Wednesday, August 22, 2012

No answers without questions

A Tegucigalpa activist at a protest against the rising number
of murders of Honduran women. Photo: Reuters

Almost 2,300 women have been murdered in Honduras in the last eight years, a fairly clear signal that the country has a problem. But the statistics from the last four years are the most alarming.
Murders of women skyrocketed in 2008, from 176 the year before to 569. Up until that point, roughly 200 Honduran women were murdered every year. But ever since that jump four years ago, the annual rates have doubled to around 400.
What’s going on? As with so many other things in Honduras, it’s impossible to tell. Murder is disturbingly common in the country – just to put the femicide rate into perspective, the murder rates for men in Honduras are more than 18 times higher. But with 90 per cent of the murders are unsolved, so there’s no way to draw any conclusion other than that the country really needs to get a grip.
Nor is there sufficient public information to help a worried population understand the risks. It’s obvious from the statistics that San Pedro Sula deserves its infamy as the murder capital of the world, and that Tegucigalpa is a close second (of the 222 Honduran women murdered so far this year, 183 were committed in those two cities).
But were the victims working in the drug trade? In the sex trade? Living in particularly violent neighbourhoods? Randomly chosen? Out late getting drunk? Victims of jealous spouses, or murdered in the course of robberies? Killed by police? Such details are rarely reported, and it’s not like there are any criminal trials the public can follow for greater insight.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that any behaviour justifies murder. But there’s no way to make sense of any of this insanity without more information. Without that, there’s no way to spot patterns that could be useful for strategizing how to reduce the murder rate, or targeting scarce police resources at problem areas. Hondurans are reduced to helpless acceptance of horrifying statistics.
While the victims of murders in Honduras are overwhelmingly Honduran, I know from my own family’s worried reaction to the headlines coming out of this country that such details make little difference when travellers are considering whether to visit. If you decided to holiday in a Central American country, would you pick Honduras with a murder rate of 88 per 100,000 people, or Costa Rica with a rate of 11.3? (And just to put some added perspective to those figures, Canada’s rate is 1.6, the U.S. is 4.2, and Afghanistan is 2.4.)
I regularly walk the country roads all around Copan and in seven months have encountered only friendly, curious people happy to exchange a few words with a passing stranger. But what I hear from the few travellers I’ve encountered here is much concern about whether it’s safe to walk anywhere. No small wonder that even the popular tourist haunts in Copan are reporting a drop of 15 per cent or more in business this summer.
One young fellow from the U.S. asked my spouse and I whether he could safely walk to the Mayan ruins, a very pleasant two-kilometre stroll from the town centre along the main road into town. It’s the kind of question you might expect from a Tilley-hatted senior on a carefully arranged private tour of the tourist highlights. The fact that we regularly hear such questions from seasoned backpackers who aren’t easily intimidated demonstrates the extent of the damage being done to Honduras’ tourism economy by the relentlessly grim news of a country wracked by murder and drug trafficking.
There’s so much more to Honduras than that.  I keep saying that, but who can blame my acquaintances from drawing their own conclusions?
I always presumed that were I ever to be living in a tropical country, I could expect a flood of eager friends from the cold North happy for a cheap holiday in the sun. I can’t say that the visitors have been knocking down our door so far, though. With all the countries of the world on offer, a place largely noted internationally for its staggering murder rates just isn’t that appealing.
Could there be a clearer sign of a country in real trouble than one where citizens are murdering citizens at ever-accelerating rates? But you can’t solve a problem without understanding it. Sadly, so little goes into investigation, prosecution, crime analysis and prevention in Honduras that people can only give that little hopeless shrug I’ve seen so often since coming here and hope that God protects them.

No comments: