Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, but the country’s idyllic Bay Islands have long been considered a safe haven, largely immune from the drug-fueled violence that has plagued the Honduran mainland. However, a string of recent crimes on Roatán, the largest of the Bay Islands, has prompted outrage, with some residents calling for greater autonomy and more effective policing for the islands.
Roatán made international headlines Dec. 22 when Nedenia Post Dye, the great-granddaughter of the General Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, was found stabbed to death in her luxury spa on the island. A local singer whom she was reportedly trying to help has been charged with her murder; he claims the two were romantically linked.
“People let their guard down here because it’s beautiful and relaxing,” said Aaron Etches, a longtime resident of Roatán who founded a Facebook group called Roatán Crime Watch about a year ago in the wake of several high-profile crimes as a way to help fight crime on the island.
The group has more than 2,000 members, and in the last month, users have reported a host of robberies, including a Jan. 2 incident in which an armed bandit fired a shot at an American family who were visiting Roatán for the day on the Carnival Conquest and robbed them in broad daylight close to the Palm Beach Resort.
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“People told us things like this don’t usually happen on Roatán, but it’s a dangerous place,” said Jeff Smith, a pilot for Delta Air Lines who was in the vehicle along with his wife and three young daughters.
Despite the recent reports of incidents, Robert Armstrong, a former Foreign Service officer who is the editor of Bay Islands Voice, an English-language magazine based in Roatán, said that according to the local police, there were 17 homicides on the island in the first eight months of 2013, none involving tourists, compared with nine during the same period in 2012.
“The crime rate here is much lower than on the mainland, but the gap is closing,” he said.
A representative for Carnival said Roatán had historically been a safe destination since the line started calling there in 2009. The State Department updated its travel warning for Honduras on Dec. 24, cautioning that the “level of crime and violence in Honduras remains critically high.” The warning didn’t specifically address crime in Roatán but it noted that members of the Honduran National Police were known to engage in criminal activity and had solved just two of the 50 murders committed against U.S. citizens in the country since 2008.
Karol Escalante, a spokeswoman for the Embassy of Honduras in Washington, said incidents of crime against tourists were rare and maintained that the government was beefing up security in tourist destinations like Roatán. (She claimed that crime decreased at the national level in 2013 but had no figures for Roatán.) Etches said that business owners have formed watch committees and are preparing to install more security cameras around the island.
Armstrong said visitors should stick to the island’s main road unless they were with a group.
“Stay on the paved roads, be aware that there is a different threat level here than you’re used to at home, and don’t carry a lot of cash and valuables with you,” he said.