This Centuries-Old Border Dispute Pits an Army Against Unarmed Volunteers

The boat edged its way past the mangrove swamps, a tangled maze of thorn-covered branches sheltering jaguars and shrieking howler monkeys. We were in Belize, our GPS signals showed, the English-speaking Central American country where British pirates put down stakes centuries ago.

But then members of Guatemala’s military, clad in camouflage and berets, spotted us. Pulling up in their own boat, they grasped rifles, index fingers close to the triggers.

“You’ve just entered Guatemalan waters!” one shouted in Spanish when they were just a few feet away. “We request that you steer toward the nearest Guatemalan command post.”

Wil Maheia, the leader of the Belizean group we were embedded with, yelled back: “No, you’re trespassing in Belizean waters! If you take us into custody that will be kidnapping!”

The episode laid bare a simmering political dispute in one of the most volatile corners of Central America, in which Belize, Central America’s least populous country with only about half a million people, is pitted against Guatemala, the region’s giant with a population of 18 million.

The unresolved territorial feud — one of the oldest in the Americas — has tensions flaring up in the smugglers haven that has arisen around the disputed boundary between the two countries, raising fears over greater instability in a region already marked by drug wars and the exodus of migrants to the United States.

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