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Central American nations struggle over colonial legacy

The deaths of three Guatemalan peasants in a border dispute with Belize raises a persistent problem.

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It is an invisible line between Belize and Guatemala that the latter does not even recognize. But a violent dispute that left three people dead has cast new light on a century-old conflict over where, exactly, the border is between the countries.

Late last month, Belizean soldiers shot and killed a Guatemalan peasant and his two sons after they refused to relocate to land clearly within Guatemala's border. While the soldiers are under investigation, and leaders from the two countries are meeting, this is just one of many ongoing disputes over rivers, sea, land, and islands in Central America.

With seven nations sharing a narrow strip of some 200,000 square miles between two oceans, the nations have long found themselves bickering over an unclear colonial inheritance and scantly defined maritime boundaries.

While most disputes present little threat of armed confrontation, they have long hampered integration and cooperation in a region that desperately needs both.

"I don't think Central America has the option of surviving as individual countries. The only viable option is for us to work together as a region," says Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan foreign minister.

Guatemala maintains a historic claim to more than half of Belize, which was once under British control. In the past few years, six Guatemalan civilians have died in the conflict.

"If we don't resolve these problems, we are going to continue with more of the same - and probably more loss of life," says Edgar Arana, Guatemala's foreign ministry spokesman. "Guatemala doesn't want more victims."

A dispute over Costa Rica's right to navigate and have a military presence on the San Juan River, which separates it from Nicaragua, has arisen in recent years.

Honduras and Nicaragua have been disputing maritime rights on the Atlantic Coast ever since Honduras ratified a 1999 treaty with Colombia, extending the South American nation's claims in the Caribbean, and cutting Nicaragua out of a wedge of sea it claims for itself. The two nations nearly came to blows over the disputed sea, which is alleged to contain petroleum. And lastly, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador maintain a dispute over maritime boundaries and island territory in the Fonseca Gulf on the Pacific, where there is a lucrative shrimp industry.

Regardless of their causes, many people maintain that the disputes are manipulated by politicians and used at opportune moments to whip up national pride and unity, or even create a smoke screen in times of economic or political crisis.

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