The Miami Herald
December 20, 2001

Guatemala-Belize fight on border turns deadly


 SANTA CRUZ, Guatemala -- The Ramírez family never was too sure where their house was, nevermind that they lived there for 26 years.

 They are pretty positive it's in Guatemala. Their neighbor and the nearby rifle-toting soldiers are just as certain that it is in Belize.

 The Ramírezes' land dispute with a neighbor -- granted, one in another country -- would have been a good old-fashioned family feud if it hadn't been for that international border. And those soldiers.

 Belize's armed forces shot and killed the Ramírez patriarch and his two sons late last month, marking the most serious international incident related to a border conflict that dates back more than 100 years.

 ``What's needed here is a line right here that shows, `This is mine, that is yours,' '' said Victoriano Ramos, whose brother-in-law was killed by the soldiers. ``I wouldn't go to someone's house knowing it's not mine.''

 If only it were so easy.

 It will take visits by geologists, historians, foreign ministers and Organization of American States investigators to settle the dispute. After two years of heated haggling, OAS mediators meeting in Washington, D.C., agreed Wednesday to present a formal recommendation on the boundaries in February.


 It is the most violent of border disputes in Central America, a region where more and more claims to rivers, gulfs, tiny islands and land are landing in court. Peasants who live by a border they can't see just want to know where they live. Belize wants its borders honored. And Guatemala seeks to benefit from a broken 1859 treaty that could provide much-wanted access to the Caribbean Sea.

 ``Guatemala has nothing to lose,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Edgar Arana. ``Worst-case scenario: we get certainty to where our land is. We need to resolve this. This is costing Guatemalan lives.''

 The disagreement between the two countries dates back to when Belize belonged to Britain, which dubbed the spit of land British Honduras. Guatemala felt it was
 rightfully part of its country, but agreed to the boundaries set in an 1859 treaty -- provided Britain developed roads.

 Britain never did, so in 1946, Guatemala staked its claim on half the territory. That demand was still unresolved in 1981, when England granted Belize its independence. Guatemala recognized the independence -- but not the borders.

 ``If you recognize the people,'' said Moises Cal, Belize's ambassador to Central America, ``you have to recognize their land.''

 The issue heated up two years ago when Guatemala renewed its claim over pristine jungle where Guatemalan peasants creep to farm and fish.

 Belizean soldiers who allegedly crossed into Guatemala were arrested and charged with exporting arms. Belize called it a kidnapping. A peasant running from a Belizean soldier died last year when chased into a river. He couldn't swim.

 Last year, Belize discovered three communities of Guatemalans living well inside its boundaries.

 After protracted negotiations and land surveys, the families were relocated.

 Then in November, the Ramírezes were killed when soldiers friendly to their feuding neighbor tried talking the family into backing down from its stake on the land.

 ``They were met by racial slurs, machetes and spear guns,'' Cal said. ``Our defense force had no other alternative than to defend themselves. It has now become a state problem.''

 Guatemala rejected the self-defense theory as absurd. On Wednesday, both sides agreed the soldiers should be suspended and investigated.


 Manuel Orozco, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the Ramírez incident was the latest in a history of harassment of peasants by the
 Belizean army.

 He notes that El Salvador is the only Central American nation that does not have an active border dispute with any of its neighbors. Nicaragua is fighting with Honduras over islands and sea, Costa Rica over a river and Colombia over maritime rights.

 ``It's an important source of nationalism,'' Orozco said. ``Most of these disputes date back 100 years. They are unsettled disputes that over time become more

 Experts say Guatemala is using the border claim to barter for rights to the sea. Although their argument may be legitimate, no one expects Guatemala to actually get any land.

 Belize believes it has a strong case but would like to avoid going to court. Cal suggested offering exclusive economic zones or sea access.

 ``We are not in the position to give up land,'' he stressed. ``Belize is a reality.''

 In the meantime, San Luis Mayor Noe González warns that villagers are threatening to retake the borders if the army won't.

 ``How many peasants get killed, get their farms burned and nothing happens?'' said Ottomiel Ramírez, whose father and brother were killed. ``We're tired of being afraid.''

                                    © 2001