The Guatemalan military vessel, GC-651, which ran aground between Middle Caye and Long Caye in the Glover’s Reef System, has returned to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala.
At around 11:30 am on Saturday, the 65-foot Cutlass gunboat, which had been firmly stuck on the crest of the reef, was pulled off by a tugboat dispatched from Guatemala for that purpose.
In the hours following the collision with the reef, at exactly 11:23 pm Wednesday, the public outcry in Belize was loud and prolonged.
The Captain of the Tecum Uman claimed the vessel had developed mechanical problems. But what was it doing so deep into Belize territorial waters, which stretch 12 miles out from where the vessel ran aground?
And if it did experience mechanical problems out at sea, why didn’t it drop anchor? The vessel, and another identical gunboat travelling with it, were allegedly transporting naval cadets on a training exercise to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Upon experiencing difficulties with steering, why wasn’t it taken under tow by the second vessel?
The answers to those questions, if indeed they have been asked and answered through military and diplomatic channels, haven’t been made available to the general public.
On Thursday, Coast Guard personnel deployed to the site, 36 miles off the Dangriga coast, and awaited a marine Casualty Investigation Team to assess the damage.
Commander Elton Bennett told reporters on the site that the vessel would be handled just like any other, civilian or commercial, crashing into and damaging the reef.
But that was not the case. In all other instances boats have either been seized or boat owners/captains held until arrangements to pay for damages have been made. Not so with the Tecum Uman!
According to CEO in the Office of the Prime Minister, Audrey Wallace, government was actually unable to detain the vessel because of provisions under the ‘United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas and also under the Geneva Convention.
“Under international laws there is a thing called Innocent Passage which basically allows a vessel to pass through our territorial waters.
Again under international law, it is our understanding that they don’t have to announce when they are passing through territorial waters. Also under international law, we are not supposed to detain or arrest any of these vessels because they enjoy what is called sovereign immunity,” Wallace said.
Wallace says that the Department of the Environment is preparing a comprehensive assessment of damages, which will be handed over to the Ministry of National Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at which time a bill of costs, may be attached. Wallace says the Guatemalans have been advised accordingly.
“What we did was to serve notice of our intention to seek compensation for the damages once the assessment is complete. And so we await that assessment and once we get that, we will act on it with the Guatemalan authorities.”
A brief preliminary assessment has been released, indicating that the damage caused by the grounding is not substantial.