Barrow says “Give Peace a Chance”: Tensions between Belize and Guatemala de-escalate

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

Prime Minister of Belize, Right Honourable Dean Barrow has petitioned all Belizeans to “give peace a chance” following the increased tensions between Belize and Guatemala. The long standing territorial dispute reached its boiling point last week when Guatemala mobilized troops at the Western Boarder claiming it necessary to protect their people. The entire situation was triggered over the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Guatemalan Julio Alvarado by the Belize Defence Force (BDF) patrol near La Cebada in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve on Wednesday, April 20th. With both countries having different takes on the incident, it took several diplomatic meetings to diffuse the tension and for the countries’ relationship to return to normalcy.PM Confrence on Belize - Guatemala issues-4
Barrow assures Belizeans that there is no threat from Guatemala, and that it is best to resolve the issue diplomatically than with force. “We have just concluded a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) of Belize, and this is a follow-on from the meeting held on Friday, April 22nd when I was in New York, and in which I participated by phone. I am wholly satisfied, based on the NSC’s review of all the facts and its discussion of the pathway forward, that the immediate crisis provoked by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’s extraordinary address to his nation after the exchange of fire between Guatemalan civilians-who fired first-and the BDF leading to the death of a Guatemalan minor, is over,” said Barrow during a press conference on Monday, April 25th.

President Jimmy Morales

President Jimmy Morales

Originally, President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales stated in a press release, “the border security will be strengthened, it is the constitutional duty of the army”. Morales went on to indicate that 3,000 troops would be mobilized in the Peten area along the Guatemala-Belize border to ensure the security of Guatemalan citizens and that forces along the Sarstoon would also be reinforced.

Guatemalan Military deployed to Peten

Guatemalan Military deployed to Peten

However, that was never the case, as Guatemala’s Minister of Defence William Mancilla later clarified that Morales exaggerated. “In this regard, of those three thousand men, what was done was reinforce the adjacency zone. So if we had five hundred, right now we have about one thousand men. So then, as soon as that act of mobilization of three thousand men from here, the capital, to the city is a lie- that is false. What is being done is that the mechanism in place at Peten reinforced the detachments at the adjacency zone, and I repeat again, to guarantee the life of the persons living in those, approximately 35 communities, in the entire adjacency zone and of course the naval base of the Sarstoon River was also reinforced with 40 persons,” said Mancilla.

Belize Minister of Foreign Affair, Honorable Wilfred Elrington

Belize Minister of Foreign Affair, Honorable Wilfred Elrington

Guatemala claims that the killing of the minor was unjust, and that the BDF used excessive force, even though the BDF claims their actions were in self-defence. Both Barrow and BDF Brigadier General David Jones clarified that the BDF does not make war on children, and they had only fired in self-defence when they came under attack on Wednesday, April 20th at about 7PM. They claim that in the darkness they could not see who or how many assailants there were until the firefight was over. The BDF had encountered Julio Alvarado in the Chiquibul before, and after explaining to him that he was on the wrong side of the border they had escorted him back to Guatemala where he was released unharmed. Apparently the minor returned along with his father and younger brother, who were also injured, and opened fired at the patrolling officers.

DF Brigadier General David Jones

BDF Brigadier General David Jones

“President Morales committed to me his agreement to our mutual de-escalation of the tensions that had arisen over the Cebada incident. It is true that he maintained at all times his strong and vigorous protest over what he described as the unprovoked BDF attack on innocent Guatemalan civilians and the ‘murder’ of the Guatemalan minor; and it is true that he repeatedly insisted on the need for justice for Guatemala and its citizens. But it is also true that I placed on record, and repeated throughout, the fact that the BDF patrol had come under fire first, and had responded in self-defence, firing in the direction from which they had been two shot at. I made the further point that the civilian members of Friends for Conservation Development (FCD), who had accompanied the patrol, confirmed the BDF’s version of events. I regret the unfortunate loss of life of the Guatemalan minor, but recollect that the BDF had several times before come under fire in that very area from armed and dangerous Guatemalans engaged in illegal activities and pillaging of Belizean forests, environment and resources. Our military had every right to defend itself and our patrimony,” explained Barrow on the incident.PM Confrence on Belize - Guatemala issues-5
Barrow went on to indicate that he is “convinced that diplomacy, Belize’s invocation of the Confidence Building Agreement, and its call for peace and the de-escalation of the threat and tension created by the Guatemalan response and the measures that had been announced by President Morales, has worked”. He also indicated that the Organization of American States (OAS) has launched a full and impartial investigation into the incident. “Belize and the BDF have nothing to hide in circumstances where our actions were necessary and justifiable. President Morales said that the killing of Guatemalans by the BDF could not continue, and that Guatemala must protect its citizens and would, among other things, seek redress for the death of the minor from the Inter American Human Rights Commission. But he agreed with me that while the OAS inquiry and Guatemala’s petition to the Human Rights Commission were proceeding, it was absolutely necessary to dial down the tension between our two countries. He therefore committed again to de-escalation, and accepted that I would make public to Belize and to the international officials to whom I would speak, his commitment,” said Barrow.PM Confrence on Belize - Guatemala issues-3
Other neighboring countries and international organizations also commented on the incident and applauded Belize and Guatemala for keeping the peace even during these turbulent times. “Mexico is confident that, with the support of the Office of the OAS in the adjacency zone, a thorough investigation of the facts will be undertaken in order to determine responsibilities. The Government of Mexico reiterates its support for the efforts of Guatemala and Belize to advance the solution to the dispute that maintain as well as its support for the initiatives that are implemented within the framework of the OAS to promote measures of confidence building between the parties and avoid incidents and tensions that may affect the peaceful process of resolving the dispute,” stated Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While the United States of American Department of State said, “We encourage both countries to cooperate fully with the OAS Adjacency Zone Office and to continue engaging in the confidence building measures agreed upon in 2005. We reiterate our support for both countries to continue efforts to hold referenda on referring the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice”.

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