An error in navigation is at the center of this past weekend’s showdown between a group of 37 passengers and crew on board the vessel Dore, headed by Guillermo Avila of Punta Gorda Town, and military authorities of the Guatemalan Army and Coast Guard who under orders detained them for more than ten hours between Saturday and Sunday.
Now safely back home, Mr Avila is telling his story publicly for the first time, intent on clearing his name and establishing what transpired. He says that the left turn he took into a tributary off the Sarstoon River was due to the advice of Belize Territorial Volunteers leader Giovanni de la Fuente, because he personally had no knowledge of the area.
“When I got to the Sarstoon bar, I told the leader of the expedition who is Mr. De La Fuente, that I’ve come as far as here and he said that he knows the way anyways. I just want to clear that point one time, because it wasn’t my decision to make this left turn, because he said that he knew where they were going, so that’s why I took this turn here by his order, because I told him that I only know as far as the bar, but further up I didn’t know. We came up this way and about right here we should have gone this way to Gracias A Dios, and I made a left turn here instead of going straight or staying on my right. Immediately, I went about 100 yards and I spin right back.”
According to attorney for Guillermo Avila, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, the moment the vessel began to head the wrong way was when the Guatemalans had every right to intervene. Instead, they seemed to have had something else in mind.
“So over five hours Guatemalan personnel trailed a civilian vessel, a Belizean vessel, in Belizean water, and then anchors on Belizean territory at Gracias a Dios, then trails them back, and just when they are still in Belizean water tows them away.
That is an abduction or a kidnapping.”
Both Audrey Matura-Shepherd and Guillermo Avila pointed out that the party had no reason to expect what eventually happened, as the Guatemalan party shadowed them up to Gracias A Dios, posed for pictures with group members and helped Avila get fuel for the boat. But, he says, they later put his party and himself in grave danger by insisting on towing the Dore to the Coast Guard ship in heavy waters, then upon arrival in Livingston essentially abandoning the group to their fate after Mr Avila was questioned by the Harbour Master over the particulars of the vessel, rather than any alleged territorial violations.
But what about the Belizean response? Guillermo Avila, who insists he did not know what he was reading when he signed the document that alleges his territorial trespass and never met the men who also signed on, feels he has something more to contribute as authorities seem to be more fixated on chastising the Volunteers rather than addressing the violations alleged to have been committed against them.
“I’ll be willing to go back any time and reenact what happened. That way we will get the correct answers.”
Audrey Matura-Shepherd agrees, saying the Guatemalans’ violations far outweighed the Belizeans’ ones, if any.
“They saw them going in. They never stopped them. They never said anything. When they came out they stopped them. At no point did they say ‘You violated our territorial waters.’
All they had to do was pull out their GPS.
As a matter of fact, it was about the passengers and if he had a list of all the names. And it was about the vessel.
One of the things that Mr Guillermo says is that when they stayed at Gracias a Dios, [they were] socializing with him. They asked him outright ‘Is Wil Maheia on this expedition?’
He said, ‘No.’ And the man said, ‘Are you sure? You wouldn’t lie to me?’
He (Mr Avila) said, ‘I wouldn’t lie to you.’
Everybody had to give their name when they were at Livingstone.”
The Government of Belize expects the full investigation in conjunction with Guatemalan authorities to take sixty days at least, and Guillermo Avila and Audrey Matura-Shepherd say they will cooperate if the Government are serious. Passengers took amateur video of the vessel being towed by the Guatemalan authorities to the Coast Guard ship, but after that was abandoned and the boats set sail for Livingston, there are no videos, allegedly because passengers were sickened and upset by the strong waves swamping the boat.