A group of concerned citizens, both locals and expatriates, have come together to form Utila Unite, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving law enforcement and criminal justice on the island.
There is an old joke on Utila that the island’s flag depicts three crabs, each pulling in a different direction. The community has pulled together on some important environmental initiatives in recent years through the Bay Islands Conservation Association. But the rising crime has been largely ignored, even though every crime against a tourist ends up on the internet and causes the island to lose hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars.
Two November incidents, however, helped to galvanize the community to take action against crime. Utilian Austin Bodden’s boat was stolen at gunpoint, and US citizen Vernon Fine was brutally murdered on his catamaran, which he used to ferry people between Utila and Roatan (see December Voice).
Troy Bodden, a candidate for Utila Mayor, worked with resort and business owners to bring a permanent Naval Detachment to Utila, stationed on the cays, as well as a Cobra police special weapons and tactics group. These units were key to apprehending the suspects in both the Bodden assault and Fine’s murder in November.
Aside from better police protection, however, Utila Unite intends to seek needed improvements to the system of justice on the island – a system that a Tourist Police official once told an audience here was “for a different country than ours.”
One Utila resident reported having to spend Lps. 70,000 of his own money to assure the prosecution of a serial burglar known as Raton. He said the courts made him feel as if he, not the accused, was the criminal.
As another case in point, this correspondent recently noticed his gym window open and suspected somebody was sleeping there at night. One Sunday in January he noticed half his weights were missing. The weights were found in a repair shop that deals in scrap metal.
The weights were recovered, and a suspect was identified. However, the police wanted the weights for evidence. They asked our correspondent to transport the 200 pounds of weights to Roatan in an open boat in a strong east breeze, wait for the case to be handled by an overburdened prosecutor, then probably have to leave them there to be used as evidence at trial. Thus, the victim of the crime would not only be back at square one, without the weights, but also would probably also have to pay tens of thousands of lempiras in transport costs.
Utila Unite intends to seek changes that will make the justice system more efficient and more friendly to crime victims.