Death of a Tourist a Wake-up Call to us All
The October murder of a Canadian tourist in an armed robbery on Roatan received wide coverage in Canada, making many Canadians afraid to come here. CTV showed video of chaos in Honduran streets, with police firing automatic rifles in the air, most likely during the 2009 political problems on the mainland (the segment’s reporter did not know). A Canadian travel agent told viewers thinking of visiting Honduras bluntly, “Don’t go.”
Canadians are overreacting. But that is to be expected after so horrific an event. The task now for those of us who live here and do not want to see the island’s tourist economy die is to put the crime into proper perspective. That requires stripping away the sensationalism (random file footage of gunfire). But it also requires us to acknowledge that, as I’ve written here before, Roatan has a very real and serious problem with violent crime, and not talking about it will not make it go away.
Facebook postings and reports in his hometown newspaper portray Tim Vallee as a gregarious, likeable and fun-loving person, an amateur hockey player, proud of his Greek heritage, who believed in living life to the fullest. That appears to be how he spent his last days on Roatan. He took risks. He went places tourists probably shouldn’t go. The place he was killed was at the end of a dark dirt road, amid shanties, after legal closing hours.
Had Vallee been a bit more prudent, he might still be alive. Had he gone back to his West End hotel room at midnight instead of looking for an after-hours haunt elsewhere on the island, he would almost certainly be home with his loved ones right now.
But here’s the thing: tourists, no matter how much we warn them, are sometimes going to do foolish things. They are, after all, on vacation, in an unfamiliar environment. Foolishness should not carry a death sentence.
The worst thing we could do right now is blame the victim or claim, as many here do, that the crime situation here is “just like anyplace else.” Roatan is not like anyplace else. There were three homicides on this island in as many days in mid-October, in three separate incidents, two of them involving Canadians (one as the victim and one alleged to be the shooter). This followed four homicides in September. That’s seven in two months, with still a week to go in October as we go to press. That projects to 42 a year, which, if we estimate Roatan’s population is about 80,000, equates to 53 per 100,000 inhabitants. That is somewhat lower than the Honduran average, which is more than 80. But it is far higher than most other places in the world that are not at war. It is not normal. It is not acceptable.
September and October were particularly bad months. But for purposes of comparison, for the last 10 years I have owned a home in Arlington, Virginia. Arlington is an ethnically and socio-economically diverse urban/suburban community across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. It has about 216,000 people, about three times the population of Roatan. It is home to many recent immigrants from Latin America, Asia and all parts of the world. When my kids were in school there, I was told more than 60 languages were spoken in the homes of students in Arlington schools.
Arlington gets its share of violent crime, including burglaries, robberies, assaults and rapes. As US cities go, it is slightly less safe than average, in the 37th percentile. My teenage son was mugged in Arlington shortly after we returned from living in Tegucigalpa, where nothing ever happened to him (but he also had no freedom, living behind walls for security reasons).
Arlington had zero homicides last year. None. In 2010 it had one. That’s one homicide in two years. Roatan had three last week.
We cannot expect Roatan to be like Arlington. But neither should we tell people from Arlington that coming here is the same as staying home.
Instead, if we want to assure people in other countries it’s safe to come here, we need to take serious, visible and proactive measures to actually make it safe. Our actions speak louder than our words. Public safety needs to be public priority number one for islanders and expats alike.
There are plenty of uplifting stories in this month’s issue that demonstrate that the Roatan community can come together for a common purpose when they perceive the need. Nearly 2,400 people pitched in to clean up litter on the island in October, to keep the beaches and other areas beautiful. People opened their hearts and their wallets when fire destroyed the homes of a group of families in Los Fuertes. Volunteers trained by Clínica Esperanza are visiting homes throughout the island to identify children at risk of hunger (our cover feature this month).
That same energy and civic spirit now needs to be devoted to making the island safer. Roatan Rotary has contributed many thousands of dollars in recent years to better equip police on the island, and to improve their living conditions. Those efforts are useful but not sufficient.
We need to invest in better street lighting, at least in high-traffic areas (this would not have helped Tim Vallee) and possibly surveillance cameras in key points, which are said to have helped reduce crime in Costa Rica. We need more private security – real security, not watchie men earning minimum wage and unable to feed their children.
This will all cost money, and most of us don’t have much of that right now. But inaction will cost us more.
Money alone will not likely solve the problem, however. Deeper surgery may be required.
The dive community essentially privatized protection of the reef, which is the lifeblood of their existence, by creating the Roatan Marine Park five years ago. Perhaps the same needs to be done for public safety – create private patrols that can do everything but arrest and prosecute people.
This month’s Interview implies Roatan, and all the Bay Islands, could under existing Honduran law have their own police force. All they need do is ask the Ministry of Security in Tegucigalpa to approve it. Something to consider as we hear more stories about our friends and neighbors getting robbed.