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Belize 2013 Crime and Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Belize > Belmopan

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Belize is a high-crime country in Central America, located south of Mexico and east of Guatemala on the Carribbean sea. Tourism is a staple of the Belizean economy, and each year hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Belize. Favorite destinations for tourists are the cayes (islands), including Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, and the coastal areas in the south of the country, including Placencia. Tourists also frequent ecotourism destinations in the lush rainforests in the west and south.  

Crime Threats

Violent crime has risen steadily over the past several years.

Due to the extremely high murder rate per capita, Belize is the sixth most violent country in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with an average of over 40 homicides per 100,000 residents. Murders are a growing and continuing problem for Americans, Belizeans, and Belize law enforcement and security. In 2012, Belize recorded 145 murders, setting a new record for homicides in the country. The murder rate was nearly 15 percent higher than 2011. The majority of the homicides in 2012 occurred in Belize City, where gang violence is rampant, especially on the south side of the city. A “gang truce” that had been in place since September 2011 ended in the spring of 2012, following a peaceful re-election of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) in May 2012.

In 2012, homicides continued to rise throughout the country specifically in the western and northern districts. Homicides increased in the Cayo district in the west, which is home to the capital city, Belmopan, and the U.S. Embassy. Homicides in Belmopan nearly doubled over 2011 numbers. Homicides also rose in the northern district of Corozal, which borders Mexico.

Much of the violent crime in Belize occurs on the south side of Belize City, home to several street gangs. Belizean officials, in November 2012, in an attempt to control the security situation in these areas, invoked a “declaration of crime infested areas” under the Belizean law that allows for law enforcement and security forces to conduct warrantless searches of personnel and property in “crime ridden” areas.

In January 2013, four prominent George Street Gang (GSG) members were found brutally murdered in an apartment building on the southeast side of Belize City. The ensuing panic and rampant speculation regarding the possible perpetrators led to the early closing of several businesses and schools in Belize City and generated a security message from the U.S. Embassy to U.S. citizens.

The majority of crimes are burglaries and thefts. Overall, corruption, human smuggling and trafficking, the drug trade, money laundering, and organized gang activity remain significant criminal problems. Additionally, in many cases, organized criminal organizations operate beyond the ability of the police to disrupt them. Compounding this problem is the very modest capacity to prosecute offenders.   

Tourist attractions, including the cayes, remain some of the safest destinations. While crime against tourists exists on the cayes, it is less frequent and generally non-violent, though some notable murders have occurred, including the widely-publicized murder of a U.S. citizen on San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. Tourists have been robbed while visiting archeological sites, and occasional violent crimes have occurred at resort areas on both mainland Belize and the cayes. Illicit activities in remote areas can involve innocent tourists. 

The reporting of financial crimes committed against patrons of tourists destinations increased in 2012. There were several reported instances of credit card fraud against patrons of resorts and other local establishments. It is believed that several credit card fraud rings are active.

There have also been several reports of tourists being “set up” or solicited to purchase illegal drugs. The tourists are then arrested. Most have been fined and then released, but visitors should be aware that they could be sent to prison to await trial, and, if convicted, could serve their sentence in Belize, in according with Belize’s strict laws on illegal narcotics.

There have been reports of fraud committed against expatriates and Belizeans who have attempted to purchase land. Many expatriates have reported being the victim of scams in which land is purchased that was not available, or land was purchased that was legally owned by other parties. It has been reported that Belizean authorities have not been proactive in investigating these crimes and enacting measure to ensure that they do not continue to occur.

Overall Road Safety Situation

Road conditions are generally poor and extremely inconsistent, ranging from short stretches of newly paved roads in Belize City to decades-old pavement on many of the highways to dirt roads throughout the country in most areas. The primary highways – Philip SW Goldson Highway (northern), George Price Highway (western), Hummingbird, and Southern highways – are in generally better condition (paved) than most roads, although the quality and grade of the roads are inconsistent. These highways are two-lane at best but can be narrower depending on the paving and the frequent break-off of the pavement that occurs along the edges of the major roads. The highways are rarely lit and do not contain shoulders. Driving can be very hazardous, especially after dusk and during the frequent rains. These major highways are the only means to transit the country aside from the small airplanes run by two Belizean commercial carriers. Pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, and buses utilize the same major roads day and night. Stray dogs also wander freely in close proximity to the many small villages that dot the major highways.  

Defensive driving is critical to navigate hazardous road conditions. Local drivers often use turn signals to signify significantly different vehicle movements. For example, a left-hand turn signal in a vehicle ahead of you on the highway may be a signal for your car to pass on the left or it could indicate a left-hand turn by the vehicle ahead. Drivers should always use maximum follow distances to allow plenty of time to react to the unexpected.

Due to the absence of stoplights in most parts of the country, speed bumps are utilized to control speeds, especially in and around small villages and population centers. There are several different signs that indicate speed bumps, and many speed bumps are not marked at all. Speed bumps can be a significant hazard to vehicles and occupants, as they tend to be very large and damaging to vehicles that hit them too hard. Drivers should always be on the lookout for speed bumps, especially during dusk, dawn, and night driving and should be aware that vehicles may slam on their brakes unexpectedly to try and avoid hitting an unexpected speed bump. 

Traffic circles are used to take the place of traffic lights. At traffic circles, you must yield to exiting traffic in the circle before proceeding and then signal before you exit to alert the vehicles behind you.   

The Belize police regularly operate checkpoints, especially in and around Belize City, Belmopan, and other population centers. All personnel, including diplomats, should stop at these checkpoints and cooperate fully with police. The police may ask you for a form of ID, which you should produce. Often the focus of the checkpoints is to ensure that the vehicles are properly insured or to spot-check the window tinting on cars to ensure that it is within the legal limit. There were no reported incidents of false checkpoints or extortion of persons in vehicles passing through these checkpoints.

Certain stretches of the George Price Highway that connects Belize City to Belmopan and continues west to the Guatemalan border have been the site of several fatal accidents. The combination of inconsistent paving and slick roadways due to rain has caused several fatal accidents near Mile 44. On May 15, 2012, a fatal accident, claiming four lives and injuring a fifth passenger, occurred on a rainy morning. A second non-fatal vehicular rollover accident occurred the next day at the same location.

Buses and cars do not yield to pedestrians. 

Public transportation can be problematic and unreliable. Taxi stands and plazas are located throughout major cities and villages and can be contacted by phone. Incidents of harassment have been reported, and a taxi driver in 2012 was a prime suspect in the disappearance and murder of a minor female in San Ignacio. There have been reports of sexual assaults on unaccompanied females committed by taxi drivers.  

Public buses are prone to safety and security problems and should be avoided. Buses often operate in poor conditions and lack adequate maintenance. Bus drivers are often observed exceeding the speed limits (during day and night hours) and passing other vehicles at unsafe locations.  

Water taxis are the cheapest method to travel from Belize City to Caye Caulker and San Pedro. Water taxis, however, are often over-crowded and lack adequate safety equipment.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

In 2012, an individual with suspected ties to Hezbollah was arrested in Mexico. The individual had obtained fraudulent Belizean identity documents that enabled him to travel from Belize to Mexico. However, there are no known local, regional, or international terror groups operating in or out of Belize.  

Civil Unrest

Political violence is rare, and there were no security incidents reported during the 2012 country-wide elections. Lawful protests do occur regularly but are generally peaceful and orderly.

The government requires a permit that must be requested at least 24 hours prior to a planned protest. Embassy security messages are generally issued to advise personnel to avoid areas where protests are scheduled to occur.

Religious or Ethnic Violence

Religious and ethnic violence is extremely rare. However, there is significant hostile sentiment toward individuals who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT). LGBT issues are frequently highlighted in the press and can spur passionate discussions at community forums, and there has been at least one instance of violence reported against LGBT individuals.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

The most frequent natural disasters are hurricanes and tropical storms. Hurricane Hattie destroyed much of Belize City in 1961. Hurricane season in the western Caribbean begins June 2 and ends November 30. However, September to October is the period when tropical storms have generally affected Belize.  

Belize has very limited capabilities to respond adequately to the aftermath of a direct major hurricane hit. Although the National Emergency Management Office (NEMO) has analyzed Belize’s vulnerability to a hurricane, preparations in response to these reports remain inadequate. Hurricane shelters exist along the coast, but limited emergency food and water stockpiles would be quickly exhausted by the high number of potential victims of a serious storm. Waterways require frequent dredging, so flooding would be exacerbated.  

Belize has a rudimentary evacuation plan, but practical implementation would likely be difficult. In October 2010, Hurricane Richard slammed into the coast, resulting in power outages throughout 65 percent of the country, extensive flooding, and the blockage of major highways. The eye of the hurricane crossed as far inland as Belmopan, causing serious damage across the Cayo district. 

Minor earthquakes have occurred, typically in the southern part of Belize. The most recent severe earthquake was a 7.1 magnitude quake with an epicenter 140 miles off the coast of Belize and Honduras in May 2009. Electricity in the southern portion of the country was temporarily knocked out; however, damage was minimal, and there were no reported casualties. Minor after-shocks were felt for several weeks with minimal effect. 

Because Belize is tropical and has regular rainfall, clogged drainage and waterways, combined with urban growth, lead to frequent flooding of roadways, even during the “dry” season. Flooding has not been disastrous, but severe storms do cut off vehicular movement in many coastal and inland areas as the low bridges flood.

There is a significant risk of forest fires during the dry season, which typically last from April to May. 

Much of Belize is protected rainforest, and there is always the threat of attack by indigenous animals. In 2010, an American citizen and a Belizean were killed by jaguars in separate incidents.  

Belize offers a tremendous variety of ecotourism adventures, including diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, cave tubing, rapelling, bird watching, and exploring caves and Mayan ruins. These adventures are mostly “at your own risk” and can involve long hikes, climbs, and dive sites that are not within cell phone range. Personnel who engage in these activities are recommended to have portable first aid kits and satellite phones available. Diving and snorkeling are prime tourist attractions; however, there are significant safety concerns. Five U.S. citizens died while either diving or snorkeling in Belize in 2012. Inconsistent and overall lax safety standards may have been a factor in some of these deaths, along with older or inexperienced divers and poor weather conditions.

Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones

Travelers are advised to avoid areas of the south side of Belize City where numerous gangs are known to operate. The government has designated certain areas on the south side of Belize City as “crime ridden,” thereby enabling law enforcement and security authorities to conduct random searches without a warrant. 

Extreme caution should be exercised for personally-owned vehicle (POV) travel in and through Central American countries.

Drug-related Crimes

Across Belize in 2012, drug seizures were higher than 2011 with the exception of cocaine. Due to Belize’s location just south of Mexico and bordering Guatemala in the west and south, the transit of drugs, particularly concaine and precursor chemicals for methamphetamine, has risen. Belize was included on the 2011 and 2012 U.S. Majors List of illegal narcotic producing and/or transit countries.

In 2011, a plane carrying suspected violent drug smugglers crashed outside of Belmopan near the Belize Zoo. In 2012, there was a shoot-out between Belize security forces on the north part of Ambergris Caye that resulted in the deaths of four individuals dressed in military uniforms with military-style rifles, who had suspected ties to Central American gangs.

Police Response

The Belizean police work very closely with the Regional Security Office, but their ability to respond quickly to and prevent crime is severly challenged. The police force is understaffed and poorly equipped. There are shortages of standard law enforcement equipment, including vehicles, weapons, and handcuffs. Investigations are slow and limited by bureaucratic, administrative, and resource deficiencies. Senior police leadership have taken measures to address some of these deficiencies. The government takes crimes against visitors very seriously, but the deficiencies hamper the police’s ability to respond, investigate, and generate a successful prosecution of offenders. The police and emergency telephone lines are continually busy, and contacting police can be difficult. Response times from police are generally reported to be extremely slow. 

Due to significant resource donations provided by the U.S. government-administered Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the police are receiving more equipment and training that will allow them to better carry out their law enforcement responsibilities and citizen security.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

Reports of police harassment and extortion attempts of American tourists are rare. However, there have been recent complaints that Western tourists disembarking from cruises are offered drugs and then “set-up” for arrest and payment of a hefty fine. All U.S. citizens are advised that the purchase of drugs is against the law, and violators are subject to substantial penalties, including jail time. The U.S. Embassy Consular Cection should be contacted in the event of an arrest, medical emergency, death, crime, loss or theft of a U.S. passport, or other emergency.

Emergency assistance from the U.S. Embassy is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During regular business hours (Monday-Friday 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.), U.S. citizens with emergencies may appear for assistance in person at the Embassy Consular Section or may call 822-4011. If you are a U.S. citizen with an after-hours emergency, please call the duty officer at (501) 610-5030. If you are calling from the United States, you must first dial 011-501 and then the seven-digit number.  

Where to Turn for Assistance If You Become the Victim of Crime

If you are the victim of a crime, you should contact the local police first to obtain a police report and then the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan at (local) 822-4011. This includes the loss or theft of a U.S. passport. The Embassy’s consular staff can assist in finding appropriate medical care, contacting family members or friends, and explaining how U.S. funds may be transferred to Belize. 

The investigation and prosecution of local crimes are solely the responsibility of local Belize authorities; consular officers can assist with understanding the local criminal justice process and with finding a Belizean attorney if needed. The local equivalent to the “911” emergency line is 911 in Belize also. 

Various Police/Security Agencies

Belize Police Headquarters: Belize Police are headquartered out of Belmopan and can be contacted at 802-2221. Most police contact information can be found on the Belize Police Department webpage at http://www.police.gov.bz/index.php. 

National Crimes Branch (NCB): This unit, under the Commissioner of Police, is the lead investigative agency for serious crimes. NCB can be reached at 802-3818.

Belize City Police Station: Responsible for the Eastern District of Belize, including Belize City. Belize City Police can be reached at 227-2222.

San Pedro Substation: Responsible for San Pedro and can be reached at 702-0137.

Other police contact information:
Belize City: +501-207-2222 
Belmopan:               +501-802-2221
Benque Viejo:           +501-803-2038
Caye Caulker:             +501-226-0179
Corozal:               +501-402-2022
Dangriga:       +501-522-2022
Independence:   +501-523-2022
Orange Walk: +501-322-2022
Punta Gorda:     +501-722-2022
San Ignacio:       +501-804-2022 
San Pedro:     +501-206-2022

Medical Emergencies

There are nine hospitals in Belize. All medical clinics treat only outpatient cases and are not staffed to handle emergencies. Belize City is the center for medical care with the two major hospitals considered adequate by U.S. standards and equipped to handle serious medical problems. They are Belize Medical Associates and Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital. Medical facilities outside Belize City are not adequate to handle serious medical conditions, such as cardiac problems, and often fail to meet basic U.S. standards. Travelers should bring any legally-prescribed drugs that they may need. Additionally, there are reasonably well-stocked pharmacies in most major towns and tourist destinations, and prescriptions are not required.  

Contact Information for Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics
 
Belize Medical Associates 
5791 St. Thomas Street, Kings Park, Belize City
Tel # +501-223-0303
 
Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital
Princess Margaret Drive, Belize City
Tel # +501-223-1548

Regional Hospitals

Western Regional Hospital
Florina Avenue, Belmopan
#+501-822-2264

San Ignacio Hospital
Bullet Tree Rd, Cayo
#+501-824-2066

San Pedro Clinic
San Pedro, Belize
Tel#+501-226-2918

Punta Gorda Hospital
Punta Gorda, Belize
Tel#+501-722-2026

Orange Walk Hospital
Orange Walk, Belize
Tel#+501-322-1468

Recommended Air Ambulance Services

People with serious or life-threatening problems who need to be evacuated to the United States should contact Air Ambulance. Medical expenses in Belize can be costly. It is recommended to check with your insurance company to verify you have sufficient coverage before traveling to Belize.  
 
Air Ambulance Professionals
Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport
Hanger 36B, 1535 S. Perimeter Road
Ft. Lauderdale, FL  33309
Tel:  800-752-4195; 954-491-0555
Fax:  954-491-6114
www.airambulanceprof.com

For those traveling in the more remote areas or to the off-shore cayes, emergency transportation to adequate medical facilities may be problematic. Astrum Helicopters provides MEDEVAC flights in coordination with the Belize Emergency Response Team (BERT). For emergency response and transportation, BERT is Belize’s only qualified provider.

Astrum Helicopters
Mile 3.5 George Price Highway
Belize City, Belize
Office: +501-222-5100
Fax: +501-222-5105
www.astrumhelicopters.com

Belize Emergency Response Team (BERT)
P.O. Box 1370
1675 Sunrise Avenue
Coral Grove Area
Belize City, Belize
Tel: +501-223-3292
Cell: +501-610-3890
Fax: +501-223-0549
Email: info@bertbelize.org 

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
For additional health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/belize.htm.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Areas to be Avoided and Best Security Practices

Criminal acts, including extremely violent acts, can and do happen, to include Belize City and the tourist destinations, such as San Pedro and Caye Caulker. When these acts happen in some of the more remote areas, there is little protection or assistance available for the victims. Should you find yourself the victim of a robbery or other crime, only you can decide your course of action. However, material items can be replaced, and it is generally preferable that you comply with a robber’s instructions. It is always best to leave valuables and large amounts of cash locked in a secure location. Break-ins and vandalism of automobiles do occur. Do not leave items visible inside your parked car, and keep important items out of reach of outsiders while driving.  

While Belize is generally a friendly and accommodating society, females should be particularly attentive to risks associated with being in public alone or in the company of only one other female. Sexual harassment and sexual assaults against visitors have occurred.   

It is recommended that travel to the south side of Belize City be minimized to official business only and that personal trips be avoided.  

Visitors and residents should always be aware of the presence of criminals who prey on targets of opportunity. Visitors should practice sound personal security techniques. Move about in groups, stay in well-lit areas, avoid short-cuts and maintain good situational awareness. Keep a low profile, and avoid wearing expensive or flashy jewelry, especially when in open markets. Do not dress in a manner that displays or indicates wealth. 

Beware of pickpockets. Men should keep their wallet and cash in their front pants pocket. A woman's purse should be small and held closely in front of her. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash, and do not flash large amounts of money when paying a bill. Make sure your credit card is returned to you after each transaction.  

Although walking or exercising after dark has not been problematic, this practice is not recommended in Belize City, especially for women. Make a note of emergency telephone numbers and locations you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the U.S. Embassy. 

Keep your hotel door secured at all times. Meet visitors in the lobby. Do not leave money and other valuables in your hotel room while you are out. Use the hotel safe, if available. If you are out late at night, let someone know when you expect to return. If you are alone, do not get on an elevator if there is a suspicious-looking person inside. Read the fire safety instructions in your hotel room. Know how to report a fire, and be sure you know where the nearest fire exits and alternate exits are located. Count the doors between your room and the nearest exit; this could be a lifesaver if you have to crawl through a smoke-filled corridor. 

Do not accept rides in vehicles that are not authorized taxis (taxis have green license plates, but perhaps few other markings), and do not hail a taxi with more occupants than just the driver. Taxis should generally only be hailed from reputable establishments such as hotels and restaurants or a private residence. It is always preferable to travel with an acquaintance. Females (especially minors) are cautioned to avoid riding in taxis alone if possible, especially at night.

Prior to road travel, ensure that your vehicle is in good operating condition, paying particular attention to the engine, tires, brakes, head and tail lights, spare tire and jack, horn, and fluid levels. Particularly on trips to remote areas, try to travel in tandem with other vehicles, and advise someone of your travel plans, including anticipated arrival and departure times and contact numbers.

The following items are recommended for extended road trips:
 
Cellular telephone with charger (although some areas in Belize lack coverage)
A spare tire
Potable water
Non-perishable food items
First aid kit
Fire extinguisher
Emergency tool kit
Jumper cables
Compressed air tire pump
Flares/reflectors

If your tire is mounted on the outside of the vehicle, secure it in place with a chain and padlock or similar device. If this is not possible, remove the spare tire and leave it at home, reinstalling it only for extended trips outside the city. Replace one lug nut on each wheel with a specially-keyed bolt that locks or can only be removed with a special attachment to the tire iron.  

Parking on the street can rarely be avoided. If left overnight, ensure you park in an area that is well lit, with security guards (most hotels have security guards) and within view of the location of your visit. Use of a car alarm is a necessary precaution in deterring vehicle thefts and thefts of interior contents. Theft of small, easily pilfered items is a common crime, as is the theft of car sound systems. So keep your vehicle sterile, storing anything that would entice a thief out of plain view.

It is prudent to assume that safety procedures and requirements at tourist destinations are not up to U.S. standards, and careful consideration should be given prior to engaging in tourist activities.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy/Consulate Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Embassy Belmopan
4 Floral Park Road
Belmopan, Belize

The U.S. Embassy Belmopan is open for regular business Monday-Friday, 8:00 am-12:00 pm and 1:00 pm-5:00 pm. The Embassy is closed on American and Belizean holidays.

Mailing address:

U.S. Embassy Belmopan
P.O. Box 497
Belmopan, Belize

http://belize.usembassy.gov/
http://www.facebook.com/Belize.USEmbassy
http://travel.state.gov/
http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1055.html
http://www.osac.gov/
Regional Security Office BelmopanRSO@state.gov

Embassy/Consulate Contact Numbers 

(Belize Country Code: 501):
Main Embassy Number: 822-4011
Main Embassy Fax: 822-4012
Embassy Duty Officer: 610-5030
Regional Security Office: 822-4011 ext. 4105
Economic/Political Section: 822-4011 ext. 4197
Embassy Nurse: 822-4011 ext. 4286
American Citizen Services: 822-4011 ext. 4219/4209

Americans are encouraged to register with the American Citizens Service Office (http://belize.usembassy.gov/service.html) located in the Consular Section.

OSAC Country Council Information

Belize has an active OSAC Country Council. Interested parties can contact the Council through the Embassy’s Regional Security Office at +501-822-4011 ext 4105 or go to http://www.osac.gov/ and search for Belmopan.