Belize Guatemala Dispute

The Belizean-Guatemalan territorial dispute is an unresolved bi-national territorial dispute between the states of Belize and Guatemala, neighbors in Central America. Belize or Belizean-controlled territory has been claimed in whole or in part by Guatemala since 1940.

Early colonial era

The present dispute originates with imperial Spain’s claim to all “New World” territories west of the line established in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. England, like other emerging powers of the late 15th century, did not recognize the treaty that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. After the native Mayans had ejected Spanish conquistadors and missionaries from Tipu and surrounding areas, shipwrecked English seamen, then English and Scottish Baymen, settled by 1638, making their presence permanent by 1779, with a short military alliance with Amerindians from the Mosquito Coast south of Belize, and often welcoming former British privateers.[1] In the Godolphin Treaty of 1670, Spain confirmed England was to hold all territories in the Western Hemisphere that it had already settled; however the treaty did not define what areas were settled, and despite the historic evidence[1] that England did indeed occupy Belize when they signed the Godolphin Treaty, Spain later used this vagueness to maintain its claim on the entirety of Belize. Meanwhile by the 18th century, the Baymen and Mayans became enemies more and more often.

Without recognition of or permission from either the British or Spanish governments, the Baymen in Belize started electing magistrates as early as 1738.[1] After the Treaty of Paris (1763) and with the following conditions re-affirmed in the Treaty of Versailles (1783), Britain agreed to abandon British forts in Belize that protected the Baymen and give Spain sovereignty over the soil, whilst Spain agreed the Baymen could continue logging wood in present-day Belize. However, the Baymen agreed to none of this, and after the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, the governor of British-controlled Jamaica sent a superintendent to control the settlers, but had his authority usurped by wealthy loggers.[1]

When Spain attempted to eject them, the Baymen revolted. Spain’s last military attempt to dislodge the rebellious settlers was the 1798 Battle of St. George’s Caye, which ended with Spain failing to re-take the territory. The Baymen never asked for or received a formal treaty with Spain after this, and the UK was only able to get partial control of the settlers by 1816; British people simply continued operating their own local government without permission from either imperial power, until they joined the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1862.[1]

Late colonial era, and Independence

Guatemala declared its independence from Spain in 1821, and the UK did not accept the Baymen of Belize as a crown colony until 1862, 64 years after the Baymen’s last hostilities with Spain. This colony became known as “British Honduras”.

Under the terms of the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859, Guatemala agreed to recognize Belize and Great Britain promised to build a road from Guatemala to the nearby Belize city of Punta Gorda. In 1940, Guatemala claimed that the 1859 treaty is void because the British failed to comply with economic assistance provisions found in Clause VII of the Treaty. Belize, once independent, claimed this was not a treaty they were bound by since they did not sign it (and that an International Court of Justice ruling and international laws from July 2012 demand that Guatemala honor the boundaries in the 1859 treaty even if the UK never builds the road as promised).

20th and 21st century negotiations

Negotiations proceeded for many years, including one period in the 1960s in which the United States Government sought unsuccessfully to mediate, but these talks did not include the actual residents of Belize. During 1975–1979, Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Panama changed from supporting Guatemala to supporting Belize.[1] A 1981 trilateral (Belize, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom) “Heads of Agreement (document)” was encouraged by the United Nations, which had already recognized Belize’s independence, and although the Heads of Agreement would have given only partial control and access to assets in each other’s nations, it collapsed when Guatemala renewed its claims to Belize soil and Belizeans rioted against the British and their own government, claiming the Belizean negotiators were making too many concessions to Guatemala. Thus, Belize became independent on September 21, 1981, with the territorial dispute unresolved. Significant negotiations between Belize and Guatemala, with the United Kingdom as an observer, resumed in 1988. Guatemala recognized Belize’s independence in 1991 and diplomatic relations were established.

On October 19, 1999, Said Musa, Prime Minister of Belize at the time, was made aware that Guatemala wanted to renew its claim. As a new line of reasoning for their claim (instead of basing it on the 1859 treaty), Guatemala asserted that they have inherited Spain’s 1494 and 18th century claims on Belize and are owed more than half of Belize’s land mass, but the majority of Belizeans, now quite multi-racial including 60% who are mixed or full Amerindians,[2] continued to rail against becoming part of Guatemala and accuse Guatemala of colonialism.

The Guatemalan military placed personnel at the edge of the internationally-recognized border. Belizean patrols incorporating both Belize Defence Force members and police forces took up positions on their side of the border.[3]

In February 2000, a Belizean patrol shot and killed a Guatemalan in the area of Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. On February 24, 2000, personnel from both nations encountered each other in Toledo District.[3] The two countries held further talks on March 14, 2000, at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., in the presence of the OAS Secretary General. Eventually they agreed to establish an “adjacency zone” extending one kilometer on either side of the 1859 treaty line, now designated the “adjacency line,” and to continue negotiations aimed at resolving their dispute.

In June 2008, Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow said resolving the dispute is the biggest goal. He proposed referenda for the citizens of Belize and Guatemala, asking whether they support referring the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).[4] An official special agreement on submitting the issue to the ICJ was signed on 8 December 2008, with a referendum to be held on the issue simultaneously in Belize and Guatemala on a date to be determined.[5] Since that agreement a simultaneous referendum in both countries has yet to occur. Given the political landscape in Guatemala, getting the referendum on a September 2010 ballot seemed improbable.[6] A vote on the referendum has been suggested as part of the Guatemala’s 2011 general elections as means to save expenses incurred from holding elections. However, this will not be an easy task as the referendum needs to be held simultaneously in both countries.[7]

Both Guatemala and Belize are participating in confidence-building measures approved by the OAS, including the Guatemala-Belize Language Exchange Project.[8]


  1. ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Bolland, Nigel. “Belize: Historical Setting”. In A Country Study: Belize (Tim Merrill, editor). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (January 1992).
  2. “The World Fact Book – Belize”. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
  3. ↑ 3.0 3.1 The Military of Belize
  4. ↑ Ramos, Wellington C. “Hundreds of Belizeans pack Manhattan Center”
  5. Belize & Guatemala Sign Special Agreement in Washington
  6. The Reporter
  7. Bolland, Nigel. “Belize: Historical Setting”. In A Country Study: Belize (Tim Merrill, editor). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (January 1992).
  8. “Guatemala-Belize Language Exchange Project”. Retrieved 29 August 2010.

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