Street crime is a growing problem in Honduras, although it is still nothing on the level of most U.S. cities, despite recent bad publicity. La Ceiba has taken the honor of the city with the highest murder rate in the country, followed by San Pedro Sula and then Tegucigalpa. A particular problem are the maras, young gang members, frequently drugged out, armed, and with no fear of anybody. However, if you are unlucky enough to be confront by a marero (or other thug for that matter), what they are interested in is to steal your belongings, and rarely further harass. Give over your possessions without saying a word, and you can usually avoid problems. Your passport or your money is not worth being pistol-whipped (or worse) over.
To avoid problems, simply take the same precautions any sensible traveler takes anywhere. Don’t walk around with a lot of money in your pocket or flashy jewelry; keep copies of your passport somewhere safe; don’t walk around at night in cities; and avoid seedy areas during the day. On the beach, don’t bring a lot of stuff with you, to avoid tempting thieves while you’re in the water. And, very importantly, don’t walk isolated stretches of beach outside of the towns on the north coast. A tourist police force was created in 2000 that now has units in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Tela, La Ceiba, Roatán, Copán Ruinas, and Puerto Cortés, whose members are happy to help out tourists and are great people to talk to if you have any questions or problems.
The most high-profile crimes these days in Honduras are kidnappings, picking off family members of wealthy business people, cattle-ranchers, and coffee-growers, and holding them for ransom. Sometimes the victim is returned unharmed, other times not. Many Hondurans suspect former or even current military and police are involved in many kidnapping rings. To date, travelers are not targets for kidnappers.
For the most part, rural Honduras is remarkably safe. Foreigners can generally wander around at will with little fear. The mountain country in western and southern Honduras, in particular, is exceptionally safe and wonderful for trekking and backpacking.
There are a few exceptions to this, however. First and foremost are certain parts of western and northern Olancho, well known for their gunslingers and highway bandits. The two most important places to avoid are around Dulce Nombre de Culmí, near the edge of the Mosquitia rainforests; and the dirt highway between Gualaco and Tocoa. The roads from Tegucigalpa to Catacamas and from the main highway up to Gualaco are considered perfectly safe, but it is wise to ask for current information before traveling around La Unión and Yoro.
For the U.S. government’s opinion on safety and travel issues in Honduras, check the site www.state.gov.
Though not a major drug-producing country itself, apart from small-scale marijuana growers supplying the domestic market, Honduras is becoming a favored conduit for South American cocaine on its way north to the United States. The deserted, unpatrolled expanse of the Mosquitia coast is a choice drop-off point for Colombian drug smugglers, as are the Bay Islands. From the Mosquitia, the cocaine is transported overland through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, while from the Bay Islands, the merchandise usually continues north by boat. But other parts of the country are used also—in September 1999, a helicopter ferried in a shipment of 369 kilograms of cocaine to a village near Yoro. Low-paid police, customs, and military officials are easy targets for corruption, and in recent years many have been arrested for their involvement with drug-trafficking.
The use of both cocaine and marijuana is illegal in Honduras, and the police will happily throw you in jail if they catch you. Drug-consuming travelers may assume they can easily bribe their way out of difficulties, and sometimes this is the case, but not always. As prison terms for drug use are stiff, it hardly seems worth the risk, not to mention it’s irresponsible tourism because it adds to the country’s already growing drug problem.
Formerly known as Fusep (Fuerzas de Seguridad Pública), Honduras’s police force was for many years a division of the armed forces, but in early 1997, it was finally placed under civilian leadership. It is now called the Policía Preventiva Nacional. A militaristic command structure remains in place, and the police still act more like a private army than public servants, but the situation seems to be improving slowly. Joint patrols with soldiers in more conflictive neighborhoods of the larger cities are common now, in an effort to combat the gangs and drug dealers.
Police generally receive little formal training and survive on abysmal pay, and many are undeniably corrupt and incompetent. If you are stopped for a traffic infraction or other minor offense, making an offer of a bribe would be a mistake. It’s better to go through the proper channels, which often means paying a not very expensive fine. If the topic of a bribe were to arise (which of course does take place, but should not be encouraged), it should always be at the behest of the official, as offering a bribe to a straight police officer could get you further into trouble. This may seem silly to those who have a picturesque view of Honduran law enforcement, but some of the disciplined paramilitary officials at checkpoints on Honduran highways look like they might take a rather dim view of an offer of 50 lempira to look the other way.
If you are the victim of a crime, the police can sometimes be helpful, particularly in smaller towns where it’s likely the culprit will be easily found. Police officers are usually happy to explain local laws or help tourists with directions. Of particular help are the tourist police in Tegucigalpa (tel. 504/222-2124), San Pedro Sula (tel. 504/550-3472 or 504/550-0001), Tela (tel. 504/448-0150), La Ceiba (tel. 504/441-6288), Roatán (tel. 504/9982-8542), Copán Ruinas (tel. 504/651-4108), and Puerto Cortés (tel. 504/9859-2822)—although don’t hold your breath if you’re hoping they might help recover stolen items.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition