The Belize-Guatemala Border: History and Dispute

By Duff, Paxton | Washington Report on the Hemisphere, August 31, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Belize-Guatemala Border: History and Dispute


Duff, Paxton, Washington Report on the Hemisphere


A Renewal of Tensions

On April 20, 2016, thirteen-year-old Julio René Alvarado Ruano, a citizen of Guatemala, was shot and killed by Belizean troops near the adjacency line on the border between Belize and Guatemala. Belizean troops claimed they were fired at while investigating illegal land clearing in Belize's Chiquibul National Park, and returned fire in selfdefense. The Belizean government issued a statement calling the initial gunfire "part of a continued pattern of aggression by Guatemalan civilians engaged in illegal activities on Belize's side of the adjacency zone." Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, however, called the attack excessive, and his government insisted that Ruano and his father were peacefully planting crops near Melchor de Mencos, a Petén municipality in Guatemala that represents the primary border crossing route from Guatemala to Belize.

Following the Ruano shooting, Guatemala amassed 3,000 troops near the adjacency line, as Guatemala's foreign ministry persistently emphasized the ten civilians killed by Belizean troops since 1999. Morales announced, "We have decided that from this moment on, we will carry out a strict exercise of protection [of the border]." The Belizean government, feeling sharp military pressure due to the nation's comparatively small population-about 45 times smaller than that of Guatemala-criticized the illegal activities of Guatemalan citizens on the Belizean side of the adjacency line.

The adjacency line, the buffer zone in which the hostile incident occurred, extends one kilometer to each side of the Belizean-Guatemalan border. It was established in November 2000 as part of the "confidence building measures" that were implemented to help solve the border dispute that the countries have endured, in one form or another, for more than 150 years. Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States-an organization that has worked for decades to resolve the countries' differences- visited both countries in an attempt to mollify the situation; yet, a de-escalation of military action alone would do little to solve the much larger, historically rooted conflict.

Belize, once a British colony known as "British Honduras," formally gained independence in 1981, yet its independence was not recognized by Guatemala until 1991. Guatemala's refusal to recognize Belize was the result of its longstanding claim to sovereignty over Belize from land demarcated in treaties between Portugal and Spain at the outset of America's occupancy. Guatemalan leaders renewed their claim in 1999, this time asserting that the southern half of Belize, about 53 percent of the total Belizean territory, rightfully belonged to Guatemala. Guatemalan leaders justify their claims by asserting that as a former Spanish colony, the land south of the Sibun River was rightfully theirs due to an 18thcentury treaty between Britain and Spain, despite Spain's failure to ever colonize the region. Though Belize maintains legitimate authority over its present borders in the eyes of the international community, Guatemala's claims are based on centuries of undeniable, yet problematic occurrences; the legitimacy of these claims runs counter to modern definitions of selfdetermination that the Belizean people have persistently maintained.

A Clash of Empires

Modern Belize borders Guatemala on both the western adjacency line and the Sarstoon River to the south. Belize was first inhabited by the Maya Civilization, and thus the Spanish, having claimed the Belizean territory as part of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas with Portugal, never settled the area due to their inability or interest to permanently subdue the native Maya population. While the local Maya thwarted the Spanish aspirations, the illusory success preceded illegal colonization by Scottish and English pirates and settlers, better known as Baymen. By 1638, Baymen began to settle the eastern coast of modern Belize, where they strategically hijacked Spanish ships. …

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