Belize 2017 Crime & Safety Report - 04/11/17 11:38 AM
Published by the US State Department
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy Belmopan does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED BELMOPAN AS BEING A HIGH-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Please review OSAC’s Belize-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.
Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is the only English speaking country in Central America and is located south of Mexico and east/north of Guatemala on the Caribbean Sea. Approximately 25-30% of the population lives in Belize City, and nearly 50% are located in rural communities. Tourism is a major part of the economy, with high season running November-April. Over 1.8 million tourists visited Belize in 2016. Favorite destinations include the cayes (islands) off the eastern coast, including Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, and the coastal areas of Placencia and Hopkins in the south.
There is no indication that foreigners are broadly targeted, although tourists can be easy targets when not displaying situational awareness. Over the past several years, there has been a shift in major crimes from being concentrated mostly in the population center in Belize City to districts in the north, west and south of Belize. Murder, sexual assault, and robberies have occurred in tourist areas in recent years and visitors should remain vigilant. Criminal acts, including extremely violent acts, can and do happen in all areas of Belize, to include Belize City and the tourist destinations (San Pedro, Caye Caulker). It is generally preferable that you comply with a robber’s instructions. Break-ins and vandalism of automobiles do occur.
Pickpocketing, burglary, and hotel room theft are the most common types of non-violent crimes committed against U.S. citizens; they occur throughout Belize, and they have increased in recent years. Non-confrontational petty thieves are particularly active in tourist areas and on public transportation. Stay alert to pickpockets when in crowds and when taking public transportation, and be conscious of distractions created to target tourists. Make use of hotel safes when available.
Violent crime has remained low in the tourist areas, though reports of theft are on the rise and some notable murders have occurred, including the widely-publicized murder of a U.S. citizen in the Cayo District of western Belize in 2016.
Corruption, human smuggling/trafficking, the drug trade, money laundering (institutional and trade-based), and organized gang activity remain significant criminal problems exacerbated by the low conviction rate. Criminal organizations and individuals often operate beyond the ability of the police to effectively disrupt them.
There is some evidence to suggest that Salvadoran and Guatemalan-based transnational criminal organizations provide logistical support to international drug and human trafficking organizations and utilize Belize as a transit country along smuggling routes. Gang tags from 18th Street (Barrio 18) and MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) have been reported; although there is no indication that formal gang cliques have been established in Belize.
Due to the small population and high murder rate per capita, Belize consistently ranks among the top 10 cities in the world for homicides, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The average runs just under 40 homicides per 100,000 residents. The murder rate in 2016, the second highest ever recorded, surpassed that of 2015 from 119 to 138. The increase from 119 murders in 2016 is likely due to an increase in shootings and burglaries and potentially from the displacement of crime from the central hub of local gang activity in south Belize City. Many of the Western expatriates were killed in rural areas of Belize, to include Cayo and San Pedro, in 2015 and 2016. As a result, particular caution and situational awareness should be exercised when living in smaller communities. Domestic violence crimes are extremely high and account for a significant portion of the total murder rate. Five out of six districts experienced an increase in murders in 2016:
The Belize District, which includes Belize City, continues to have the highest number of murders due in large part to dozens of street gangs that operate in the city. Belmopan, the tiny capital with a population of approximately 16,000 residents and home to several diplomatic missions, including the U.S. Embassy, recorded 13 murders in 2016.
Sexual harassment and sexual assaults against visitors have occurred.
Belize is a source, transit, and destination country for those subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. No human trafficking cases were prosecuted in 2016. Cases from previous years remain pending and limited resources are available to victims.
Cases of fraud related to credit/debit cards are reported in areas frequented by tourists, particularly in Belize City and San Pedro. Skimming, the theft of credit card information during an otherwise legitimate transaction, is most likely to occur in restaurants, bars, and hotels when the victim's card is out of view. Visitors should keep possession of cards and monitor bank accounts and credit card statements closely. Make sure your credit card is returned to you after each transaction.
Other Areas of Concern
It is recommended that travel to the south side of Belize City be minimized to official business only and that personal trips be avoided due to numerous gangs that operate there. The Belizean government has designated certain areas as crime-ridden, thereby enabling law enforcement and security authorities to conduct random searches without a warrant.
Individuals wishing to travel via personally-owned vehicles through the interior of Mexico and other Central American countries should exercise caution and seek country specific information.
Several tourist areas along the western border with Guatemala have active military patrols due to several border incidents that are reported each year. Some excursions require a military patrol to view ruins on the western border with Guatemala.
Ecotourism adventures and attractions -- diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, cave tubing, rappelling, bird watching, and exploring caves and Mayan ruins -- remain relatively safe. Diving and snorkeling are prime tourist attractions; however, there are significant safety concerns for tourists who engage in these activities. While engaging in diving, snorkeling, cave tubing etc., it is prudent to assume that safety procedures and standards are not up to U.S. standards, and careful consideration should be given prior to engaging in “at your own risk” activities that can involve long hikes, climbs, and dive sites that are not within cell phone range. It is recommended to have portable first aid kits and satellite phones available. U.S. citizens have died while diving or snorkeling in 2016. Inconsistent and overall lax safety standards may have been a factor in some of these deaths, along with age, swimming capability, inexperience of the divers, and/or poor weather conditions.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Road conditions are improving but are still characterized as very poor. The road systems range from short stretches of newly paved roads in Belize City to decades-old pavement on the major highways that run north-south and east-west. Roads in rural areas/villages are typically dirt or loose gravel and in poor condition. 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. The combination of inconsistent paving and slick roadways due to rain have been contributing factors in several fatal accidents. Traffic fatalities remain an urgent, very real danger.
The major highways are the only reliable avenues to transit the country, aside from airplanes operated by two Belizean commercial carriers. Pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, and buses utilize the same roads. Stray dogs also wander freely in close proximity to the many small villages that dot the major highways.
Driving can be extremely hazardous after dusk and during the rains.
Defensive driving is critical to navigate the road systems. Local drivers may use turn signals to signify different vehicle movements. For example, a left-hand turn signal i 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 ensure an appropriate reactionary gap.
Due to the absence of stoplights and vehicular police patrols, speed bumps control speeds, especially in/around small villages, schools, and population centers. Speed bumps can be a significant hazard as they tend to be very large. Drivers should always be aware of them, especially during dusk, dawn, and night driving, as vehicles may slam on their brakes to avoid hitting an unmarked bump. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”
If your tire is mounted outside, secure it with a chain/padlock or similar device, or remove the spare tire, 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.
Street parking can rarely be avoided. If left overnight, ensure you park in an area that is illuminated, with security guards (most hotels have security guards), and within view of your destination. Use of a car alarm is a necessary precaution in deterring vehicle thefts and thefts of interior contents. Theft of easily pilfered items and sound systems is a common crime.
Buses and cars often do not yield to pedestrians. Walking or exercising after dark is not recommended, especially for women. Make a note of emergency telephone numbers and locations you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the U.S. Embassy.
The police regularly operate checkpoints, especially in/around Belize City, Belmopan, and occasionally along the major highways leading west and south. The police may ask for a form of identification, and vehicles are expected to stop at these checkpoints and fully cooperate. There have been few reports of false checkpoints or extortion.
Public Transportation Conditions
Taxi stands and plazas are located throughout major cities and villages. Taxis can be identified by green license plates. Taxis should generally only be hailed from reputable establishments. Make it clear to the driver that you do not wish to pick up additional passengers.
Buses often operate under poor conditions and lack adequate maintenance. Bus drivers often exceed the speed limits, pull over suddenly/without warning for passengers, and pass where it is unsafe.
Water taxis are an inexpensive and reliable method to travel from Belize City to the cayes (Caye Caulker, San Pedro). Water taxis are generally safe, but caution should be exercised while using them. Travelers should ensure that there are adequate life vests on board.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED BELMOPAN AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
The Worldwide Caution highlights information on the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests. Current information suggests that terrorist groups continue to plan attacks in multiple regions. Recent terrorist attacks serve as a reminder that U.S. citizens need to maintain a high level of vigilance and take steps to increase their security awareness.
- 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 easily from Belize to Mexico.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED BELMOPAN AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Political violence is rare. Lawful protests/demonstrations do occur but are generally peaceful and orderly. The Belizean government requires a permit that must be requested at least 24 hours prior to a planned protest. Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can escalate into violence. Areas of demonstrations should be avoided, and exercise caution if in the vicinity of any large gatherings, protests, or demonstrations.
The most frequent natural disasters to affect Belize are hurricanes and tropical storms. Hurricane season in the western Caribbean is June 1-November 30; however, September-October is when tropical storms have generally affected Belize.
- In 2016, Belize suffered a direct hit by Category 1 Hurricane Earl, resulting in power outages throughout 65% of the country, extensive flooding, and the blockage of major highways. The eye of the hurricane crossed Belmopan, causing serious damage across the Cayo district.
The National Emergency Management Office (NEMO) has analyzed Belize’s vulnerability to hurricanes and has established an evacuation plan, although response capabilities would be limited even for a Category 1 storm. Hurricane shelters exist along the coast, but emergency food/water stockpiles would be exhausted quickly by the high number of potential victims. Waterways require frequent dredging, so flooding would be exacerbated.
Because Belize is tropical and has regular rainfall, clogged drainage and waterways often lead to flooding of roadways, even during the dry season. 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 (December-May).
Much of Belize is protected rainforest, and there is the threat of attack by indigenous animals. Rivers contain crocodiles, and isolated attacks have been reported.
- In 2010, an American citizen and a Belizean were killed by jaguars in separate incidents.
Minor earthquakes have occurred, typically in the southern part of the country, most recently a 7.1 in May 2009.
There have been numerous reports of fraud committed against expatriates and Belizeans who have attempted to purchase land in Belize. Corrupt officials have reportedly been involved in fraudulently facilitating land title transfers. Consult with a reputable Belizean attorney when purchasing property. Many expatriates have reported being the victim of scams in which land is purchased that was not available, was legally owned by other parties, or was subsequently sold without their knowledge. Despite media coverage implicating high level complicity in land fraud, the government of Belize has only recently renewed efforts to address property disputes by converting physical records to electronic records.
Several high-profile investigations have been reported linking Belizean Ministerial-level and immigration department officials in the alleged sale of illegal Belizean identity documents (passports).
Personal Identity Concerns
While Belize is generally a friendly, accommodating society, females should be particularly attentive to risks associated with being in public alone or in the company of only one other female.
There is significant hostile sentiment toward individuals who identify themselves as LGBT. LGBT issues are frequently highlighted in the press and can spur passionate discussions at community forums. There have been instances of violence reported against LGBT individuals.
- One case involved the murder of a transgender person in Belize City in January 2014. Authorities are still investigating whether the person was murdered because of his sexual orientation or as a result of a robbery.
Due to Belize’s location just south of Mexico and bordering Guatemala in the west and south, the transit of drugs (cocaine, precursor chemicals for methamphetamine) has risen. Belize has been included on the U.S. Majors List of illegal narcotic producing/transit countries.
- In 2015, U.S. Embassy Belmopan issued a Security Message to U.S. Citizens to avoid the Roaring Creek, Camalote, and Teakettle Corridor due to an uptick in violent crime believed to stem from a dispute over local narcotic distribution networks in the area.
Marijuana/Cannabis in any forms are not permitted, and importation is a violation of Belizean law. 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.
While kidnapping is rare in Belize:
- In 2016, one U.S. citizen and a number of Canadian nationals were reportedly kidnapped and extorted by threat of kidnapping in the western portion of Belize.
- In January 2014, two U.S. citizens were kidnapped at gunpoint from a tourist lodge near the western border with Guatemala.
The American citizens in these instances were released unharmed within a few hours.
The police have limited funding and limited resources, and as a result of physical distance and perceived corruption, they do not enjoy the full confidence and cooperation of the general population. Crime is likely under reported and often resolved by confrontation due to absence of an immediate police response. Investigative units generally have the will to respond; however, availability of transportation and lack of professional training in investigative techniques remain obstacles. Equipment shortages (radios, vehicles) limit their ability to deter or respond to crimes expeditiously. Other impediments to effective law enforcement are unsupportive laws, general distrust, and the limited cooperation between the police, prosecutors, and corrections.
Although the government of Belize takes crimes against visitors very seriously, limitations seriously hamper the police’s ability to respond, investigate, and prosecute offenders. The conviction rate remains extremely low. Response times from police are generally slow. When criminal acts happen in some of the more remote areas, there is little protection or assistance available for the victims. Senior police leadership have taken measures to address some of these issues.
All people traveling in Belize are subject to Belizean laws. Drug and firearm offenses come with strict penalties and can result in lengthy jail sentences.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
Reports of police harassment and extortion attempts of American tourists are rare but do occur and should be reported.
- In 2016, Western tourists reported being offered drugs and were then “set-up” for arrest and payment of a cash fine.
Emergency assistance for U.S. citizens is available from the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. Embassy Consular Section should be contacted in the event of an arrest, medical emergency, death, crime, loss or theft of a U.S. passport, or other emergency. 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 visit 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 U.S., you must first dial 011-501 and then the seven-digit number.
Crime Victim Assistance
If you are the victim of a crime, you should contact the local police first to obtain a Belize police report (tel: 911 or +501-822-2222) and the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan at +501-822-4011. The police and emergency telephone lines are continually busy, and contacting police can be difficult. U.S. citizens in 2016 reported difficulties in receiving police reports due to a lengthy and time consuming reporting structure, which may contribute to under reporting of thefts in tourist areas.
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.
Belize Police Headquarters: Belize Police are headquartered in Belmopan and can be contacted at +501-802-2221. Most police contact information can be found on the Belize Police Department webpage.
National Crimes Investigations Branch (NCIB): This unit, under the Commissioner of Police, is the lead investigative agency for serious crimes. NCIB can be reached at +501-802-3818.
Belize City Police Station: Responsible for the Eastern District of Belize, including Belize City, and can be reached at +501-227-2222.
San Pedro Substation: Responsible for San Pedro and can be reached at 702-0137.
Belize City: +501-207-2222
Benque Viejo: +501-803-2038
Caye Caulker: +501-226-0179
Orange Walk: +501-322-2022
Punta Gorda: +501-722-2022
San Ignacio: +501-804-2022
San Pedro: +501-206-2022
Medical care in Belize can be costly and inadequate by U.S. standards. There are nine hospitals and numerous medical clinics throughout Belize. While certain hospitals are equipped to treat certain medical emergencies, clinics treat only outpatient cases and are not staffed to handle emergencies. Belize City is the center for medical care in Belize with three major hospitals considered adequate by U.S. standards and equipped to handle serious medical problems: Belize Medical Associates, Belize Health Care Partners, and Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital. Medical facilities outside Belize City are not adequate to handle serious medical conditions and often fail to meet basic U.S. standards.
Travelers should be prepared with their legally-prescribed drugs that they may need during their visit and take caution to ensure that those medications are legally permitted to enter Belize before travel. There are reasonably well-stocked pharmacies in most major towns and tourist destinations, and prescriptions are usually not required .Travelers should use caution as counterfeit medication is found throughout Belize. For more information, please refer to OSAC’s Report, “Traveling with Medications.”
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
Available Air Ambulance Services
Those who experience serious or life-threatening medical problems and require evacuation to the U.S. may require an air ambulance service. It is recommended to check with your insurance company to verify you have sufficient coverage before traveling. If an air ambulance is required, the Embassy provides a servicing Belize.
For those traveling in the more remote areas of Belize 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.
Mile 3.5 George Price Highway
Belize City, Belize
Belize Emergency Response Team (BERT)
P.O. Box 1370
1675 Sunrise Avenue
Coral Grove Area
Belize City, Belize
Email: [email protected]
Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
The Zika virus was identified in Belize in August 2016.
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Belize.
OSAC Country Council Information
There is currently no active Country Council in Belmopan. Please contact OSAC’s Western Hemisphere team if you are interested in private-sector engagement in Belmopan or have questions about OSAC’s Country Council programs.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
U.S. Embassy Belmopan
4 Floral Park Road
U.S. Embassy Belmopan
P.O. Box 497
Hours of Operation: Mon-Fri, 0800-1200 and 1300-1700; closed on American and Belizean holidays.
Embassy Contact Numbers
If you are calling from the U.S., you must first dial 011-501 and then the seven-digit number.
Embassy Phone Numbers (Belize Country Code: +501):
Main Embassy Number: +501-822-4011
Main Embassy Fax: +501-822-4012
Embassy Duty Officer: +501-610-5030
If you are a U.S. citizen with an after-hours emergency, please call the duty officer.
Regional Security Office: +501-822-4011 ext. 4105 or [email protected]
American Citizen Services: +501-822-4011 ext. 4219/4209
Americans are encouraged to register with the American Citizens Service Office located in the Consular Section.
Belize Country Information Sheet