Is It Safe? Safe Compared to What?
Reaction to Cruise Port Killing Should be Neither Panic nor Complacency

April 23rd, 2014
by Robert Armstrong

The tragic and brutal murder of a Filipino cruise ship employee in an armed robbery outside the Port of Roatan April 6  has once again ignited debate, both here and abroad, about whether Roatan is a safe place to visit. This begs the question: safe compared to what?

I spent five days in the US in April. As I got there the media were still filled with reports of the latest mass school killing. While I was there, a white supremacist gunned down three people he apparently thought were Jewish just blocks from my mother’s house near Kansas City. As I left, Boston was marking the anniversary of the deadly terrorist bombing at last year’s Marathon. So which represents the greater risk: being assaulted by a desperate and ruthless armed robber while visiting Roatan or being at the wrong school, office or shopping mall in the US when the silicon chip inside some disturbed person’s head gets “switched to overload?”

Some fear to get on an airplane after a plane crash, even though, based on fatalities per passenger-mile traveled, they’re taking a bigger risk each time they get behind the wheel of their own cars than when they board a plane. This is a case of risk analysis being driven by emotion rather than fact. So what do the facts say about the risk of visiting Roatan? Unfortunately, the data are not as encouraging as our airplane analogy. But neither are they catastrophic.

Despite the increasingly frequent random mass killings in the US, the homicide rate in the US as a whole is only about five per year per 100,000 people. In Canada it’s two. In Japan it’s less than one. What about Roatan? Last year the National Police recorded 22 homicides on Roatan,  down from 25 in 2012. Nobody knows for sure how many people live on the island (results of last year’s nationwide census were never published). But informed guesses are that it’s anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000. Taking the high end of that range to be conservative yields a comparable homicide rate for Roatan of 22. That’s more than four times the US average. But it’s less than a fourth that of the rest of Honduras.

Homicide chart-web

Roatan’s homicide rate is also higher than that of Chicago, which rightly or wrongly has been identified in the public mind in the US with gun violence (we suspect  because it’s the President’s home town). But it is less than half that of New Orleans, and people still visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

More to the point, Roatan’s murder rate is comparable to that of other popular Caribbean tourist destinations (see table). It is well below that of Belize, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Bahamas. So one could say that a North American tourist visiting Roatan is exposed to a higher crime risk than at home (unless they’re from Detroit), but similar to other places they might go.

Of course, much of the violent crime, here and elsewhere, is related to the illegal drug traffic, gang violence, family and domestic violence and personal grudges, which are not likely to affect a reasonably prudent tourist. In the two years we have been monitoring crime data on Roatan, only one tourist, and now one cruise ship employee, have been murdered. Probably more than a million tourists visited the island in that time. Those odds don’t sound too bad. However, most of those visitors are cruise ship passengers, many of whom never leave the ship and none of whom remains more than 8-12 hours. A million cruise shippers each spending 10 hours on the island is equivalent in terms of risk exposure to 1,140 people living here 24-7 year-round. Another 100,000 or so tourists arrive on Roatan each year by air. Assuming they spend an average of five days here, they constitute another 1,370 person-years of exposure. Taken together, these numbers imply the population of tourists on Roatan is about 2,500 at any given point in time, averaged over a year. Two murders in two years implies an annual rate of 40 per 100,000. That’s too high.

Of course this analysis is fraught with problems, including “small sample bias” (imagine a town of 1,000 that has no murders for 10 years, then somebody gets killed; their homicide rate jumps from 0 to 100 overnight). But we all know that far more tourists over that period have been assaulted or robbed but survived. Our approach to these tragedies, therefore, should not be to conceal or deny this reality but to take appropriate steps to correct it. One tourist killed is one too many.

In that regard, it is encouraging that the suspect in the latest killing was identified and apprehended quickly and that recently installed security cameras and a reward offered by the authorities apparently played a part in his capture. Hopefully this will deter the next would-be thief. In this month’s Interview, conducted before the crime occurred, Mayor Ebanks lays out a number of other proposals to improve security on the island. We think he’s on the right track. But he needs to follow through better than the last Mayor, who laid out an equally ambitious plan in response to a couple of other high-profile murders just over a year ago. He can’t do it alone, though. Who wants to help?

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