Honduras took another hit this week when a British tourist was shot and killed in San Pedro Sula, the biggest city.
The headlines in the British media, naturally, weren’t good. Most stories noted Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, which seems to be the main thing people know about the country.
Honduras, for tourists, isn’t dangerous. My partner’s son and his family - including boys 11 and 13 - just spent six weeks here, feeling secure and welcome everywhere they went.
But Kaya Omer, the 33-year-old British tourist, had a different, tragic experience.
It’s hard to tell tourists there are two Honduras. Copan Ruinas, Tela, Santa Rosa de Copan, most smaller communities are completely safe for travellers. The big cities are dangerous.
The risk is that people will either be scared from the whole country, or not scared enough where they should be.
Omer was walking and shooting video in a nice San Pedro Sula neighbourhood around 11 a.m. Accounts vary, but it seems two young men and a woman tried to steal the camera, and his backpack, which contained two more cameras, an iPad and money. He resisted, they shot him.
You can’t blame the victim. But when we go to Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula, we carry nothing when we walk. Certainy not a backpack of valuables; if you travel with possessions in the city, you take a cab, with a driver you know. (Most Hondurans do the same if they can.)
During our in-country Cuso orientation, we learned to be ready to avoid eye contact and hand whatever we had over to a robber if it came to that. (And to carry at least a reasonable amount of money so the bad guys wouldn’t get mad at a mingy payday.)
But how do you give tourists that kind of advice and still expect them to visit? We found the orientation, with its bleak scenarios, alarming, and we were committed.
The real solution, of course, is to reduce the crime and violence. Tourists almost never experience crime, but urban Hondurans - especially those without the money to insulate themselves - live with the risk every day. Small businesses, taxi drivers, vendors in the city pay weekly extortion to stay safe.
Two days after Omer was killed, President Porifirio Lobo said security has improved this year. “Everyone feels that has gotten better,” he said.
But it’s hard to find anyone who actually say that. Some groups are predicting the murder rate will be higher again for 2012. There might have been a few tiny steps on police corruption. Drug seizures are up. (But Canadians have learned giant seizures don’t make a bit of difference to the trade, supply or crime.) But life hasn’t changed, or security improved, for Hondurans.
The Observatorio de la Violencia just reported on 2012 massacres, events in which three or more people were killed in the same attack. There were 115, killing 432 people. Half were gang executions, and another eight per cent involved fights between gangs. Imagine a mass murder in B.C. every week, based on the relative populations.
There are no easy solutions. The enforcement and justice systems don’t work - more 90 per cent of murders go unsolved. “Impunity” is a big public complaint. Some people are just above the law.
Still, efforts could be made. El Salvador reported a 41 per cent drop in murders in 2012 as a result of a truce between the two major gangs. That took the rate to 38 murders per hundred thousand people, from 65 in 2011. The Honduran rate in 2011 was 87; Canada’s was 1.7. (The deal was facilitiated by Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat now on the Honduran Public Security Reform Commission. He has raised the idea of a similar truce in Honduras.)
It’s far from a cure-all. But two or three fewer murders a day would free up a lot of police time.
The frustrating thing, again, is that Honduras is safe for tourists, or as safe as their home countries. You can walk the streets of Copan Ruinas late at night without fear, people are welcoming and they are eager for you to like their country.
But it’s asking a lot to expect people to ignore the headlines.