Belize and Guatemala move to de-escalate tension

27 April 2016
Volume 39, Number 16

A potential military threat to Belize appears to have receded after an agreement was reached between the Belize Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, and the Guatemalan President, Jimmy Morales that there was an immediate need to de-escalate tension.

The crisis began on April 20 following the shooting by the Belize Defence Force (BDF) of a 13-year-old Guatemalan boy during an early evening military operation in the disputed Cebada area of the Chiquibul Forest in western Belize. It was followed by the Guatemalan military reportedly moving 3,000 men towards the Adjacency Zone with Belize and a full scale diplomatic crisis.

Although the Guatemalan and Belize accounts of what happened differ, Belize’s government initially said in a statement that its security forces had been investigating illegal land clearing in the Cebada area of the Chiquibul National Park in western Belize when they detained a Guatemalan man suspected of illicit activities. It said its patrol came under fire around nightfall and shot back in self-defence. Before leaving the location just inside Belizean territory, the soldiers found the boy’s body, which was taken to Belize City for an autopsy, the statement said.

Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales, giving an alternative version of events, referred to the incident as a “cowardly and excessive attack” that merited the “total condemnation of the Guatemalan state”. He did not specifically mention any troop mobilisations, saying, “we have decided that from this moment on, we will carry out a strict exercise of protection” of the border area.

Guatemala additionally noted that the Belizean military’s “aggressive attitude,” and “acts of violence” were damaging bilateral relations. Guatemala said that the shot teenager, his father and his brother had been attacked as they planted crops in the border community of San Jose Las Flores near Melchor de Mencos.

Subsequently, Guatemala’s Defence Minister, Williams Mansilla, said that its decision to mobilise its armed forces was “a preventive measure. It is not a declaration of war,” he told reporters. The Minister said the Guatemalan teenager was walking home from working in the fields last week when he was shot, and that his father and brother were also wounded.

The Guatemalan Foreign Ministry said on April 22 that an autopsy conducted in Belize determined that the boy had been shot eight times, including four times in the back, by a high-power, military-grade rifle.

“It is regrettable that the defence forces of Belize are the only army in the Latin America and Caribbean region that fires on unarmed civilians from another country,” the ministry said in a statement.

In a later statement reported by 7Newsbelize.com, Brigadier General David Jones, the Commander of the Belize Defence Force, said that the BDF patrol had been deployed following a sighting of individuals in the area by a BDF defender aircraft. He said that after detaining and questioning a man planting crop who “admitted that he knew he was in Belize… while the patrol was in their harbouring position, the patrol came under fire, where they returned fire.”

“Bear in mind this is in the dark, so the soldiers and the members could not see who was firing at them and could not see who they were firing at. It was their right for self-defence, they defended themselves, and unfortunately there was fatality. A young boy was killed,” he said.

The Guatemalan mobilisation took place against a background of growing indigenous demonstrations against Mr Morales’ government for cutting that country’s health and social budget within the first 100 days of taking office.

Immediately following the incident, the US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” and called for a full investigation, urging both countries to show “calm and restraint”.

An “impartial” investigation by the Organization of American States (OAS) is to be carried out.

Guatemala and Belize’s territorial dispute dates back more than 150 years. Although Guatemala recognised Belizean independence in 1991, it claims parts of the country’s territory as its own.

This is an extract from the Caribbean Council’s leading weekly editorially independent publication, Caribbean Insight, which provides in depth information on current economic, political and commercial developments in the Caribbean and news on events in Europe and the US that affect the region. Business people, academics, and those with a general interest in the Caribbean find it an invaluable tool for developing and maintaining knowledge and providing an insight into political, economic and commercial events in the region.

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