It’s beautiful to be sure. But is Belize safe for tourists right now? (Photo: Thinkstock)
A Chicago woman was murdered last week while on vacation in Belize, according to local law enforcement.
Anne Swaney, 39, an executive producer for ABC7 Chicago online, was found dead on Friday morning with injuries consistent with being strangled.
She had been traveling in the Central American country alone and was staying at a horse farm close to the border with Guatemala when she was killed.
Sadly, Swaney isn’t the only foreigner in recent years to be murdered in the country. Lynn Nichiporowich, a 57-year-old Vancouver native, was stabbed to death in October 2013 in the remote village of Consejo.
And earlier this month Canadian filmmaker Matthiew Klinck was found dead in the doorway to his home in Spanish Lookout, Belize. He had also been stabbed.
The minister of tourism expressed his condolences for Swaney’s family and, in a statement to Yahoo Travel, noted that violent crime has been decreasing in the country.
“While this is a tragic situation that requires the full attention of the Belize Police Department, violent crime in Belize has seen a double digit reduction in the past year. Over one million people visited Belize last year, and while it is extremely rare for a tourist to fall victim to a violent crime, we will remain committed to the safety and security of all people who visit,” said Manuel Heredia, The Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation for Belize. “But now our focus is where it should be: working with police to bring justice to the person who committed the horrible act.”
After such horrific, repeated incidents, many travelers are left wondering: Is Belize safe?
Belize is a small country on the eastern coast of Central America, with beautiful beaches and lush, dense jungle that is teeming with wildlife. But along with its overwhelming natural beauty, Belize has one of the highest murder rates on earth, with 44.7 murders per 100,000 of the population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Only Honduras and Venezuela are worse.
But to put this into context, the U.S. city of Detroit has a rate of 43.5 and New Orleans’s rate is 38.7, suggesting that visitors are no more at risk in Belize than they would be in some of our own cities.
Belize also has an incredibly high crime rate; the majority of the offenses are burglaries and thefts, according to the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).
"Corruption, human smuggling/trafficking, the drug trade, money laundering, and organized gang activity remain significant problems,” OSAC stated in its most 2015 Crime and Safety Report on the country.
The highest rate of murders in the country occurs within the Belize District, which includes Belize City — largely related to the high number of street gangs operating in the area.
The U.S. State Department advises visitors to "avoid areas of the south side of Belize City where numerous gangs are known to operate,” and exercise caution when traveling along remote areas of the Belize border.
But major crime levels remain low in the more tourist-driven areas and attractions, such as the Mayan ruins and resort areas along the coastline.
Tourism is a vital part of the Belizean economy, accounting for 14 percent of all jobs and 23 percent of GDP for the country, and hundreds of thousands of visitors travel to the country each year, most without incident.
To protect tourists, the Belizean government established a “tourism police” in addition to its regular force, which is tasked with patrolling and overseeing specific locations and attractions.
But as with anywhere you travel to, there is always a risk of falling victim to a crime. To minimize your risk, however, there are several things you can do.
"We encourage U.S. citizens to exercise caution and good situational awareness in all their travel activities,” the State Department recommends.
"Visitors should travel in groups and only during daylight hours. Avoid wearing jewelry or carrying valuable or expensive items.”
It also suggests traveling in groups and remaining only in the main plazas when visiting the Mayan ruins.
“Although there are armed guards stationed at many of the archeological sites, armed criminals have been known to prey on persons walking alone or in small groups from one site to another,” the State Department website explains.
Avoid walking around Belize City at night. Instead, get a taxi to your destination. Do not leave valuables unattended on the beach, in a vehicle, or in hotel rooms, and consider leaving expensive items, such as jewelry or camera equipment, at home.
If you do become the victim of a crime while in Belize, report it to the local police and the U.S. Embassy immediately. The emergency number for the police in Belize is the same as in the U.S., 911, and the contact information for the embassy can be found here.