On Travel, Safety, Tragedy, and Hysteria in Belize

Belize Flag
Ph: Will Phelps

A tragedy took place last week in Belize when a fly fishing guide and a U.S. angler were murdered on the water. Lives were lost in a horrific manner, and their friends and families will endure suffering and sorrow for the rest of their lives. In some ways, this should be the beginning and the end of the story; however, regretfully, many news outlets and even fly fishing websites have taken the opportunity to use this tragedy to attract clicks or sensationalize the event.

Among others, the NY Post (often known for the reckless manner in which they report news and currently leads their website with a feature story that has Che Guevara’s hat and hair Photoshopped onto Mayor De Blasio’s face) used histrionic language from a political opposition party leader in Belize as the foundational points to then exaggerate the reality on the ground. It was an effort to score political points. This type of behavior from some in the media and politicians have become too familiar in recent years. I live near San Francisco, and when a young woman was killed in a rare isolated incident on the wharf (a tourism attraction) in 2015, the tragic death and unusual murder was used distastefully by the media and politicians for months. Some politicians still name the victim to this day to score political points that can’t be made as easily without evoking emotion to garner support for a political cause.

The fact is, violent crime at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is rare. Likewise despite the use of hyperbolic language to describe life in Belize, anglers and many other tourists have enjoyed peaceful and crime-free trips to the country for decades. I have several friends who consider Belize their paradisaical home away from home.

Let’s look at the facts. Like any city or densely populated area, Belize is not crime free. There are areas of San Francisco I avoid, and there are areas that are ideal for showing guests, planning nice dinners, and having a night on the town. Sadly, rural towns in the U.S. are also suffering from crime in new ways due to drug crises. Tomorrow I will float a favorite river. I’m looking forward to showing off the area to my brother who just moved here from Washington, D.C. because he wants to enjoy California and the great city on the Bay. Yet, despite the day on the water in the foothills of the Sierras, I will be looking over my shoulder at the put-in and take-out because of the crime that has come with the opioid crisis. Sadly, this is just the way the world is now.

I grew up in D.C. in the 80s and 90s. For those old enough to remember, the city was a war zone in those days. To be honest, I was often scared. Yet, despite the fear, I knew in the back of my mind that I didn’t need to concern myself much with violent crime because I didn’t dabble in drugs or gangs or crime in general. In 1996, a child beauty queen in Boulder, Colorado was tragically murdered, and most reading this will be able to remember her name — 23 years later. I never knew the name of one single murdered child in my home city growing up, and the media didn’t care much either.

On June 23 in Chicago, four people were murdered. In the two days prior, an astonishing 25 people were killed. We should hear the names of all of those killed, but sometimes some murders stand out more than others. “Prominent Virginia Doctor Is Fatally Shot While Fly Fishing on Family Vacation in Belize” was the headline from People. What about the guide? Sadly, writers and reporters know how to attract readers, and this is why some deaths get more coverage than others.

Socioeconomic status should not determine how much press attention a tragedy should attract. Ignoring people of color or the poor or others who are murdered is an injustice. Likewise, using such tragedies to make suggestions about a country or its people is also wrong. This is especially the case when towns like San Pedro rely so heavily on tourism dollars. Presently there is no Global Rescue alert for Belize, and the State Department has Belize at the same advisory level as Italy. With going just about anywhere nowadays — from Belize to Omaha to a suburban public school — caution may be necessary at times, but fear isn’t.

Unfortunately in the case of this tragedy in Belize, the guide was an independent part-time guide who was connected to violent people who were involved with illegal activities. There was an attempt on this guide’s life the day before, and when the follow up attempt took place the next day, the U.S. angler was at the wrong place at the wrong time and was likely killed for being a witness.

Needless to say, this double murder was unusual, and this is in part the reason it has attracted so much attention. And in fact, the shooting was so unusual that the Belizean government took swift action and the alleged killer surrendered after an aggressive manhunt. Additionally, the police are planning to arrest many more. The killing has both shaken and surprised those who know and love the country. “In El Pescador’s 45-plus years of operation, we have never heard of or experienced anything like this,” stated Ali Gentry the owner of El Pescador Lodge. “This was a case of being with the wrong guide, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

For Jim Klug of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures and author of Fly Fishing Belize, this double murder should not characterize Belize, its standing as a tourist destination or the character of its people. “Violent crime against tourists in Belize is incredibly rare, and in general, Belizeans are incredibly warm and friendly people who welcome visitors to their country with open arms,” states Klug. “Each year, thousands of anglers visit the country to fish the productive flats for bonefish, permit, tarpon and snook.”

For Wil Flack of Tres Pescados and the Belize Permit Club, the tragedy is personal, and he hopes people can learn for themselves the kind and welcoming ways of the people of Belize. “Our heartfelt condolences go out to those affected by this senseless tragedy,” he states. “This is my home and I welcome everyone to come visit Belize and experience the hospitality of our nation.”

For the thousands of others who have visited Belize, they know what a special place this destination is and how much the country has to offer. Hearts go out to the victims.