The Ruta Maya: Safety
by Carl Franz
To paraphrase one of my fathers favorite lines, If I had a peso for every word Ive written about safety in Latin America, Id own a hacienda by now. As often I repeat myself, however, this perennial topic just never seems to go away.
Considering past and present events in Central America, this isnt too surprising. In fact, anyone who hasnt had second-thoughts about their personal safety while travelling in Guatemala must not follow the news. To the popular media, Central America is synonymous with civil unrest, coups, kidnapings, guerrilla movements, urban gangs and grinding poverty.
Even allowing for exaggeration, there is no doubt that Guatemala is a troubled country with a disturbingly violent history. Ironically, this does not automatically mean that it is unsafe for tourists. The bottom line, based on our own experience and that of many other travellers in Guatemala, is that visitors who use common sense and take certain precautions will rarely run into trouble.
On the other hand, crime and violence are never entirely predictable. Wherever we go, there is a certain inherent risk in travel. For all of its fine people and spectacular scenery, Guatemala is not Shangri-La or Maya-landia. There are still enough pickpockets, thieves, highway robbers and other common brigands to keep us on our toes.
For another point-of-view, heres an excerpt from an on-line CompuServe conversation on crime in Guatemala with Lan Sluder, a travel writer and publisher of Belize First newsletter (BELIZE FIRST, For Those Who Love Belize, by Lan Sluder. Published five times a year. Subscriptions by first-class mail are $26 in the U.S. and Belize, $37 elsewhere. Equator Travel Publications, 280 Beaverdam Road, Candler, NC 28715, Fax: 704-667-1717. On-Line, CompuServe 76357,147).
Speaking of crime in Guatemala, a recent issue of International Living newsletter listed crime rates per 100 population as reported by Interpol for 21 countries which IL considers good places to retire, based on cost of living, health, safety, cultural opportunities, etc.
Anyway, Guatemala had the highest crime rate of any of the 21 countries, 20 reported crimes per 100 population per year! Theres some question as to the validity of these stats, but for what its worth, here they are:
Reported incidents of crime per 100 citizens, taken from Interpol stats and reported by IL:
Ecuador 0.29 per 100
Here also is a bit of an update on crime in Belize. Fair is fair.
Interpol puts the reported crime rate in Belize at 10 reports per 100 population per year, twice the rate of the U.S. but less than the reported rate in Canada and half that in Guatemala.
There has been a spate of gun-related murders in Belize City. In August, 93, two police officers were killed by gunfire. Some citizens are now arming themselves, with guns brought in from the U.S. or Guatemala. Some claim that as many as 5,000 to 7,000 residents of Belize City carry guns. Belizean police, like British Bobbies of old, do not carry guns.
Murders have increased, say police, to about six a month in Belize. Thats a large number considering that the population of the entire country is only 195,000.
Police attribute part of the problem to youth gangs patterned after U.S. gangs. The two large gangs in Belize City are the Crips and the Bloods. The presence of crack and other drugs in Belize City also contributes to a high crime rate. Authorities have banned the wearing of red and blue handkerchiefs, symbols of the gangs. Some Belizeans say the threat of gangs are overstated, that most members are unemployed adolescents who are copycatting what they see on U.S. TV, but that most gang members are not involved in crime.
Outside Belize City, crime is much less of a problem. The cayes and the Cayo District with its Mayan ruins and jungle lodges have relatively few crime problems, authorities say.
One of Belizes main export crops is Belize Breeze, potent grass grown on farms off the Old Northern Highway or elsewhere in under-populated Belize. Remote airstrips are also said to be trans-shipment points for cocaine and other drugs en route from South America to the U.S.
Some Belizeans worry that, if and when the British Defense Forces complete their announced pull-out from Belize that drug growers, drug dealers and other undesirables will have a freer range in Belize.
- Lan Sluder
That is a thought-provoking list of crime stats, to say the least. Although Ive been insisting for years that Mexico is safe, it is interesting to note that Interpols stats show Mexico as being even safer than Canada and only slightly more criminally inclined than the U.S. Its hard to believe, though, that Canada is more than twice as violent as the U.S.
As for Guatemala, Ive been chewing on these statistics, trying to relate them to my generally peaceful experiences there. I believe that the answer to several apparent contradictions in this list can be found, at least in part, in cultural differences and the nature of the crimes reported.
In researching this topic several years ago, I came across a very enlightening article on crime in Mexico by a former high official in the U.S. State Dept. He wrote that contrary to popular belief, statistics proved that American and Canadian tourists were actually far safer in Mexico than in the U.S. To be more exact, the writer said that the average tourist was 23 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime in the U.S. than in Mexico. Even worse, residents and visitors to large American cities were 100 times more likely to be violent crime victims than in Mexico.
The author of this article explained that a very high percentage of violent crime in Latin America is personal often between family members or friends, or related to lovers, neighbors or well-known enemies. Add the usual drug shootouts to these statistics, along with gang violence and organized crime activity and lo-and-behold, the majority of crimes are accounted for.
I followed this lead by interviewing U.S. Consular Officers in Puerto Vallarta and Oaxaca. Both showed me their records of crimes committed against tourists. The majority involved alcohol and drugs, or theft of services, (running out on hotel and bar bills is a major offense in Mexico), or traffic accidents. Muggings, rape and assaults against tourists were not unheard of, but again, the risk was extremely low compared to many U.S. cities.
Back to Guatemala it seems to me that the same factors behind Mexicos statistics would also apply to Central American countries. I know, for example, that gangs are a plague in Guatemala City. Petty theft is also rampant in the city and pickpockets are a constant nuisance in crowded markets throughout the country. Bus hijacks also occur, though they seldom involve physical assaults against tourists. Ironically, one of the best reasons to travel in modest, low-profile Peoples Guide style is to avoid attention from thugs and thieves.
Crime in Latin America also tends to be concentrated in large cities. In Guatemala City, the crowded central avenues in Zone 1 the oldest and perhaps most interesting part of the city are a favorite hunting ground for young street thieves and pickpockets. In poor areas of the city, gunslinging maras (youth gangs) are an even greater hazard.
I should add that like many budget travellers, Lorena and I stay in Zone 1 despite its reputation but we dont take chances. We stick to the main thoroughfares, we use concealed money belts and we dont linger on the street after dark.
As for Belize, I have to concur with the popular opinion that Belize City is no place to fool around. In spite of its sassy, ramshackle charm, Belize City is one of the few places in Latin America that can make me genuinely nervous. As an example of how far the situation has deteriorated, four street-smart friends were recently robbed at gunpoint on a major street there. This took place in public view, at 8 p.m., in company with a vacationing (and extra large) American cop.
Belizeans I question almost invariably assume a head-in-the-sand posture about their capitals unsavory reputation. Statements such as, Its only bad in Belize City, and Were victims too, only evade the issue. Until Belizeans are able to overcome their puzzling reluctance to take serious measures against crime, it will continue to hurt everyone there, not just tourists.
Your points about the sources and types of crime in Mexico and Guatemala are well taken. Overall, just from a common sense perspective and statistics aside, I think tourists are much safer from violent crime in Mexico or Guatemala than in the U.S.
At the same time, I know I am much MORE concerned about property crime (thefts from cars, hotel rooms, homes) in Latin America than in the U.S. or Canada. The reason is purely economic: Theres lots of poverty and people with things are going to be targets. All other things being equal, high poverty = high crime.
The Cayman Islands, for example, have very low crime rates compared with the rest of the Caribbean because they are very well-to-do islands. In fact, the per capita income is higher than in the U.S. Now theres probably a good deal of white collar crime in the Caymans, but thats another matter.
As to Belize City, I know what you mean. Purely from a tourism point of view, if the authorities there dont get a handle on the crime situation, it is going to hurt Belize badly. At some point, there is going to be a widely publicized murder of a tourist which will undo all of the good things Belize has done to build tourism. Of course, there is also the race factor there, with a good deal of anti-white (and anti-Asian, due to the allegedly corrupt selling of Belizean passports to Asians by previous governments) attitudes. Happily, Belize is more than Belize City, just as California is more than L.A. or Michigan is more than Detroit.
When you visit Guatemala just remember to be careful. Careful in the sense as if you were in LA. In other words, dont flaunt things like a camera, jewelry, watches, etc. Its OK to wear them, just dont flaunt them. Be a tourist. Dont do anything you wouldnt do in the states or anywhere else. In general, if you mind your own business and just enjoy the people, the country and yourself, you shouldnt have any problems.
- Chris Williams, via CompuServe