By Michelle Sutherland
"The Guatemalan Military Stole our Flags," Leader of the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) Wil Maheia told local reporters on Tuesday following a trip on Sunday to Sarstoon Island.
Maheia dubbed this latest incident as one of the most violent encounters he has had with the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) thus far.
According to Maheia, the BTV, accompanied by scouts, as well as several other Belizeans, had traveled out to Sarstoon Island to plant two flags as they would do annually to display nationalistic pride as part of the September festivities. While Maheia concurs that this is not the first time that they have been met with resistance by the Guatemalans, Maheia said that this time the group appeared to be larger and more confrontational.
Maheia explained that the Guatemalan military had attempted to halt the excursion from proceeding from the entrance of the Sarstoon; however, the group was still able to traverse around the gunboats and made their way to the island, where they planted the flags and sang the national anthem, despite five Guatemalan gunboats hovering in the distance.
Following their departure, Maheia said that the GAF immediately went to the island, where they proceeded to remove the two flags that Maheia and his group had just planted. Maheia said that this prompted his group to sail back to the island to demand the immediate return of the Belize flag from the Guatemalans.
In cell phone video footage, Maheia could be heard telling the Guatemalan military, "If you want me to leave, please give me my flag. I am not leaving here until you give me my flag. I am not leaving; I want my flag. That’s my flag from my country,"’ which was followed by a response from a member of the GAF who told Maheia, "You put your flag in my country."
Despite that back and forth continuing for nearly an hour, Maheia said that the GAF refused to return the two flags and so he decided to withdraw from the area in the interest of safety and then proceeded to make a complaint to a BDF and Coast Guard Patrol that was shadowing them on the waters.
Following the incident, the Ministry of National Defence and Border Security issued a press release confirming the chain of events as was reported by Maheia. In the release, the Ministry quoted Maheia had "informed the joint patrol that they had placed two Belizean National Flags on the Sarstoon Island, which members of the Guatemalan Armed Forces later removed.
The Guatemalans informed the joint patrol that the entire area belongs to Guatemala; however, the joint patrol commander informed the Guatemalan Armed Forces that they were in Belizean territory and that they should leave.
The release then went on to say that, thereafter, the BTV and the Guatemalan Armed Forces vessel both departed the area while they proceeded to the Sarstoon Forward Operating Base to maintain a military presence.
While the release did not condemn the latest actions of the GAF or demand the return of the Belizean Flag, the United Democratic Party called on the Government of Belize to demand the immediate return of the Belizean flags from the GAF.
‘’We call on the Government of Belize to officially condemn the actions of the Guatemalan Armed Forces and to ensure the return of the Belizean Flags," the UDP said via press release. The UDP reminded that they had established the Forward Operating Base near the Sarstoon island in an effort to protect Belizeans’ right to navigate the area, deter transnational illegal activity, and assert ownership over Belize’s entire territory.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is yet to take an official position on the matter.