BELMOPAN, Belize, Wednesday January 20, 2016 – Following the discovery of the battered body of a vacationing American woman in Belize last week, questions are being raised about the country’s safety as a tourist destination.
Anne Swaney was found in the river near a horse farm in San Jose Succotz where she had been staying, according to a report from ABC7 Chicago, where she worked as executive producer of online operations.
The 39-year-old was found on Friday with lacerations on her neck and head, local police told the station.
Her death has devastated her father who also lost his son two years ago.
Swaney is not the only foreigner in recent years to be murdered in Belize.
Earlier this month, Canadian filmmaker Matthiew Klinck was found stabbed to death in the doorway to his home in Spanish Lookout.
In October 2013, in the remote village of Consejo, Lynn Nichiporowich, a 57-year-old Vancouver native, also died as a result of stab wounds.
And in November 2012, the shooting death in Ambergris Caye of retired American builder Gregory Faull sparked the flight of his neighbour, Scottish-born software guru John McAfee.
“After such horrific, repeated incidents, many travellers are left wondering: Is Belize safe?” wrote Sophie Forbes in Yahoo travel.
Reacting to the latest murder, the country’s tourism minister 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, minister of tourism and civil aviation.
“But now our focus is where it should be: working with police to bring justice to the person who committed the horrible act,” he added.
Belize has the world’s third highest murder rate, 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.
Putting this into context, Yahoo Travel pointed out that the US city of Detroit has a rate of 43.5 and New Orleans’s rate is 38.7, suggesting that American visitors are little more at risk in Belize than they would be in some of their own cities.
But Belize also has an incredibly high crime rate, with burglaries and theft comprising the majority of the offenses, 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 recent 2015 Crime and Safety Report on Belize.
Yahoo reports that the highest rate of murders in the country occurs within the Belize District, which includes Belize City, and is largely related to the high number of street gangs operating in the area.
The US 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.
Crime levels nevertheless 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 per cent of all jobs and 23 per cent 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.
As with anywhere else, there is still the risk of falling victim to crime, however.
To minimise the risk, the US State Department encourages visitors “to exercise caution and good situational awareness in all their travel activities.
“Visitors should travel in groups and only during daylight hours. Avoid wearing jewellery or carrying valuable or expensive items,” the State Department cautions.
It also suggests traveling in groups and remaining only in the main plazas when visiting Belize’s Mayan ruins.