What to Know About Crime, Safety

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Caribbean, renowned for beaches, sun, rum and relaxation, is facing a rising tide of crime that may further dampen a tourism industry already reeling from the global economic morass. For local officials, the headlines sting like a hurricane's lashing rain:

"Honeymooning Couple Murdered" (Antigua)

"Pregnant Tourist Abducted and Killed" (Puerto Rico)

"Ex-General Tortured, Killed" (Cancun, Mexico)

"Hanging to Resume?" (St. Lucia)

"Crime Expected to Climb" (Jamaica)

"Illicit Trade in Arms Worrying" (Trinidad and Tobago)

"Region Under Siege"

Experts are quick to point out that most crime in the Caribbean, especially violent crime, does not target or involve tourists. As State Department spokeswoman Laura Tischler says, despite some areas of concern, "Millions of people travel to [Caribbean destinations] safely and have a good time every year."

Anthony Harriott, a political sociology professor and director of the Institute of Criminal Justice and Security at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, goes a step further. "In general, tourists [including Americans] are safer in the Caribbean than in their home countries," he says.

In 2003, Harriott observes, "Only 0.0004 percent of all visitors to Jamaica reported that they were victimized" by crime. In Barbados, the only other Caribbean nation to publish statistics on crimes against tourists, the rate of violent crimes against tourists was even lower.

Fair enough. But a review of the State Department's consular information sheets, which summarize travel conditions for every country in the world, shows that crime directly threatens tourists in numerous Caribbean destinations, most notably in the Bahamas, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, St. Maarten, St. Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Examples of extreme violence against tourists remain isolated but alarming:

-- A British couple on their honeymoon in Antigua were shot in their hotel cottage last July. The woman died on the scene, and her husband died days later in a hospital in Wales.

-- Also on Antigua, an Australian yachtsman was shot and killed Jan. 22 while trying to protect his girlfriend and 21-month-old daughter during an attempted mugging.

-- A pregnant American out for a jog in Puerto Rico was abducted, raped and killed on Feb. 4.

-- In October, two British women were raped at knifepoint in their holiday villa in Tobago.

-- In a noteworthy incident that did not involve a tourist, a retired Mexican general who had moved to Cancun to help fight drug trafficking in the area was tortured and killed along with two associates in early February. Members of the drug cartel Los Zeta have been arrested in connection with the killings.

Yikes! But does this mean that devout Caribbeanistas should look elsewhere for their next tropical vacation?

No, says Tobias Friedl, Latin America-Caribbean regional manager for the Annapolis-based security advisory firm iJet Intelligent Risk Systems. (Full disclosure: I worked for iJet from 2000 to 2006.)

"The main tourist areas are fairly secure" throughout the region, Friedl says. "But if you're going off the beaten path, be very careful. Get informed of the local situation" through the countries' tourism Web sites (most have them), U.S. Embassy Web sites and tour operators.

A little homework could save you a lot of trouble. "For example, there are no major problems inside resorts in Jamaica, but Montego Bay has seen a rise in crime in recent years," Friedl says. "Why? Because there are 17 slum areas around Montego Bay that you didn't have before. Many of those people [in the slums] are honest, but some are not. It's a growing city, and that means more issues."

Cancun, he says, remains very safe, "unless you're buying drugs. Yes, there is cartel activity there, but the city is physically very divided, and [the cartel activity] is unlikely to bleed into the tourist areas." Of all the drug killings in Mexico last year, more than 90 percent of the victims were either cartel members or police, Friedl says.

The State Department issued a recent travel alert for the French West Indies (Guadeloupe and Martinique) because of labor strikes that have virtually shut down economic activity. An alert for Mexico focuses mainly on border areas and makes no mention of Cancun or other Caribbean resort areas. The agency also has standing travel warnings, which are more serious than alerts, for Haiti and Colombia, although the Colombia warning does not mention Caribbean resort areas.

But there is no reliable cheat sheet separating "safe" destinations from those to avoid. Compared with the rest of the region, crime is reasonably low in Anguilla, Aruba, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Montserrat, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Turks and Caicos. But many crimes are called random for a reason and, I assure you, right now a fellow reader is penning a letter to the editor about being ripped off (or worse) in one of those destinations.

Nor do murder rates tell the whole story. In Jamaica and Trinidad, which have two of the higher murder rates in the world, the vast majority of killings are gang-on-gang slayings in urban areas, far from the main tourist haunts. And as the Antigua cases illustrate, violent crime can strike historically benign places.

Still, images of gang activity in the Caribbean do not jibe with the turquoise lagoons and nectar-sweet rum drinks in brochures. What's going on?

"There is poverty in the Caribbean, and poverty is the mother of organized crime," says Cesar Guedes, program coordinator for the Latin America and the Caribbean Unit at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The region has long been a way station for drugs from South America to the United States, and smugglers are increasingly using the islands to move product to Europe. (Most U.S.-bound drugs come through mainland Mexico, but cartels and smugglers prefer to have numerous routes operating simultaneously, in case one gets shut down.) More worrying for tourists is the increase in guns circulating in the region.

"The access to small weapons throughout the islands is widespread," Guedes says. "It's an offshoot of the drug trade. The gun talks for itself. Things can go wrong. The Antigua double murder was a robbery gone wrong."

To be clear: Drug smugglers, organized crime bosses and street dealers have little interest in harming tourists. As Guedes explains, local police in the Caribbean, despite their inefficiencies, devote significant resources to protecting tourists and the tourism industry. Further, many tourists come to the Caribbean to consume drugs and are often willing to pay almost home-country rates for a bag of marijuana or a gram of cocaine, a much higher price than the street dealers draw locally.

And in some places, such as the Dominican Republic, Guedes says, "you are seeing more and more young people coming in, and it may be their first exposure to cocaine and they love it, and the traffickers recruit them to smuggle some home," mostly to Europe, in exchange for money and drugs.

While tourist killings grab headlines, the biggest threat facing Caribbean tourists is property theft and other nonviolent offenses. Region-wide issues, says iJet's Friedl, include the kind of credit card fraud in which a clerk or waiter makes a quick copy of your card when processing a transaction, and theft of passports. "There is a huge black market for U.S. and European passports" in the Caribbean, he says.

The problem for vacationers is not that the chances of being robbed are no greater in St. Maarten than they are in New York. It's that the chances of being robbed are no lower in St. Maarten than they are in New York. Tourists don't come to the Caribbean expecting to worry about theft, rape and murder.

Officials across the region, from St. Thomas to Trinidad and St. Maarten to Jamaica, are promising increased police vigilance and new patrols. In fact, crime in Jamaica so far in 2009 is down dramatically from 2008. Still, Harriott says, "Given the current global economic crisis and the pace of institutional change, I do not expect things to improve soon."

"You have to keep it in perspective," Friedl says. "In Rio de Janeiro, you can't even leave your sandals on the beach. They'd be gone in seconds." Let's hope the good ship Caribbean rights itself before it comes to that.

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