It Can Happen to Anyone; It Happened to Me
Armed Robbery on Roatan Reflects the Dark Side of “Paradise”

September 27th, 2012
by Robert Armstrong

Normally I would be composing my monthly column in the comfort of my house on the beach on my personal laptop. But I no longer have a personal laptop. Two guys with a gun stole it from me.

Normally, after putting the magazine to bed for the month, I would hop on my scooter and ride into West End for happy hour. But I no longer have a scooter. They stole that too.

The aforementioned guys were waiting for me in an unlit area behind my house when I pulled up on my scooter on a Friday night two weeks ago. They shined a light in my eyes, pointed a gun at my head and told me to get off the scooter and lie face down in the sand. They relieved me of my wallet, a neck chain and wrist chain and took my keys from my pocket, with which one of them entered the house and took the laptop, three cell phones (two belonging to the Voice), a backpack with a pair of Raybans, $80 cash, and a wristwatch off my nightstand. Then they told me to get up and walk toward the beach while they rode off on my scooter.

Having a gun pointed at one’s head can do wonders to clarify one’s thinking. I can’t say my life flashed before my eyes, although there was a moment when I thought I might be about to punctuate my final sentence. But I’m seeing some things more clearly now about life on Roatan. I’m not ready to leave. But the place may never again look so idyllic in my eyes.

I knew before I came here that crime was a risk to my investment and to my person. I factored in that risk and decided it was acceptable. Now, however, the crime here for me is no longer an abstraction or a statistic – it’s an ugly reality. I think about it every time I approach a dark corner, enter or leave my house, or can’t find a phone number because some creep stole my cell phone.

I’ve thought a lot about the rationalizing and dismissive comments many people make about the crime situation here. Before I saw them as a mixture of self-interest and self-delusion. Now I see them as borderline deceitful. So many people have approached me since my incident – my admission to the club, so to speak – to relate similar experiences that I’ve concluded that, if you live here long enough, it’s not a question of whether but when you will become a crime victim.

Many long-time Roatan residents have been victimized multiple times. Yet they stay. Some may be crazy. Others just pig-headed. Or maybe they’ve got no place else to go, or they really, really like the climate. In my case, I’ve invested too much of my life’s savings and my life’s dreams to come here for a couple of thugs to intimidate me into giving it all up.

But the crime has already changed my lifestyle. I moved. I can no longer walk out my door and go for a swim when I wake up or return from the office, because the same beautiful beach that drew me to the island provides camouflage for vermin, and I don’t mean sand flies. I live in a house on a hill now, behind a tall iron gate with a lock. I don’t go out much anymore.

Which leads me to question: Why is it that I am now living behind bars instead of the lowlife bottom-feeders who robbed me? Or, in keeping with the Independence Day theme of this issue: Having just commemorated their independence from Spain in the 19th century, when will Hondurans stand up and demand their independence from the criminals and thugs who terrorize them in the 21st?

Crime happens everywhere, as many here are wont to point out. It’s just that in Honduras it happens 80-times as often as in Japan (based on per-capital murder rates), 16-times as often as in the US, and twice as often as in Colombia; that’s right, Colombia, home of the drug cartels. And while crime is not as rampant on the Bay Islands as in other parts of Honduras, that is a poor standard against which to measure oneself.

Bay Islanders deserve and must demand better! Accepting the current situation as normal and inevitable is suicide. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

How do societies reduce crime? There is no simple answer. But some countries are doing it. Violent crime rates in most US cities have been falling for 20 years. Unfortunately, much of this is likely due to the ageing of the US population – there are fewer crime-prone 15-35-year-old’s in the population now than before. But most states also passed tougher sentencing laws in the 1980’s as the public demanded action against crime, and many cities adopted “community policing” strategies, whereby the police act like part of the community they are assigned to protect, not a foreign occupation force.

In Colombia, crime is still unacceptably high by anyone’s standards. But it is much lower now than it was 15 years ago, and the murder rate is now roughly half that of Honduras. When I had a watch stolen from my hotel room in Colombia a couple years ago, the police retrieved it and returned it to me that same night. The next morning the two thieves who stole it were arraigned and sent to prison. Who can recall anything like that ever happening here?

Perhaps more disturbing here than the crime itself is the seeming inability or unwillingness of the criminal justice system to do anything about it. Crime thrives on impunity. No police force can solve every crime. But case resolution rates in Honduras are so low as to be laughable.

I dutifully reported my incident to the police as soon as I could safely get to the station. And the police . . . well, as far as I can determine, they did nothing. Even when I related to them that three suspects were reportedly wandering around El Swampo selling my things, rather than go try to catch them, they wanted to know who gave me the information. Nonetheless, reporting crimes to the authorities, then collectively demanding that they act on the information, is the only way law enforcement will be made more responsive to the citizenry.

Hondurans, those who vote here, must insist on better from their public servants. We foreigners can only vote with our feet by leaving, as roughly one of eight Hondurans have done. As I said, I’m not ready to do that yet. But perhaps more of us need to before people here will accept that they have a problem.

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