we want you to accompany us to the base.

They have a little base right on the Guatemalan side of the river which is south from where we were and we told them we cannot go there because we’re not going into Guatemala and we don’t have intentions of going into Guatemala and a lot of discussion back and forth occurred and it became very contentious but we insisted that we were in Belizean waters and that’s when one of the Guatemalan soldiers told us, who seemed to be in command, that the water belongs to Guatemala and that the land belongs to Belize.

After about thirty five minutes, between 20 to 35 minutes, they asked them what should we do and they said they want us to accompany them to the base and we told them no.

But when we said that we need to go, we have an appointment with the community, and one of our people asked what should we do and they said next time when we come in the area, make sure we come to their base to tell them where we’re going and who we are so that they know who is proceeding up the river.

And to avoid any confrontation we said yes we will do that next time, we will do as they said, and we moved on and they let us go.”

Greg made the point that it was frightening because “All of them were armed and really we had no defense.”

He also said: “We’ve never had this kind of aggressiveness from the Guatemalan military, at least to us until this occurred and I wanted to know if this was in fact a new policy of the Guatemalan government that we need to be aware of.”

I was the Foreign Minister of Belize at the time, and I immediately got in touch with Greg and asked that he provide me with a full brief on the incident. He did and as a result, the Government of Belize has requested that the OAS conduct a formal investigation into the incident.

Belize’s Ambassador to Guatemala, Fred Martinez, was instructed to approach officials in the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry and request that an inquiry be conducted into the matter. We needed to determine if the incident was an isolated one, or a matter of policy.

The matter was discussed at a meeting between myself and Gert Rosenthal and we lodged the strongest possible protest, and pressed for a commitment that such an incident should never occur again. FM Rosenthal assured me that the action was not a matter of policy, but described it as a one-off incident by overzealous military personnel on the ground.

While I was in the post, the incident with SATIIM rangers did not re-occur, but form time to time, fisher folk or boat captains from Toledo would complain of being approached and questioned by GAF forces from the same small base on the Guatemalan side of the River, and anecdotally, some would stop in and speak to the GAF officials there before proceeding downriver, but no reports were lodged with the Foreign Ministry up to the time I demitted office in early 2008.

So then what? Neither Eamon Courtenay, who was the LOP’s representative on the Bi-Partisan Commission on Belize /Guatemala from 2008 to 2010 nor I who was there from 2010 to 2015 was ever briefed as to any serious confrontations or hostile occurrences on the Sarstoon during our tenures except for two incidents in 2009, one minor, when BDF forces encountered a forty-foot Guatemalan army vessel anchored at the mouth of the Sarstoon River apparently inside Belizeans territorial waters.
A Guatemalan flag was seen flying from a tree on Sarstoon Island, which was removed by the BDF and “handed over to the Guatemalan Army Officer Lieutenant Ricardo Melendez Gonzalez, who stated that they would place back the flag again as instructed by their superior officer,”

There was another more serious incident on December 15, 2009, when GAF The attempted to stop a B.D.F. patrol from using the main southern channel in the Sarstoon. The Guatemalan army told the B.D.F. that they had orders from their superiors and after a discussion, the B.D.F. was allowed passage.

There were, from what we now know, from a “confidential” document that was leaked from the Belize Defence Force, “Threat Assessment-Sarstoon River – As of 14 October 2015,” that the BDF said that in 2010 there was “an increase in encounters; however, the meetings were cordial, except for two incidents that were of concern”.

The report also claimed that from “2011 to the end of 2013, encounters and escorting of the BDF vessel became a routine; however, GA patrols were always cordial and no reports of dialogue were received,”

Purportedly in 2014 there were no incidents.

In 2015 – our Annus Horribilis, Sarstoon –wise began, and the Guatemalans began to display an unprecedented aggression along our southernmost boundary.

In February of 2015, there was the infamous seizure of the “Dore”, the incident in which on February 28, 2015, a Guatemalan Navy vessel forced 40 Belizeans civilians, men, women and children, at gunpoint to leave the Sarstoon River mouth, and submit to being taken and Livingston, Guatemala, port, miles away, across open seas and they were not permitted to leave until the following day.

In May 2015, the GAF had a standoff with the Belize Coast Guard at the mouth of the Sarstoon River in which armed elements of the Belize Coast Guard were confronted by armed elements of the Guatemalan Navy.

According to that leaked BDF Threat Assessment, “In July 2015, reports of GA vessel escorting BDF vessel were again received from BDF personnel conducting changeover at Cardenas OP, which is believed to have been triggered by the GA’s previous encounter with the Belize Coast Guard on the 31 May, 2015, and the BTV’s activities in the area”

On July 27, 2015, while on an official visit to Belize, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Raul Morales, well aware that there were heightened tensions in respect of GAF and the Sarstoon, was asked at a press conference by the media about any objection by Guatemala to the construction of a forward operating base near the Sarstoon River by the Belize Coast Guard.

The Foreign Minister, Guatemala responded as follows:

“Our commitment is to not build another military base after the signature of this instrument. It was signed in 2000. Then we agreed, and Belize did it and Guatemala did it too, with respect to all the military bases, we have until that moment…and this is why we didn’t remove – this is the only one, I think the other one is in Melchor de Mencos. But what we are doing is we are trying to implement this very important agreement which we signed in 2000. And we are, Guatemala and Belize, respecting that agreement that we signed in 2000.”

There was no basis for the Foreign Minister’s assertions, but the remarks went unchallenged by the Foreign Minister of Belize and shortly thereafter, all of the Foreign Ministers of Belize during the period 2000 to 2008, Said Musa, Eamon Courtenay, Godfrey Smith – four at first – and one Assad Shoman shortly thereafter issued an unprecedented joint statement firmly rejecting the assertions of the Guatemalan Foreign Minister and pointing out that neither the 2000, nor the 2005 instruments on the CBMs between Guatemala and Belize contained anything at all about military bases in either country, and that no agreement or decision was made with Guatemala between 1998 to 2008 with respect to increasing or removing military bases in either Belize or Guatemala.

It was against this backdrop that the events of August 16, 2015 came about – what some insist on calling the Battle of the Sarstoon – and its aftermath.

You have all read about it, and the news media who accompanied the visit were comprehensive in their reporting.

All the main media houses were there – Channel 5, Channel 7, Love, KREM and Plus. You have seen the incredible images of Guatemalan gunboats ramming small Belizean skiffs loaded with media and civilians while the Guatemalan press looked on from their comfortable Cabin Cruiser and the OAS in the “Good Times” was duly observing. You saw Admiral Carl Thomas, using his vessel to prevent one of the Belizean boats from entering the channel of the Sarstoon and pointing in an arrogant stance while in Belizean waters. You have read the reports of those who were there.

You know that I decided to go, and why – because that was clearly spelled out in a letter dated August 13, 2016 addressed by me to the Hon. Wilfred Elrington, Foreign Minister of Belize in which I stated that “I am concerned that the Minister of National Security as well as others of your ministerial colleagues do not seem to understand that Belizeans must be safeguarded against acts of aggression, internal or external on every portion of Belizean national sovereign territory including our maritime areas.”

I also requested that the FM “notify the Ministry of National Security as well as your counterparts in Guatemala of my presence on the excursion, and that the necessary measures be taken to assure the safety of all those in attendance on the visit, especially of course, the “women and children” that Minister Saldivar claims to be most concerned about.”

This letter was copied and sent to CEO Lawrence Sylvestre, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, H.E. Alexis Rosado, Ambassador of Belize to Guatemala, CEO Col. George Lovell, Ministry of National Security, Commander Belize Defence Force, Brigadier General David Jones, Commander Belize Coast Guard, Admiral John Borland, Vice Commander Belize Coast Guard, Elton Bennett, Mr. Sergio Benitez, OAS Adjacency Zone Office and Mr. Starett Greene, OAS Permanent Representative to Belize.

I wrote to the Guatemalan Ambassador in Belize on the very same day advising that I would be accompanying the Belize Territorial Volunteers on the visit being made to Sarstoon Island, on the morning of Sunday, August 16, 2015.

In the letter, I made it clear that I was notifying the Ambassador so that he was made aware that our visit to Sarstoon Island, was in no way an act of aggression and that neither did we seek confrontation.”

I received a polite reply of acknowledgement and the assurances of the Ambassador that he would ensure that my letter was sent to the relevant authorities in his Foreign Ministry.

No reply was ever received by me from my own Foreign Ministry, but an incredible diplomatic note was sent to Guatemala by Belize – Note No. 538 dated August 13, 2015 which referred to my letter written to the Ambassador of Guatemala, which stated that GOB’s position in regard to the BTV visit to the Sarstoon was as “stated in the public domain and denounces the plans of the BTV”.

The Note went on to refer to me by name, and stated (rather ominously) that while “Lisa Shoman is a Senator, she is on this occasion acting without the consent or support of the Government of Belize.”

What kind of Government denounces and throws its citizens under the proverbial bus, let alone to an aggressive neighbor??

None of this did I know at the time – but I still would have gone, and I am glad that I did go. Why did I go? I went because Belizean citizens were intent on going and I wanted the OAS and the Guatemalan Government to know that there would be at least ONE Belizean who was a member of the Bi-Partisan Commission and the National Assembly of Belize there.

I went to try to ensure that all Belizeans there would be closely observed by the OAS. I went because this in MY country and we MUST defend what is ours.

We now know the aftermath – that Prime Minister informed our nation as follows: “Every Tuesday the Belize Defense Force takes a replacement contingent of soldiers to our side of the Sarstoon River to our military outpost at Cadenas, and brings back down the River the troops being rotated out from Cadenas.

In doing this, and consistent with our assertion of sovereignty, we ask neither leave nor license from the Guatemalans. Indeed our BDF are routinely challenged by the Guatemalans and frequently told to turn back. Our soldiers never retreat and are never deterred by these standoffs. They always complete their mission, even when they are threatened by the Guatemalan Navy with the ramming of their boat and/or a firefight. So the fact is that our security forces protect and defend our Sarstoon River sovereignty on a continuing basis, operationally demonstrated every Tuesday of every week of every year without fail. “

It may be protection – but from where we sit it looks like aggression. Aggression, I might add, that in the view of many was not punished either by protest or public denunciation by protestation to the world on the UN stage at the annual speech – Aggression that was rewarded by the amending of the “Special Agreement” for what? So that a failed, imploding government could pretend that it was going to hold a referendum during its presidential election, closely followed by Belize at General Elections. It never happened. Was it ever meant to happen? Was Belize “played”?

The PM’s statements were borne out in a most graphic fashion by the incident captured by video when a BDF boat exited the Sarstoon, moving as the move says “Fast and Furious” and followed – “escorted” (chased?) GAF Navy Vessel. The incident was captured by media and BTV volunteers and it served to galvanize the nation and the drumbeat to “Build the Base” on the Sarstoon gathered serious and sustained momentum.

Alarmed by what we had NOT been told, I demanded and got from GOB, the OAS report, the infamous 13th August Diplomatic Note denouncing the BTV and the protest note of Belize, and the reply from Guatemala. The last two, I provide here as annexes and a coda.

So now we are building the base. The base is not on Sarstoon Island where many believe it should have been, but on our mainland, and it looks so far like a rather unimpressive wooden structure. We cannot and should not do this on the cheap.

The main thing is this. At every single turn, every turn we must assert out sovereignty over the internal waters of Belize in the Sarstoon.

We must never cede an inch on our southernmost Boundary. History will never absolve us of we waver one iota on that. We have that obligation to our nation, our children and the future


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