Updated 14 February 2014
The following is not intended to scare away visitors or potential investors. Rather, it is intended to give you a realistic picture of what you should look out for in terms of personal safety when traveling to Belize. We offer the following extracts from the U.S. and British embassies Travel Advisories as of January 2014 and their perspective on travel here. We include updates, corrections and new information from our own research and data supplied by residents and expats from our private mailing list.
For more detailed information on Belize as a country, you may want to check our our Belize Country Profile.
Belize Blacklisted By U.S. Government
Belize has regretfully joined the rest of Central America by being categorized as a major transit route for drug smugglers. From the press reports 16 September 2011:
” US President Barack Obama has added Belize and El Salvador to a blacklist of countries considered major producers or transit routes for illegal drugs. The blacklisting came on the day El Salvador celebrates independence from Spain and days before Belize also observes its Independence Day. Officials said cartels were using the two Central American nations as routes for smuggling cocaine from South America north to Mexico and the US. In total, 22 countries were included on the drugs blacklist. Three were deemed to have “failed demonstrably” in the fight against drugs – Burma, Bolivia and Venezuela. Correspondents say the inclusion of Belize and El Salvador on the list reflects the growing influence of Mexico’s powerful drugs cartels. The other Central American countries – Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – were already on the blacklist, as were Mexico and major cocaine producers Colombia and Peru.”
Belize Rated As A Violent Country
In November 2011 a press report by Channel 5 Television in Belize reported:
A new report placed Belize among the fourteen most violent countries in the world. “Armed Violence and Development” published in Geneva by the Secretariat from the Geneva Declaration, says six of the fourteen most violent countries are also in this hemisphere. To put it in perspective, the most violent countries are our neighbors to the south: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with whom we share borders.
The two others, Colombia and Venezuela, are only slightly south of us. Organized armed groups linked to drug trafficking are the source of the violence among the countries, which the Geneva report points out, are not at war. Among the six, El Salvador stands out as the most violent and between 2004-2009, the number of persons killed in violent circumstances was the highest in that country. The eight other countries cited are Iraq, Jamaica, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Lesotho, Centro African Republic, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In October, Restore Belize’s Nelma Mortis first revealed that Belize was ranked the sixth most violent country in the world.
Criminal Gangs In Belize And Their Impact On The Population
In July 2012 the former Attorney General of Belize Mr. Godfrey Smith summed up the gang situation in Belize in a compelling report on his blog:
“Belize, a nation of 330,000 people, is the fifth most murderous in the world with a murder conviction rate of only 10%. There are at least ten active Southside gangs and four dormant Northside ones; those with the highest membership are the Peace in the Village, George Street, South Side, Jane Usher Boulevard and the Kraal Road gangs. It is estimated that about 95% of all murders in Belize City are gang-related. The gangs’ primary activity is the sale of drugs, and murders result from fighting over drug turf. Lately (and alarmingly), they have started to recruit minors and have introduced the use of high powered weapons and grenades into their turf wars.
“The awful by-products of gang activity include: the recruitment of gang members at a cheap price by “regular” citizens to settle vendettas, via assassination, among each other; the killing of innocent children and bystanders caught in a cross-fire or drive-by shootings; the lobbing of grenades at public gatherings; the wanton shooting of innocent civilians by minors simply to get street “creds”; the robbing and murdering of small businessmen (largely Chinese merchants) and the rise of boldfaced home invasions.”
The area if Belize with the most visible and shocking crime statistics is in Belize City. There is increasing evidence of heightened gang activity, and the increasing suspicion of state sponsored executions. January 2013 was the single most bloody month, with 8 murders in 8 days – the George Street Massacre.
But crime is spreading to other areas of the country in a “balloon effect” – as cops mount pressure on crime in Belize city, it balloons out in areas not previously known for violent crime.
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
Crime has been on the rise in Belize for the past several years. Belize remains a high-crime country due largely to the extremely high murder rate per capita. Belize is officially the sixth most dangerous country in the world with an average of just over 39 homicides per 100,000 residents. Belize has the second highest murder rate in the Caribbean, the third in Central America, and the fifth in the Americas. Belize set new national records for murders in 2009 and 2010. The murder rate continued unabated in 2012, but has declined in 2013.
Gang violence, still largely confined to Belize City, is a significant contributor to the high murder rate. There were 125 murders recorded for 2011, four less than 2010, likely due to the gang truce in Belize City that began in September 2011. However, even though the number of murders dipped, ending a three-year trend of new records for murders, the murder rate actually increased slightly, due to a slight decrease in the population.
In 2011, Belize experienced the spread of violent crime to the north and west of the country. Previously, the majority of violent crime largely occurred in the poor and violent southwest of Belize City. The remainder of the country had remained generally immune to the shocking levels of crime confined to the geographically tiny community in Belize City. The spread of violent crime to the north and west has been a significant development. There were 14 murders reported in the north in Orange Walk and 17 murders reported in Belmopan, San Ignacio, and Benque in the west. Several murders have been linked to home invasions, which are a permanent fixture of criminal life in Belize. An American businessman, Lawrence Johnson, was brutally murdered in Cayo in November 2011 during a home invasion.
Belize has also become the popular destination of choice for fugitives fleeing the criminal justice system in the United States. In 2011, 14 fugitives were located, arrested, and expelled to the United States by the Regional Security Office in joint operations with the Special Branch of the Belize Police Department.
Belize offers an immense variety of tourist destinations, many of which are located in remote parts of the country. The easy pace found in Belize can lull one into forgetting that criminals will work wherever and whenever it is to their advantage. 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 quickly involve the innocent tourist. It is prudent to assume that safety procedures and requirements at tourist destinations are not up to U.S. standards and careful consideration given prior to engaging in the activity.
Safety: Road conditions and road hazards
Road conditions are average to poor. The primary highways ) Northern, Western, Southern, and Hummingbird Highways are in generally good condition once away from Belize City. Close to Belize City the road conditions are very poor. There are no lighted highways, no shoulder (O.K. this is a stretch – some roads do have shoulders – it is often difficult to discern which ones have it or not), and driving can be dangerous, and like any country, especially after dusk and during rain showers.
The very bad state of roads in Belize result in frequent Road Traffic Accidents (RTAs).
Hazards are many and frequent as pedestrians, bicycles, and animals use the highways for traffic, and stopped or unlit vehicles create a very real hazard. Heavy trucks and buses make frequent and unexpected stops along the highway and poor driving practices, to include vehicles passing on curves, blind spots and hills contribute to a high vehicular accident rate.
Natural and Environmental disasters such as storms, earthquakes and floods
The most likely and most feared natural disaster – but the most easily avoidable as there are several days advance warning – is a hurricane. Between the months of June and November, it is hurricane season in the Western Caribbean and the Southern and Eastern United States, with the September and October period as the most likely time for tropical storms and hurricanes. Belize has excellent capabilities to warn and respond to such potential disasters, having the only Doppler Radar system on the Central America Atlantic seaboard (operational 2011). In Fact the U.S. National Hurricane Center depends on Belize Doppler Radar to feed into its hurricane analysis and progressions reports. Hurricane shelters exist along the coast line, but food and water supplies are either non-existent or inadequate. Waterways require dredging, so flooding will be exacerbated. Belize has excellent evacuation planning under the authority of the National Emergency Management Organization.
In 1961, damage from the Category 5 Hurricane Hattie precipitated the move inland of Belize’s capital from vulnerable Belize City to Belmopan. The continuous threat of tropical storms and hurricanes, coupled with a decrepit and termite infested wooden building were prime reasons for the move of the U.S. Embassy into a new bunker-like facility to the City Of Belmopan in November 2006.
While 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. The rainy season typically lasts from June to November and heavy rains can cause flooding at any time during this period. Hurricanes and tropical depressions can and do cause severe flooding throughout Belize. In June 2008, Tropical Depression Arthur caused severe flooding resulting in 10 deaths, total destruction to the Kendall Bridge in the Stann Creek District, and effectively severing access to southern portions of the country.
A new Kendall Bridge, manufactured in the U.K. and erected by Cisco Construction, is now in place and open to the public as of November 2012. The new bridge is a modern, two lane, single span bridge, 30 feet higher than the previous bridge and designed to withstand major flooding.
Two category 5 hurricanes ) Felix (September 2007) and Dean (August 2007) ) caused extensive damage throughout the entire country, although a greater humanitarian disaster was averted as Belize City was spared from a direct hit.
These storms have at times lead to botched but humorous offers of international assistance. After the Kendall Bridge in southern Belize was swept away by floods during Tropical Storm Arthur in 2008, the U.S. government pledged immediate assistance to replace the bridge. And they did. Except the bridge that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shipped in on short order was too short and had to be discarded. Belize later borrowed funds from the Caribbean Development Bank and the new bridge, was manufactured in the U.K. and shipped to Belize two years later.
Minor earthquakes have occurred in Belize, notably in Southern and Western areas of the country. These quakes have led to the destruction of poorly constructed buildings, the collapse of water towers, foundation cracks on otherwise well constructed properties, in a few case the appearance of small sinkholes. There is no record of a severe earthquake in modern times. There are no active volcanoes in Belize. There is a risk for forest fires at the end of the dry season, Typically around April and May.
During the most recent tropical storm, Harvey in 2011, at least two waterspouts formed inland in Northern and Central Belize leading to the destruction of crops and at least a dozen homes. These phenomena were at first believed to be spin-off tornadoes or twisters, but following analysis by Belize weather experts were classified as water spouts.
Belize Police Response
While the Belize Police Department remains supportive and responsive to requests for security assistance and investigations, their ability to respond and deter crimes is very limited. Unfortunately chronic staffing, equipment and administrative deficiencies undermine the ability of BPD to quickly respond and provide a comprehensive investigation. For example issues such as vehicle shortages or continuously busy general police and emergency telephone lines, make even the timely resolution of routine issues problematic.
Where to turn for assistance if you become a victim of a crime
Belize City Police Department tel: 227-2222, San Pedro Police Station tel: 226-2022, San Ignacio Police Station tel: 824-2022, Punta Gorda Police Station tel: 722-2022, Orange Walk Police Station tel: 223-2022, Independence Police Station tel: 523-2022, Dangriga Police Station tel: 522-2022, Corozal Police Station tel: 422-2022, Caye Caulker Police Station tel: 226-2022, Benque Viejo Police Station tel: 823-2038, City Of Belmopan Police Station tel: 822-2222
Medical Emergencies In Belize
There are 10 hospitals in Belize. All medical clinics see only outpatient cases and are not staffed to handle emergencies. Therefore there are no organized medical “clinics” within Belize. Belize City is the center for medical care in Belize. The three major hospitals equipped to handle serious medical problems are located in Belize City: Belize Medical Associates, Belize Health Care Partners and Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in Belize City. Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital is adequate for many serious problems. Medical facilities outside Belize City, even in the City Of Belmopan, are not adequate to handle serious medical conditions, such as cardiac problems, and often fail to meet basic standards.
Belize Medical Associates (5791 St. Thomas Street, Kings Park, Belize City, tel. 223-0303)
Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, Princess Margaret Dr., Belize City, tel. 223-1548)
Belize Health Care Partners, corner Chancellor and Blue Marlin Drive, Belize City, tel 223-7873
Belize Emergency Response Team – BERT (certified ambulance and tourist evacuation service), 1675 Coral Grove, Belize City tel 223-3292
Clinica Carranza, Chetumal City, Quintana Roo, Mexico – Av. Venustiano Carranza, No. 366. Col. Italia. C.P. 77035. Tel. (983) 83 514 40 (tertiary care medical center across the border in the City of Chetumal used by Belizeans and expats especially in northern Belize).
Personal Safety In Belize
Areas To Avoid
Almost half the murders in Belize in 2008 occurred in Belize City, with the overwhelming majority of those occurring in the south/west side of Belize City. Overall, crime in Belize City is at a substantially higher rate than the rest of the country. The city itself is relatively small and neighborhoods of different qualities are close to each other without the buffer zones typically found in larger cities that might separate higher crime areas from others. Generally speaking, it is strongly recommended that the area of Belize City south/west of the Belize River should not be visited, particularly at night or while alone.
Best Security Practices – Personal Security
Maintain a low profile – Do not advertise the fact that you are North American or a tourist. Dress casually, keep valuables out of sight, and do not draw attention to yourself with your actions.
Vary your routine. Be unpredictable in your movements; vary your routes from home to the office as well as your departure and arrival times.
Be alert to possible surveillance. Note any individual who appears out of place along your routes to regularly scheduled activities, such as going from home to office.
Be alert to your surroundings. Minimize valuables and do not carry large sums of money. Be aware of potential scams and robbery tactics used to distract your attention.
Avoid wearing jewelry and carry a clutch purse or a neck purse instead of a shoulder bag. Carry a wallet in the front trouser pocket or front jacket pocket.
Never leave shopping bags or merchandise unattended. When hiring domestic help, thoroughly vet their references to the greatest extent that you can.
Require a Police Record of Good Conduct (also known as a Police Record of No Criminal Convictions) issued within the past six months. Ensure that your employees are trained not to volunteer information to strangers or to allow access of city workers without prior authorization.
Join community support mailing lists to stay on top of current news and events usually not reported by local media or official Belize tourism promotion bodies. We of course recommend our own Belize Culture Mailing List.
Malaria and Dengue Fever are endemic to Latin America and the Caribbean and can occur throughout the year; there have been confirmed cases in Belize but these generally surge during the rainy season.
In the 2010 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic the UNAIDS/WHO Working Group estimated that around 4,400 adults aged 15 or over in Belize were living with HIV; the prevalence percentage was estimated at around 2.3% of the adult population compared to the prevalence percentage in adults in the UK of around 0.2%. You should exercise normal precautions to avoid exposure to HIV/AIDS.
No special vaccinations are required for travel to Belize. If you will be traveling in jungle areas, anti-malaria pills may be wise to pack. Malaria and Denque Fever are tropical endemic diseases in Belize and the risk of contagion is highest during the rainy season. Consult your primary care physician. Food borne diseases such as salmonella, amoebic and parasitic infections are not uncommon. It is recommended that you drink only purified bottled water and be be aware of the condition of eating establishments that you patronise.
For U.S. Nationals – Embassy Contact Information
The Embassy is located at 4 Floral Park Road, Belmopan, Cayo, Belize; the Embassy is open for regular business Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The Embassy is closed on U.S. and Belizean holidays. U.S. nationals are encouraged to register with the U.S. Citizens Service Office.
Embassy contact numbers Embassy Main phone number: 501-822-4011 Regional Security Office: 501-822-4011 ext 4105/4007 Political/Economic Section: 501-822-4011 ext 4197 Embassy Nurse: 501-822-4011 ext 4286 Consular Section: 501-822-4011 ext 4219/4209
For British and U.K. Nationals – British High Commission Information
British High Commission, corner Melhado Drive and Belmopan Ring Road South. The High Commission is open for regular business Monday through Thursday 8:00 am to 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Fridays 8:00 am to 2:00 pm The High Commission is closed on U.K. and Belize Holidays.
British High Commission contact numbers Telephone: (501) 822 2981/2717/2146 Consular Direct: (501) 822 3146 Fax (501) 822 2761