REALITY CHECK

Danger in Paradise

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

Frank and Ann Miller of Hannibal, Mo., found out in the hardest possible way that a vacation villa in the Caribbean can be unsafe. Last winter, the couple rented a posh house for a month in the intimate beachside resort of Rendevous Bay on the island of Anguilla. One morning in January they woke to find two armed and masked bandits in their bedroom. The intruders fled, but not before shooting the Millers, seriously wounding Ann. No arrests have been made.

An isolated incident in the paradisiacal islands? Yes and no. Travelers to Anguilla (population 13,000), the northernmost island in the Caribbean's Leeward chain, reported no threats with guns in 2004, two in 2005 and one this year, according to the Anguilla police.

By accounts published in the Caribbean news media and locals' blogs, however, break-ins at small hotels or vacation rentals are occurring more frequently on some Caribbean outposts and in parts of Bermuda and the Bahamas. While they rarely give statistics, the Trinidad Guardian, Bermuda's Royal Gazette and other newspapers have covered the incidents thoroughly, documenting an increased pattern of armed robberies, burglaries and sometimes assaults. The kinds of properties many travelers seek in order to escape big-city dangers -- romantic and isolated, with little or no security -- are particularly vulnerable.

No overall regional statistics are available on burglaries or vacation home thefts affecting tourists in the Caribbean. However, the most recent U.S. State Department consular information sheets -- which give up-to-date safety information on countries around the globe -- cite break-ins in the past year in St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Anguilla, St. Kitts and Nevis, and the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and St. Maarten. This year's listings on St. Lucia and St. Kitts and Nevis refer to break-ins for the first time. The reports have also begun recommending that visitors lock up their valuables in safes in hotels and other properties on almost all Caribbean islands, Bermuda and the Bahamas, and in particular on those islands where break-ins are a problem.

Until recently, the biggest worry facing most tourists in the Caribbean was petty crime: aggressive soliciting, muggings and purse snatchings. Many of the incidents took place near cruise ship ports, popular beaches or other tourist areas.

But in the past two years, according to accounts by travelers and in the Caribbean press, a rising number of infractions have occurred in vacation accommodations that had little or no prior record of incidents, or in areas where crime had rarely tracked on the radar. In most of the cases, the intruders broke into locked quarters and took cameras, cellphones, cash, laptops, and passports and other travel documents. In some cases, they raped or killed victims.

· In June, an American couple celebrating a second honeymoon at Mago Estate, a small eco-lodge near the southern tip of St. Lucia, were awakened in the night by two intruders in their room. They were robbed of cash and valuables, and the wife was raped, according to an account on a Web site they created. Charges have been brought against two suspects, who are awaiting trial.

· In one of a string of incidents that have rocked the island of Tobago in the past year and a half, last February four robbers, masked and wielding cutlasses, entered a rental villa complex in the upscale Mount Irvine area and attacked three golf buddies visiting from England. The incident, publicized in the Trinidad and Tobago media and confirmed by police, left two of the visitors with cuts from the weapons. Four Tobago men have been charged in the case.

· In March on Bonaire, a rustic outpost in the Netherlands Antilles with fewer than 12,000 residents, a couple from Washington state was robbed twice. One day their vehicle was looted while they snorkeled, and two days later their villa, part of the KonTiki Beach Club on isolated Lac Bay, was burglarized. The thieves took a passport, several hundred dollars, cellphones and BlackBerrys. No one has been apprehended, and the stolen items have not been recovered.

· In July 2005, a British teenager vacationing with his family in a private residence in St. James Parish, Barbados, was shot and killed by an intruder. Shortly after returning from dinner, the family was confronted in the house by an armed robber, who shot the 19-year-old in the ensuing melee. Three men have been charged in the case.

To be sure, incidents like those affect a minuscule percentage of travelers to the Caribbean. "We're not saying don't go to these islands," said a State Department spokesman who asked not to be quoted by name, in keeping with department policy. "But don't expect because you're in a tropical, relaxed area that you're out of a danger zone. Take the same precautions that you would in other places." (See box.)

Most tourism authorities and property owners also emphasized the low crime rate in the islands compared with resorts in the United States or other places. Linda Smith, owner of Luxury Jamaica Villas by Linda Smith in Cabin John, Md., said there have been no robberies or other infractions in any of her rentals. "For me, crime has been a non-issue," she said.

One alarming trend in the region, according to accounts in the Caribbean media, is nighttime break-ins when guests are in their rooms. One case involved the Missouri couple shot during the robbery attempt in Anguilla. Three others took place this year in isolated boutique hotels on St. Lucia, according to the latest State Department information sheet on the island, updated this fall to include information about the attacks.

One of the cases involved the U.S. couple robbed and attacked at St. Lucia's Mago Estate. The two were so shaken by the ordeal that they created a Web site, http://www.stluciatravel.org/ , detailing their experience and two similar cases on St. Lucia. When the intruders left, their account says, the couple left the room and found the estate's two security guards sleeping. "We want you to be aware of the risks involved in traveling to St. Lucia," they write on their site. "And we want to prevent this from happening to you."

In response, St. Lucia added police officers, brought in senior law enforcement officials from England and is installing a forensics lab to assist in crime follow-up, said Kirby Allain, an official spokesman for the government of St. Lucia. "We recognize that there has been an unusual increase in crime," he said. "We are taking it seriously and acting to correct the problem."

Other islands say they have taken similar steps. In Tobago, the government has announced plans to supplement the police force, install new street lighting across the island and introduce more ground patrols in popular beach areas. Anguilla says it also has increased its police force.

Some of the crime victims nevertheless have complained that local authorities lack diligence in following up on their complaints. Jorge Dikdan, a resident of Venezuela, was visiting Bonaire in April when his room at Captain Don's Habitat, an upscale resort north of the town of Kralendijk, was burglarized. After he discovered that a camera, cash and other items were missing, Dikdan filed a report with police. But he said the police told him they considered it a false report and would not follow up. Bonaire police spokesman Charles Suriel, contacted by telephone, said that he was unfamiliar with the case and that any statements must be approved by the Bonaire police chief. Efforts to contact the chief were unsuccessful.

Faced for the first time with rising crime, many of the locals and travel vendors on the affected islands have been jolted. "Over the years, we have had so little crime that when we have some, it sets us back," said Kimberly Mahabir, a manager at Tobago's Caribbean Estates, Lands & Villas, a real estate and rental agency. "And compared to other places, we still don't have much. But now we have to adjust and make whatever changes are necessary for our safety and that of our visitors."


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