Another grisly warning from the U.S. government this week about travel to Honduras, and an off-key response from the Honduran government.
The State Department advisory cautioned in the first sentence that “crime and violence levels remain critically high.” Things mostly went downhill from there.
La Gringa, an ex-pat blogger living in La Ceiba, did a useful comparison of this advisory with the last warning from Nov. 21.
Generally, the new version paints a picture of greater danger. For instance, both documents say U.S. citizens do not appear to be targeted. But the new advisory adds “Crimes are committed against expatriates at levels similar to those committed against locals.”
Not good when you’re writing about the country with the the world’s highest murder rate. And not accurate, based on my experience. Locals are at much greater risk of crime.
The advisory is bad news. Hondurans need U.S. visitors and investors. When the American government talks about “critically high” crime, they stay home.
The Honduran government’s response was uninspiring. President Porfirio Lobo instructed staff to prepare a map for foreign visitors that would show where they should and should not go and provide safety information. But being greeted at the airport with a map of danger zones won’t likely inspire confidence. (And Hondurans might wonder why they are expected to live and work every day in areas too dangerous for foreigners to visit.)
There were the usual complaints that other countries also have crime and that Honduran media do too many graphic crime stories. Possibly true, but unlikely to have an impact on prospective visitors.
Pompey Bonilla, who was replaced as security minister but remains a presidential aide, said things aren’t so bad, but many Hondurans would disagree.
Bonilla also rightly noted that a lot of crime in Honduras is related to the country’s role as a big cocaine trans-shipment centre. The trade exists largely because of failed U.S. drug policies, he said, and Honduras pays the price.
The gangs are another big problem here, and the U.S. has a role there, too. The two main gangs developed in Los Angeles, among migrants from this region and their American-born children. When the gang problem grew too large, the U.S. government launched a policy of deporting people convicted of criminal offences.
Between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. sent 44,042 criminals to Honduras, many of whom had been in U.S. prisons. Convenient for the U.S., but bad news for Honduras, flooded with gang members with skills honed on the hardest streets of America.
There aren’t many easy solutions to the crime problem. But there are some simple first steps.
For example, the State Department warning - like the last advisory - notes that “A majority of serious crimes are never solved; of the 18 murders committed against U.S. citizens since January 2011, police have closed none.”
Given the stakes, surely the government and police could have a made it a priority to solve a few of those murders. (The real goal, of course, is to improve the overall effectiveness of police and courts, so that literally getting away with murder isn’t the norm. But progress has been dismal.)
Americans still come here. There were 286,000 visitors from the U.S. in 2012, an increase from the previous year.
But Costa Rica had 864,000 U.S. visitors in 2012. Honduras has similar, if untapped, potential.
And only 34 per cent of visitors to Hondurans - about 97,000 - were tourists. About 100,000 were visiting relatives, about 57,000 were on business and about 34,000 were on missions and aid work.
Honduras is a great country to visit. The two big cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, are dangerous and demand caution. Many Hondurans suffer greatly from crime.
But in Copan Ruinas, where we live, visitors are probably safer than in their hometowns. We’ve travelled pretty widely through the country and felt secure.
The country has extraordinary potential as a tourist destination. Mayan ruins, beaches, reefs, jungles, mountains, lagoons and rivers, indigenous cultures, wildlife - it is a knockout.
But the infrastructure isn’t there. And won’t be, if travellers and investors are scared off by grim travel advisories.