While many like to believe that crime in Honduras is "no worse than any large city in the USA", that is simply not true. Sleepy little La Ceiba has the distinction of the being the city with the highest murder rate in the country with the highest murder rate in the world.
La Ceiba's murder rate per 100,000 population was 158.2 in 2010, more than double the country-wide Honduras rate of 77.5 according to the national Observatorio de la Violencia report [Spanish].
During 2010, 1.6 persons out of every 1,000 in La Ceiba were killed in violence, putting it among the most violent cities in the Western Hemisphere. Current year-to-date figures by the police show a likely 20% increase in 2011. Even the smaller outlying communities are affected. The Departamento (state) of Atlántida had the highest murder rate among Honduras' 18 departamentos with 131.8 homicides recorded in 2010.
The official Observatorio de Violencia report [Spanish] states that there were 294 homicides in La Ceiba in 2010. But figures recently given by the police to reporters indicated that their records show "463 murders by guns" during 2010 [Spanish]. If that figure is correct, this represents a 37% understatement in the official report. However, if the figures given by police truly only include "murders by guns", then the statistics are even more vastly understated because approximately 17% of 2010 murders were committed by other means.
As of September 30, the same La Prensa Ceibeño article reports that 416 murders by guns have occurred compared to 463 for all of 2010. That would result in a projection of 555 murders for 2011, a 20% increase. If those numbers only reflect murders by guns as stated, then the total number of murders will be much higher. It gets mind boggling to think about.
The vast majority of thefts, robberies, assaults, or other crimes in La Ceiba never get reported to or by the police and almost never in the newspapers. One year-to-date statistic given by the police to reporters is that there have been 12 robberies of La Ceiba residences so far this year [Spanish]. Anyone who knows more than three Ceibeños, can come up with a longer list than that! If I had to guess, I would be surprised if even 5-10% of common property crimes get reported and/or are included in the official crime statistics.
Atlántida is sinking
Se hunde Atlántida (Atlántida sinks — La Ceiba is in the state of Altántida), an exposé in Spanish by Daniel Valencia Caravantes, is a must read for those who want to know more. The article includes interviews with police and an investigative reporter who compiles information but is afraid to report on gang and narco activity. It ends with the police laughing about a running joke of the La Ceiba police investigative unit: Here there are only two things left pending in the cases. What are they? Discover the perpetrators and capture them!
I couldn't tell you the number of times El Jefe has come home to tell me that there was a bullet-ridden body dumped by the side of the road on his way home or that a friend or relative of a friend was murdered. Other expatriates have reported the seeing the same. "Hits" are rumored to cost L.500 (about US $26). He and many other people have lost good and decent friends and relatives to violence, the latest being a young father who was killed in broad daylight in a well-populated area for his motorcycle, which the armed thieves could have easily taken without killing him.
Gang controlled colonias
Gangs have taken control of some 10 colonias, Bonitillo, Riveras del Caribe and others, killing those suspected of being friendly with a rival gang. The gangs impose toques de queda [Spanish] (curfews), effectively shutting down the colonias to residents or outsiders after 7 pm. El Jefe's friends have confirmed that gang-imposed toques are also happening in La Mayo, El Confite, La Suyapa, La Mercedes. The police chief boldly states that "Little gangs can't impose curfews!" [Spanish], but guess what? It is happening and the last we have heard, the police still have not stopped it in the two weeks since that statement.
Los Pelones (said to be a faction of Los Cachiros), Barrio 18, and Los Grillos (said to be well infiltrated within the police) are the most notable gangs operating in La Ceiba. The legendary Los Pumas [read this 2008 Blogicito article for the legend] 'gang for the people' is said to have been reestablished and refortified after losing one of their top leaders to violence. This group is said to be leaders of organized neighborhoods and former police officers, and is suspected of being sponsored by businessmen who have taken the law into their own hands out of desperation. Los Pumas are also suspected of killing Begué, the La Ceiba "drug king", in 2009, discussed in the El Faro article linked above. Some of the San Pedro Sula Airport massacre murder victims were suspected narcotraffickers from La Ceiba.
Lack of security, the most adverse factor for business
Many, if not most, businesses have one or more armed guards, some even keep their doors locked during the day, and some are closing as early as 5 pm for fear of being robbed. [read article in Spanish for several comments by business owners] Bus drivers and taxis readily admit to paying impuesto de guerra ("war tax") to the gangs or say that it is only a matter of time before they will have to do so. Many businesses are now being extorted for impuesto de guerra as well. In some cases of small businesses, the monthly payment is so high (L.10,000) that it is almost not worth staying in business.
For months and years, Ceibeños have pleaded for more patrols [Spanish] and particularly patrols in the high crime areas. Though there is always talk of doing it, reader comments generally confirm that it just does not happen. La Ceiba police have a total of eight patrol vehicles for a population of somewhere around 185,000. One or more of them are generally not running or are out of gas. A police officer makes the equivalent of about US $320 per month, an investigator about US $350.
How does this affect tourism?
Worries about crime have severely damaged the tourism industry. Even though the La Ceiba crime situation is not so well known among those who don't live here or even among some who do, Honduras' general reputation for crime has caused a terrible blow to La Ceiba tourism, one of the best hopes for economic growth on the north coast. Many businesses are hanging on by a thread and most of our previous favorite restaurants have closed down. Since many tourists have to travel through La Ceiba for other Honduran destinations like Roatán and Utila, crime is having an effect on tourism there as well.
Are tourists or foreigners targeted in particular? No, I don't think so at all, but that is only my opinion and there are no statistics upon which anyone can base any opinion. The US State Department doesn't think so either. But any sensible person who has a choice between going to relatively peaceful vacation spot or a high-crime city is probably not going to choose the latter. More and more, that is exactly what they are doing.
There are many reasons why tourists or other visitors may be less likely to be crime victims. By the very nature of a tourist, they often spend most of their time in hotels with good security and in tourist areas where security is high. They probably aren't going to the high crime areas or hanging out with gang members. They may be transported around with trusted drivers or take luxury buses with high security.
Those in the tourism business understand the risk and take the safety of their tourists very seriously because it is their bread and butter. Simply by only being in the country for, say, 10 days might decrease the likelihood of your being a victim to 3% of that of someone who lives here 365 days a year. Certainly, during a week or two, a foreigner is not going to get a good feel for the real crime situation and may not even be aware of it.
Tourists are likely to report their misfortune on internet travel sites which are visited by millions of people. Any serious crime against a foreigner generally gets plenty of coverage in the newspapers and/or among the expatriate discussion groups. For those reasons, I think we would be more apt to know if tourists were routinely being victimized. However, I do not agree with downplaying the dangerousness of crime situation in the interest of business or tourism. That isn't something that I want on my conscience.
The police respond
"We have made an analysis of what has been occurring in these sectors. There are plans and new strategies, we are working on that and in a permanent manner the Cobras have been assigned to the sector to patrol and watch this corridor 24 hours", said Filberto Martínez, new regional commissioner of police.
He also claimed that it is the residents in those colonias who are self-imposing curfews. He asks for citizen cooperation. One Pizatti resident who witnessed a shoot out in which 5-8 people died said that when the police arrived, they said there were no bodies. Some say that the gangs do their own "clean up" and that there are no deaths recorded in any of these neighborhoods.
Reader comments on the news article were less than impressed and disputed some of his statements.
This is part IV in a series of articles on Crime in Honduras.
Part I: Crime is out of control in Honduras
Part II: Security measures, Honduran style
Part III: Drug trafficking in Honduras