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Guatemala-Belize Dispute Heats Up

March 6, 2000

MELCHOR DE MENCOS, Guatemala (AP) _ The villages here have names like Winds of Sand and Pasture of Flowers. Horses, roosters and an occasional pig wander lazily along the only road as it meanders through the picturesque mountainside.

Not exactly the obvious backdrop for an international conflict.

But with the recent revival of a century-old territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala, the sleepy border between the two countries has become the center of one of the most intense international disputes in Central America since the civil wars of the 1980s.

It began last fall, when Belize’s border police killed two Guatemalan peasants. Then it was fanned Feb. 24 when Guatemala arrested three soldiers and a police officer from Belize who had crossed the often indistinguishable border carrying dozens of machine guns and pistols. They were released Friday.

In Guatemala City, soldiers have guarded Belize’s embassy after a bomb was discovered last week under a car parked nearby. And in Belize City, soldiers guard Guatemala’s embassy in case the frequent anti-Guatemalan demonstrations there get out of hand.

Said Musa, Belize’s prime minister, claims the military contingent facing illegal weapons charges never crossed the border and was illegally stopped in Belize’s territory.

But even as the dispute heats up between officials from the two nations, people who live here say things have never been more peaceful.

``These rumors about soldiers from here or soldiers from there sneaking around the border is a lie,″ said Ruben Pita, an exporter who lives and works in Melchor de Mencos, a tiny village on the Guatemalan side of the border.

At Melchor’s border station, one of only two major crossing points along the 135-mile border, backpackers clad in shorts and sandals outnumber border guards. Soldiers from either nation are nowhere in sight. The border is mostly unmarked, save for the occasional metal gate.

But in nearby Santa Elena, Guatemala, where the four prisoners were held, officials from Belize weren’t quite as nonchalant.

``We are hoping this won’t strain relations in any way, but we also know that these men did nothing wrong,″ said Eamon H. Courtenay, a trade ambassador from Belize’s embassy.

Eduardo Areualol, head of Guatemala’s military forces for the border state of Peten, said the arrests were necessary to protect the rights of Guatemalans who may be at risk.

``We are already doing everything to stop the Belizean progression into Guatemalan territory and to stop their disregard for the rights of our citizens,″ he said. ``The arrests are an important part of those actions.″

The arrests may have been in retaliation for two Guatemalan citizens killed by Belize’s border officials in the past nine months. Guatemala says the two men were simple laborers who were minding their own business. Belize says one was a drug dealer who attacked police and that an investigation into the slaying of the other cleared their officials of all wrongdoing.

With the deaths and the arrests, a quick solution to the conflict seems unlikely. These two nations have been down the road of conflict before, never resorting to violence.

In 1972, Guatemala pondered declaring war on Belize _ which was still a British colony _ claiming the whole nation constituted Guatemalan territory lost in 1850 in a vain attempt by Britain and the United States to divide former colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

When it became clear that British soldiers were going nowhere, all talk of war was abandoned.

Tensions again ran high with Belize’s independence in 1982. Guatemalan authorities claimed the British had mistakenly awarded 4,600 square miles of territory to Belize when drawing up the new nation’s borders.

In what officials here say was a 1992 sign of good will, Guatemala agreed to recognize Belize’s borders.

What’s more, officials on both sides are continuing to sing the praises of peace and of maintaining the tranquility of places like Melchor de Mencos.

``Life is too laid back here for any real threat of anything happening,″ said Marc Sandoval, a truck driver from across the border in Belize.

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