By Alexis R. Milan
Guillermo Avila, the captain of the Belize Territorial Volunteers’ (BTV) expedition, which was delayed by Guatemalan authorities over the weekend, has disputed the Guatemalans’ claims, is seeking legal advice, and is asking the Government of Belize to step in and defend his position.
According to Avila’s attorney, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, he signed a report detailing his version of what took place, which included the signing of a Guatemalan description of events under duress. Shepherd said Avila made a judgment call to sign the document after it became clear to him that he and his passengers would not have been able to leave unless he signed.
Avila recounted the events and said that they encountered the Guatemalan coast guard on their way to Gracias a Dios, the southernmost border marker between Belize and Guatemala, and that encounter seemed to be friendly. Avila said passengers even boarded the Guatemalan vessel and took pictures with them.
According to Avila, the Guatemalan Coast Guard trailed them all the way to Gracias a Dios and even shared refreshments with them. While there, the Guatemalans asked if Will Maheia formed a part of their group. Avila replied he did not and the Guatemalans proceeded to ask if he was sure.
Avila said he gave the same response, but thought nothing of it at the time, since the Guatemalans were courteous. At that point Avila said they even escorted him over to the Guatemalan side of the border to a nearby village to refuel his boat.
It was whole on the return journey to Belize that the Guatemalans told Avila that they had orders to detain his vessel.
The Guatemalans cited “overcrowding” and “unsafe conditions” as the reason for detention, but Avila maintains that his vessel was not overcrowded and since they had not yet entered open waters, the conditions were actually quite safe.
BTV President, Wil Maheia, weighed in on the incident, and also criticized the government’s response, in which he said the government was inaccurate in saying that the BTV had previously planted palms on the wrong side of the border on a prior expedition.
Maheia added that the government should carefully examine the situation in which peaceful Belizeans were kidnapped by Guatemalan troops.
According to Maheia, the misinformation was perpetuated by the Organization of American States (OAS), which he feels has yet again shown itself to be no friend to Belize.
Since the incident, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wilfred Elrington has said the governments of Belize and Guatemala will commission the OAS to conduct a proper investigation into the matter to determine the actual facts of the incident, so the government wouldn’t venture into speculation.
According to Foreign Minister Elrington, a report of the incident would be released within the next 60 days.
The Belizean vessel carrying 37 passengers was detained by Guatemalan authorities around 4:00 p.m. Saturday, after returning from their expedition to Gracias a Dios. They were taken to Livingston, Guatemala and later released the same day. The group spent the night in Guatemala at the expense of the Belizean government and returned home the following day, after the boat captain, Avila had signed the statement prepared by the Guatemalans, giving their version of the event.