Stranded Guatemalan gunboat raises alarm!

Anti-Guatemalan sentiment spawned after an incident in Sarstoon on May 28, 2015, likely contributed to serious public outrage and concern following the news that a Guatemalan gunboath had run aground on the reef just off Middle Caye in the Glover’s Reef system.

What was a Guatemalan gunboat doing so far within Belize’s waters? Conspiracy theories ran the gamut, but preliminary investigations indicate that the cause may be much more innocuous than it appears.

The 65-foot naval vessel, GC-651, ran aground at exactly 11:23 p.m. Wednesday. The sound of an engine revving out of control and a loud crash alerted Fisheries Department personnel stationed 100 feet away, on Middle Caye. In the dead of night they went to investigate and were informed by the Captain of the vessel, that they had experienced a failure of the propulsion system. The Belizean personnel returned to the island and contacted the Belize Coast Guard, which immediately deployed a boat from Calabash Caye and another from the Belize City headquarters.

Preliminary contact with the captain of the vessel was made at first light by Coast Guard Commander, Elton Bennett – “We first made radio communications. I spoke to the captain on board and he told us right away they had an accident while moving towards Mexico.

They were calm. After establishing radio communications I realized that it was safe to go on board. I went on board. They were courteous. They were not hostile at all. We went on board and started the dialogue from there.”

That dialogue has confirmed, firstly, that there were two military vessels travelling from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, en route to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, on a training exercise.

They were in Belize’s territorial waters, which extends outward 12 miles from Glover’s Reef. But that’s not as serious as it first sounds. Naval vessels from other countries are allowed to pass through Belize’s territorial waters under something called Innocent Passage, which “allows military vessels to traverse outside of the baseline of the country, as long as that transit is continuous and expeditious.”

Secondly, the preliminary investigation determined that the grounded vessel which encountered mechanical problems was indeed carrying cadets on a training exercise. Commander Bennett verified on Thursday that “we have confirmed with our Mexican counterparts that yes indeed, it was a legitimate move from the Guatemalan Navy and they were expecting them in Mexico.

On board the two vessels were officer cadets from the Guatemalan Naval Academy, along with their instructors who were on the exercise.”

Coast Guard personnel remained on board the vessel on Thursday with 13 Guatemalans, but there was no indication of hostility and no tension. In fact, Bennett says that they have found nothing suspicious about the vessel or those on board.

So with the fears of a military invasion or clandestine spy mission somewhat allayed, what remains is something called a Marine Casualty Investigation, standard whenever any vessel damages the reef. The Coast Guard awaited the arrival of a team on Thursday to conduct the preliminary assessment – “we’ll do is an initial dive to determine the extent of the damage done to the reef . The vessel will then be removed and the investigators will conduct another dive to see the damage caused when the vessel is pulled off the reef, but also the damage from where the vessel stood initially.” The team will include personnel from the Fisheries Department, the Coast Guard, the Port Authority and the Ministry of the Environment.

That team arrived on site at around 3 p.m. Thursday, and a move to remove the vessel from the reef could be conducted as early as Friday. The second Guatemalan naval vessel, which remains anchored some distance away, is a first option to try to pull the GC-651 off the reef. Failing that, tugboats are a second option.

While protocol dictates that the captain of vessels which run aground on the reef are at times detained pending payment for damages, it is expected that in this case, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of both countries would get involved long before that eventuality.

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