On Saturday March 12, there was a confrontation between the Belize Defence Force and the Guatemalan Armed Forces. Late on that evening the forward operating base at the Sarstoon was approached by GAF personnel. With the use of a loud speaker the GAF informed the BDF that they should not be at the Sarstoon. Even as this was taking place the Belize Forces stood their ground. Reports indicate that the GAF were in the area for approximately an hour after which they withdrew.
After a meeting of the National Security Council, General David Jones, BDF commander explained that he had communication with his Guatemalan counterpart about the incident and within 10 minutes the GAF withdrew from the area. He explained that they were dissatisfied that the BDF had not reported to them as it relates to their movement in the Sarstoon River. “Our troops had never gone in there and asked permission to go through and we continue to go through the Sarstoon without asking permission,” stated Jones.
He continued explaining that just earlier in the week there was a meeting between the BDF and the GAF at the highest level for the Saturday incident to have unfolded. Jones said that the Guatemalan General was “going to pass the direction that there isn’t going to be anymore interception and we are going to work towards peace in the area.”
also speaking after the meeting was Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow and he was very clear explaining that, “this meeting was also about tasking both our military people and our diplomats to be quite clear and to reduce to writing a way forward for Belize in the event of whatever contingencies. Every effort will be made, is being made to try to come up with a diplomatic resolution to the tensions in the Sarstoon and such resolution can only come by way of an agreement over how we will proceed.”
On the diplomatic front a delegation is currently in Washington headed by Foreign Affairs minister Wilfred Elrington and accompanied by Mr. Assad Shoman as the representative of the Opposition held talks under the auspices of the OAS. meanwhile Belize has informed key members of the international community, including the US and the UK, of the extremely critical situation. Additionally leader of the opposition has also been informed of the situation.
The threat dates back to 2006
While Belize is well on a course of action to cool down tensions at the Sarstoon, a confidential threat assessment which has been made public indicates that the tensions in the area date back ten years.
The threat assessment of the Sarstoon River which was prepared by the Belize Defence Force and presented to the Ministry of National Security on October 22, 2015 suggest that tension at the Sarstoon have been present 10 years ago. The document states that “records show that the aggressive behavior of the Guatemalan Army/Navy started in 2006. The aggression towards the BDF personnel are done whilst the BDF are conducting changeover at Cadenas and have to go through the Sarstoon River.”
Prepared by Major R. Beltran the document catalogues the various encounters which the BDF and the Guatemalan armed forces have had over the past ten years. The report states that “the encounters were for the most part cordial, there were several tense moments... it has been noted that over the years during an election year in Guatemala, tension within their army seems to rise which often times affect our relations with them.” While the report states that they had encounters with the Guatemalan Army in 2003,2004,2005 the “2006 saw the beginning of Guatemalan Army aggressive behavior towards members of BDF, transiting the Sarstoon River.
The documented encounters are as follows:
December 18, 2006 - Guatemalan vessel with four army personnel armed with Galil rifles intercepts BDF patrol. The Guatemalan captain in command stated to BDF that the border is located on the North side of the island and not along the south. He requested that BDF patrol submit their names in order to proceed. The BDF commander declined and mentioned to the Guatemalan captain that where he was patrolling was Belize and that he had no doubt of it.
2007 - Guatemalan Army temporarily increased their number of vessels in the area from a Mexican Pesquero Skiff to 4 additional vessels.
29 May, 2007 while on change over patrol to Cadenas outpost it was noted that the Guatemalan Army with the assistance of Guatemalan Navy had blocked the south side of the Sarstoon Island from the BDF patrol. Four vessels were in the area, two bearing 50 caliber type machine guns. There were two unmarked Guatemalan Colombian type Army vessels one occupied by 10 fully armed troops and the other by 8 troops. When the BDF patrol was heading up river one of the vessels was blocking the southern channel. Upon their return the patrol was signaled to use the northern channel.
June 6, 2007 - Meeting between Commander of BDF Brigadier General Lloyd Gillett and Chief of Staff of the Guatemalan Army General de Brigada Mario Aguilar Bran to diffuse situation at Sarstoon. After deliberations a ‘Gentleman’s Agreement was decided upon. At that agreement it was decided that both approaches into the Sarstoon will be used alternately starting 11 June, 2007. BDF and Belize National Coast Guard would meet with the Guatemalan counterparts at the mouth of the river and conduct joint patrol up the Sarstoon as an act of confidence building measure to the people living in the area. It was also agreed to share information regarding illegal activities in the area on a weekly basis. Finally it was agreed that there would be no more blocking of the Sarstoon or belligerent actions. As a result of this agreement there was no aggressive behavior in 2008.
November 2, 2009 - 40 foot Guatemalan Army vessel anchored at mouth of Sarstoon River appearing to be in Belizean territorial waters. Two other vessels encountered up river patrolling on Belizean side of river when approached by BDF they stated that they were acting on instructions. Upon returning from Cadenas a Guatemalan flag was observed flying from a tree on the Sarstoon island this was removed on 03 November, 2009 and handed over to a Guatemalan Army Lieutenant, Ricardo Melendez Gonzales. he stated that the flag would be placed back as instructed by his superior officer.
December 15, 2009 Guatemalan Army personnel attemp to stop BDF patrol using the southern channel of Sarstoon as ordered by their superiors. After discussions the BDF patrol was allowed to pass however the patrol was followed. On the return journey the north channel was used to avoid confrontation.
February 2, 2010 Guatemalan Army personnel used their vessel to block the BDF from passing. Northern channel was used to avoid further confrontation.
April 13, 2010 Guatemalan Navy Ship encountered at the mouth of river, two smaller vessels approached BDF vessel and conducted chatups. Guatemalan commander Lt. Alex Ander Pinelo told BDF that he received orders from his general that no BDF is to enter through the southside channel of the island. BDF commander maintained his position and told him that his orders were to pass through the southern channel and was allowed to pass but followed.
No encounters in 2014
July 12, 2015 Guatemalan Army vessel escorted BDF patrol. This was triggered by previous encounter with Belize’s Coast Guard on May 31, 2015 and Belize Territorial Volunteers activities within the area.
August 11, 2015 BDF patrol heading to Cadenas in Southern Channel of Sarstoon was intercepted by Guatemalan Army vessel nearly causing a collision. They were told to use the Northern channel since there were too many nets in the Southern channel. The request was ignored and the Southern channel was used. Upon the patrol’s return they were escorted by he Guatemalan Army vessel.
August 25, 2015 BDF patrol was stopped by Guatemalan Army personnel. They handed over a Belizean flag that was taken down from the Sarstoon Island. According to them no party should put up any flag on the Sarstoon Island because it is still on discussion. During a meeting on this day the Guatemalan delegation stated that they are doing the BDF a courtesy by allowing them to use the river to access Cadenas and that they are in the process of verifying if that privilege will be taken away from the BDF as the Sarstoon River in its entirety belongs to Guatemala.