The murder on January 14 of Chicago online news producer Anne Swaney, 39, in western Belize, has triggered a huge wave of concern, outrage and interest around the world, as well as here in Belize.
Swaney worked for ABC7 in Chicago and was a talented young woman with a most-promising life and career ahead of her. She was vacationing at Nabitunich Resort, an eco-resort just outside of Benque Viejo Town. The resort is not far from the very porous Guatemala border, on the Mopan River.
Early reports speculated that Swaney had been sexually assaulted but the recent autopsy report says this is not so.
Police know she had some sort of friendship with a staff member at the resort, formed during a previous visit. They have questioned the employee who last saw her alive. They know she gave up a spot on a trail ride because of a shortage of horses and instead walked down to a dock to practice yoga.
Her strangled body was found in the river a short distance down from the dock.
An illegal Guatemalan, 24 year-old Victor Manuel Franco Menjivar, was initially held for questioning as a suspect. He may have been just a victim of circumstance, having the bad luck to be fishing near the scene of the crime. Regardless, he paid a fine for illegal entry into the country and when his incarceration exceeded the 48-hour hold limit without being charged, he was driven to the border and released.
He is now back in his own country and unlikely to be found again.
Everyone remotely connected to Swaney has been DNA tested. That is something we haven’t heard being applied here before. This may be the result of the FBI entering the case, a mark of the measure of concern generated by the death of a high-profile media person.
Here in Belize, we were already reeling from the murder of popular Canadian filmmaker Matthiew Klinck, less than two weeks earlier. Klinck’s body was found outside his Selena Village house in Cayo District house, with stabbing and chop wounds. Two teenage boys were arrested and the motivation is said to be robbery. Klinck was popular here on Ambergris Caye where only a year ago he produced and directed a telenovela pilot, casting many locals.
Expats and visitors have been the victims of a number of well-publicized (here, at least) acts of violence recently.
On Jan. 13, four U.S. visitors were sleeping aboard their boat at anchor off Middle Long Caye (just south of Belize City) when four armed men in a skiff boarded and looted the boat of all valuables. Early reports say one woman was raped. Police say that was not correct. Still, add piracy to our modern day atrocities. Several arrests for possession of stolen property have been made and at least two young men are doing jail time.
In early December, US Coast Guard officer Jennifer Smith, 26, was stabbed during a robbery as she walked back to her beachside resort here in San Pedro Town. She was life-flighted back to the States in unstable condition. Today in a Virginia Coast Guard facility, she is paralyzed on her left side from the stomach down and faces a long road to recovery.
In late October, 2015, U.S. citizen Delbert Fenn, 50, was found stabbed to death in his condo here on Ambergris Caye. He was my neighbor, one building over. At one point it was reported that police were holding Fenn’s Belizean girlfriend and the father of her child, but the trail grows cold after that.
Fenn was a strange, unapproachable, guy to most of us. Speculation around here is that he knew his attackers, as is often the case.
In fact, a number of stories swirl around the murder of Fenn. Each one is different. In Belize there is a saying, “For every story, there are three stories.” Not surprising in a country where rumors are easier to come by than hard facts.
Most recently, two men with a gun entered a small cottage on Belize National Zoo property on the Mainland and robbed an elderly Canadian couple. They then stole a truck and shot the driver once. When the gun failed two more times, the driver pulled out a machete and chopped up the one with the gun. The wounded thief was arrested at the hospital in Belize City.
During January there were 12 murders in Belize. Make that 13, when you count the body of a young woman found yesterday on the mainland. She disappeared in January.
That is the second highest total of murders on record for the month of January, tied with January, 2013. Since 2000, there have been more than 1,500 murders in this little country with a population of 330,000-plus.
By comparison, Al Jazeera reports that Chicago police say 51 homicides were committed in the city in January 2016, compared with 29 in January 2015. The number of shooting incidents more than doubled, too, from 119 last January to 242 this year. Granted, the population of Chicago is huge compared to Belize but I’ll bet most of those homicides and shootings took place in an area not much larger than Belize.
Belize is among the most violent countries in the world according to several measurements and — contrarily — also among the most desirable places to vacation or retire for Americans and Canadians. Last year saw 1,299,000 overnight and cruise ship visitors in Belize, a new record. Despite the recent high profile tragedies, the tourism record is on a pace to be broken again in 2016.
A recent U.S. web story listed Belize as among the top 10 places to move to if Donald Trump is elected president. Not sure I understand the reasoning behind that one.
Despite these recent tragedies, tourists and expats are relatively safe here. The killings and violence among Belizeans, Guatemalans and Hondurans are far, far more far more frequent than those experienced by expats and visitors. The majority involved machetes, some knives, rarely guns. Most were Belizeans against Belizeans, in parts of the country where tourists and expats rarely visit or have no business being, like South Belize City.
On Jan. 18, one TV station’s headline screamed: “Machete Mayhem Across Belize.”
Said Commissioner of Police Allen Whylie on Jan. 18: “Despite our intervention efforts, our patrols countrywide, as I’ve said, we’ve had a total of ten incidents of murders committed across the country of Belize. One was committed in Belize City, one in the Rural Belize District, Hattieville to be precise. One occurred in the Selena Village, Spanish Lookout, Cayo District area. One occurred in Punta Gorda, two occurred in Belmopan involving taxi men. One also occurred in Benque Viejo. One occurred in Indian Church, Orange Walk District and one also occurred in Bella Vista Village, Stann Creek District. Of those ten incidents we have made arrests in two cases.”
You get a sense of the daunting responsibility for security that sometimes confronts policing in a still developing country.
Police are pretty quick to arrest persons of interest, even, suspects, as they did in Anne Swaney’s death. What happens after that is very hard to track. Cases grow quiet, some just grow cold. Then, suddenly, a year or two later we might read about a conviction in the newspaper. The police seem to resist being questioned about their work and the small, national — and generally partisan — press is hardly equipped to push hard for the latest news.
The death of Anne Swaney is changing that. For one, publicity in the States brought in the FBI to assist the national police. For another, the famously aggressively Chicago news media isn’t about to let this go.
On Feb. 5, ABC 7 in Chicago, Swaney’s employer, released a video shot by their investigative team in Belize. It was embarrassing. Virtually all of the information in the report was previously available on the internet. Still, every such report puts pressures on the local law enforcement and the very powerful Belize Tourism Board, which exerts its own pressure on the conduct of the nation. WLS-TV (ABC7) has written at least a helf-dozen stories and as many video reports on the murder of Swaney. I can only hope they keep on writing and perhaps come back for a real hard-core investigative news story.
So, the famously short life cycle for local news reporting on murder gets extended, even though there is little new to report.
On Jan. 23, the national newspaper Amandala reported that as a result of FBI interviews an employee is being looked at as “a person of interest.” Even though a national police spokesman awkwardly questioned whether the FBI was never formally invited to participate in the investigation. There were pictures posted in the news of FBI agents with police in the field.
Last week the autopsy was released and said what was already known, Anne Swaney was strangled.
The last real news report on her death, that I can find, was on January 29. Unless there is a DNA-related breakthrough, chances of finding her killer seem tragically slim.
The again, Belize is full of surprises.
More than one year ago, another neighboring expat couple was brutally attacked in their condo by a young man who had long been regarded as violent and unstable by the community. My neighbors felt certain he came to kill them, not rob them. There was a long and sometimes frustrating judicial path that has led to his incarceration for 15 years. He awaits trial on several other charges of violent assault.
It helped that the young man lost two fingers in this attack when a neighbor bravely came to the rescue. The evidence (fingerprints at the scene of the crime, you know) was overwhelming.
I haven’t even addressed the recurring gang and drug wars that pop up here on the island and more frequently in Belize City. The US essentially introduced gangs to Belize when they deported Belizeans with ties to gangs like the Crips and Bloods. Soon after, chapters sprang up here, as well as other neighborhood gangs.
Cable TV’s introduction and the glorification of thug life on channels like MTV have a marked impact on the gang culture. Some young Belizeans are indistinguishable from their US street gang counterparts in dress and culture.
Drug wars ebb and flow here. When they reach a certain public level — the shooting of a cabbie in front of Maya Air terminal in front of tourists, the murder of a child in a house straffing — the full force of the national police comes down on the island. Arrests are made. Guns, bullets and drugs are found on vacant lots. And then all grows quiet.
These tragic dramas rarely unfold in the areas frequented by tourists, at least on Ambergris Caye. Although lately purse and backpack snatch-and-runs are on the rise. That seems to occur most often during High Season every year.
After the murder of Anne Swaney, one expat on a local forum demanded that expats and tourists be allowed to carry weapons for their personal protection. As expected, it was met with a mix of condemnation and support. The same people who think more guns is the answer in the States have a proportional representation down here.
Curiously, they didn’t call for Belizeans to be allowed to be similarly armed, although most acts of violence befall the local population. A bit of cultural myopia at play there?
Belize has far stricter laws on gun ownership than the States. Even bullets must be registered and residents need a real and legitimate reason to own a registered gun.
Recently I have been making regular visits to the local PolyClinic for bandage changes from surgery. The clinic dresses wounds every day from 7 to 11 a.m. One of my companions has been a gentle man whose body is covered with stitched scars and an arm that remains bandaged. He was attacked one night by a violent crack addict, well-known to his neighborhood. He insists the attack was unprovoked. Regardless, the crack-head got the worst of it and died of his own wounds in Belize City.
I don’t know why I bring this up. I guess you need to understand that when you come to Belize you must embrace not only its breathtaking beauty and friendliness but also its sometimes dangerous imperfections.
People who can’t juggle contradictory ideas in their head don’t make it here.
I have a gorgeous view of the Caribbean Sea and the Barrier Reef from my bed. I also have a sharpened machete beside it. It is there. I don’t dwell on it and I pray that I will never need to use it. But it is there, just like this incredible scenery.
So, come to Belize. Be smart about it, be aware of where you are at all times, travel in groups, and leave the risky behavior at home. Most of all, know that your chances of tragic encounters like those that befell the blameless — like Anne Swaney, Jennifer Smith and Mathiew Klinck — are still mostly rare.
That’s all the reassurance I can offer you now. I do not regret moving to Belize nor do I fear this country. It has so much more good to offer those who move here or visit.
No regrets. Lots of love, Belize.