This Centuries-Old Border Dispute Pits an Army Against Unarmed Volunteers

This Centuries-Old Border Dispute Pits an Army Against Unarmed Volunteers

The boat edged its way past the mangrove swamps, a tangled maze of thorn-covered branches sheltering jaguars and shrieking howler monkeys. We were in Belize, our GPS signals showed, the English-speaking Central American country where British pirates put down stakes centuries ago.

But then members of Guatemala’s military, clad in camouflage and berets, spotted us. Pulling up in their own boat, they grasped rifles, index fingers close to the triggers.

“You’ve just entered Guatemalan waters!” one shouted in Spanish when they were just a few feet away. “We request that you steer toward the nearest Guatemalan command post.”

Wil Maheia, the leader of the Belizean group we were embedded with, yelled back: “No, you’re trespassing in Belizean waters! If you take us into custody that will be kidnapping!”

The episode laid bare a simmering political dispute in one of the most volatile corners of Central America, in which Belize, Central America’s least populous country with only about half a million people, is pitted against Guatemala, the region’s giant with a population of 18 million.

The unresolved territorial feud — one of the oldest in the Americas — has tensions flaring up in the smugglers haven that has arisen around the disputed boundary between the two countries, raising fears over greater instability in a region already marked by drug wars and the exodus of migrants to the United States.

The standoff that scorching hot day in February on a remote stretch of the Sarstoon River lasted just a few minutes. Members of the Guatemalan Army’s naval forces, armed to the teeth, and the unarmed Belizean Territorial Volunteers, a group asserting sovereignty in disputed areas, hurled accusations at each other before the pilot of our Belizean-registered boat turned around and sped away.

Both countries have sought for years to settle the dispute in the International Court of Justice, in The Hague. But with a definitive ruling not expected until next year, or possibly later, the sense of unease is greater in Belize, which faces the possibility of losing a portion of its own territory to a much larger neighbor. Guatemala, by contrast, is limited to losing a claim to land it does not officially occupy.

While the chances of actual military clashes between the two countries appear to be remote, Belizean authorities are especially on edge over illicit activities in the disputed zone, including illegal fishing; unauthorized migration; the cultivation of coca, the plant used to manufacture cocaine; and incursions from Guatemala fueling a deforestation surge.

If those issues weren’t enough, there’s another: pressure by Belize’s own citizens to adopt a stronger stance in the dispute.

Fed up with what he viewed as the inaction of his own government in connection to repeated Guatemalan incursions into Belizean territory, Mr. Maheia, a conservationist, formed his own ragtag group of volunteers more than a decade ago, aimed at asserting Belize’s sovereignty in areas claimed by both countries.

“Our leaders dropped the ball on defending us,” Mr. Maheia, 62, said. “I thought, ‘This is my country, and I’m going to do something to protect it.’”

Every few months they take a boat into Belize’s southernmost reaches, along the Sarstoon River, and plant the Belizean flag amid the mangroves. After repeatedly filming themselves facing verbal harassment from Guatemalan soldiers while doing so, the strategy yielded results: Belize’s government redeployed soldiers last year to a deserted military post at the mouth of the river.

Still, Guatemalan troops just remove the Belizean flags, fueling widespread anger across Belize. Audrey Matura, a prominent Belizean lawyer and activist, filmed herself spitting on the Guatemalan flag at an upscale hotel in Belize City.

The incident made Belize’s national news programs, and Ms. Matura refused to apologize.

The dispute is also stirring tension in Belizean politics. Shyne Barrow, the leader of Belize’s opposition, recently questioned why Belize should deploy soldiers for a proposed Kenyan-led security force in crisis-plagued Haiti when the dispute with Guatemala remains far from resolved.

“You want to go to Haiti while at the Sarstoon, Guatemalan armed forces are undermining our sovereignty?” Mr. Barrow told reporters. He also argued that the tensions with Guatemala showed why Belize needs to increase the size of its armed forces.

Belize’s military has only about 2,000 personnel compared to Guatemala, with more than 20,000.

Despite that lack of parity, a major political shift in Guatemala — the election of Bernardo Arévalo, Guatemala’s most progressive leader in decades — raised hopes in Belize that Guatemala’s approach to the dispute could finally soften. Belize’s prime minister, John Briceño, even attended the January inauguration in a show of good will.

But Carlos Ramiro Martínez Alvarado, Guatemala’s foreign affairs minister, made it clear that Mr. Arévalo’s administration would press ahead with its claim to Belizean territory.

“It is a policy of state, not of a government,” Mr. Martínez Alvarado told The New York Times in an interview. Going further, while drawing a contrast with Guatemala’s established borders with Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, he said “there is no border” with Belize.

The dispute is also focusing scrutiny on other crucial differences between the two countries. With forests covering about 55 percent of its land mass, Belize remains one of Latin America’s least densely populated countries with just 18 people per square kilometer, according to the United Nations.

Guatemala, while more than four times larger in area than Belize, is also much more densely populated with about 160 people per square kilometer. The capitals of the two countries embody this imbalance: Guatemala City’s anarchic, traffic-clogged streets are teeming with activity, while Belmopan, a planned city built by the British in the 1960s with fewer than 30,000 residents, has the feel of a sleepy, small town.

Such imbalances, and signs that deforestation and over exploitation are degrading Guatemala’s natural resource base, are raising concerns that more Guatemalans, who already account for the bulk of migrants in Belize, could cross into the country regardless of how the court in The Hague rules in the dispute.

“People will seek someplace to go,” said Christopher De Shield, a literature professor at the University of Belize. “We’re right next door.”

Wariness among Belizeans over their larger neighbor stretches back more than two centuries to when Central American countries gained independence from Spain. English-speaking buccaneers and logwood cutters had established a presence in the British Settlement in the Bay of Honduras, as Belize was then known.

Guatemala contended it had inherited Spanish holdings in the area, casting doubt over the settlement’s sovereignty. In 1939, Guatemala pulled out of a border treaty for the area it had signed with Britain, and aggressively advanced its claim, including drawing up plans to invade Belize in the 1970s, massing tanks and troops along the border.

Even after Belize gained full independence in 1981, the dispute endured. Guatemala refused to recognize the new country, and when it did so a decade later, it never withdrew its claim. As recently as 2021, Guatemala’s government made clear that maps of the country should include Belize, or what it calls “territory administered by the government of Belize.”

“Guatemalans have been brought up to believe that part of their country was stolen by the British,” said Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a scholar of Latin American history who closely follows the dispute. “As no compensation has ever been given, many Guatemalans feel a sense of injustice.”

Guatemala is currently thought to claim more than half of Belize’s territory, though Guatemala’s foreign affairs minister, Mr. Martínez Alvarado, said the precise details of the claim are secret. As the dispute drags on, it is sowing confusion.

Raquel Rodriguez, the owner of an art school in Belmopan, said she was stunned while living in Guatemala for several years to meet people who would casually refer to Belize as “Departamento 23” — Guatemala’s 23rd department, or state.

“I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” said Ms. Rodriguez, 45.

But the same kind of hostility toward Guatemala exists in Belize, she added. These days, for instance, she said she is called out as a “traitor” when she posts something positive on Facebook about Guatemala.

“Both sides can be irrational on this issue,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

Still, the dispute may not have the political traction in Guatemala it once had.

“Today, people talk more about the fight against corruption, crime, infrastructure,” said Roberto Wagner, a consultant and political analyst in Guatemala City. But while the dispute “has stopped being a national priority,” that doesn’t mean it is about to fade into the sunset, he added.

“Abandoning the claim would be a sign of weakness,” Mr. Wagner said. “Whoever does so will bear the stigma of public opinion saying, ‘That’s the one who gave away Belize.’”

Jody García contributed reporting from Guatemala City.

Jonas P. Jones

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