There Is a Worrying Military Buildup on the Guatemala-Belize Border
The numbers are unprecedented in recent history and follow a shooting of a teenage boy by Belizean troops
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The shooting death of a 13-year-old Guatemalan boy has provoked the largest border mobilization for the country in decades. On April 20, Belizean troops killed Julio Alvarado Ruano and wounded his father and brother, which Belizean authorities said occurred after the troops came under fire.
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales called the shootings a “cowardly and excessive attack” and ordered some 3,000 soldiers to amass near the border — which has been disputed since before Belize’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1981. The mobilization focuses on the Adjacency Zone, a buffer region along the border marked by the Sarstoon River.
“Belizean security forces and law enforcement officials would never perpetrate an armed attack on civilians, especially minors, except in exercise of the right to self defense,” a statement from the office of Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow read.
This might not appear like a lot of soldiers — but it’s almost unheard of along the Sarstoon. The troops largely come from the 1st Infantry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Regiment and the “Kaibil” Special Forces Brigade — which has received training from the U.S. military. These troops are reinforcing army units in Modesto Mendez, Jovente, Dolores and Melchor de Mencos.
“This is the very first time that the Guatemalans are doing something like this in more than 40 years,” Mario Overall, a Guatemalan military expert based in Panama tells War Is Boring.
In the Sarstoon River delta, where Alvarado died, Guatemala is sending marines and patrol boats. Army engineers are moving into the delta to rebuild several near-abandoned naval posts. This possibly indicates that Guatemala may intend for the border deployment to last — although cooler heads could prevail.
“The intention is to prepare [the posts] for receiving troops and ships in the coming days, if necessary,” Overall said. “Any Guatemalan military build up in this area may be considered an act of aggression by the Belizeans, who see the Sarstoon River as theirs.”
The 3,000 Guatemalan troops heavily outnumber the entire Belizean military, which numbers only around 1,050 troops. That gives the Guatemalans three-to-one odds — a common ratio armies seek for offensive operations.
The Belizeans keep a forward operating base in the delta manned by the 2nd Brigade, which is to be reinforced to counter the Guatemalan buildup.
There does not appear to be much of an air presence. Both Guatemala and Belize have paper air forces, with Guatemala possessing the larger number of aircraft, although these only consists of a few tuboprop trainers, light ex-counternarcotics planes and a few helicopters, according to Overall.
Guatemala’s most advanced aircraft is a twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air 200, which the U.S. State Department paid to convert into a spy plane for hunting down drug traffickers. The Belizean air force only has a handful of light transport planes.
The United States, Mexico and the Organization of American States have called on both sides to avoid escalating tensions, and to continue negotiations to resolve the border dispute.
But the mobilization is heavily political, which should be a cause for concern. Morales, who assumed the Guatemalan presidency in January, has taken a hard line against Belizean independence — a long-running grievance for the Guatemalan political right.
Morales also came to power with the support of right-wing ex-military officers, and has influential backers supporting the mobilization including Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, the son of the Defense Minister during the regime of Gen. Efrain Ríos Montt. Mendez was kidnapped by guerrillas in 1982, released and lived in exile in South America. Upon his return he ran for Congress, wasn’t elected, and now leads the conservative Anti-Terrorism Foundation.
Belizean independence was “the most deplorable event,” Morales said during his election campaign. “Among all the things that have happened in Guatemala, there are things that are not spoken about which I believe we should. Everything that goes contrary to national unity and territorial integrity are things that should hurt us.”
These statements are particularly alarming considering Guatemala has planned invasions of Belize before … although not for a long time. In 1972, the United Kingdom averted an invasion by deploying the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the destroyer HMS London to the region — and overflying Belize City with Blackurn Buccanner strike planes.
In 1976, Guatemala massed light tanks and troops near the Belizean border for an invasion that was ready to go when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake suddenly struck, killing 26,000 people and destroying swathes of Guatemala City. More than a year later, Guatemala’s air force went on alert as Belize began moving toward independence, but the threat from British Harrier jets — which included reconnaissance overflights of Guatemala City — provided enough of a deterrent.
However, the Guatemalan build-up this time might not be a step toward an invasion. A more likely possibility is short-term political posturing on the part of Morales. “Some of [the ex-military officers] had been accused of human rights abuses during the Civil War, and more recently, of corruption acts and drug trafficking,” Overall said.
“There’s also some discontent among the population because Mr. Morales has failed to keep up his word regarding several promises and offerings he made during the campaign.”
A miscalculation, however, will have deadly consequences.
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