Most of the crime in Belize (besides drug possession and trafficking) is petty theft and burglary, though gang-related violence in Belize City is a worsening problem.
It’s best not to wear expensive jewelry when traveling. And don’t carry large amounts of money, your passport, or your plane tickets if not necessary; if you must carry these things, wear a money belt under your clothes. Most hotels have safe-deposit boxes. Don’t flaunt cameras and video equipment or leave them in sight in cars when sightseeing, especially in some parts of Belize City. Remember, this is a poor country and petty theft is its number-one crime—don’t tempt fate.
It is generally not wise to wander around alone on foot late at night in Belize City. Go out with others if possible, and take a taxi. Most Belizeans are friendly, decent people, but, as in every community, a small percentage of unscrupulous crackheads will steal anything, given the opportunity. To many Belizeans, foreigners come off as “rich,” whether they are or not. The local hustlers are quite creative when it comes to thinking of ways to con you out of some cash. Keep your wits about you, pull out of conversations that appear headed in that direction, don’t give out your hotel name or room number freely or where they can be overheard by strangers.
In emergencies, dial 911 or 90 for police assistance. The number for fire and ambulance is also 90.
If you are the victim of a crime while overseas, in addition to reporting it to local police, contact your embassy or consulate as soon as possible. The embassy orconsulate staff can, for example, assist you in finding appropriate medical care and contacting family members or friends and will explain how funds can be transferred to you. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime is solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed. From my experience, Belize police detectives respond quickly and take these matters—even near misses—seriously.
Belizean police can hold somebody for 48 hours with no charges; one U.S. embassy warden called prison conditions in Belize “medieval,” though this situation is improving. Some police officers have been arrested for rape and routinely beat and torture detainees (usually Belizeans). On the whole, though, most officers are good folks, making the best of a poorly paying job with very few resources. Don’t try to bribe them if you’re in trouble—you’ll only contribute to a more corrupt system that does not need any encouragement.
Belize’s modern history began with law-breaking pirates hiding out among the hundreds of cayes, lagoons, and uninhabited coastlines of the territory. The same natural features have made Belize a fueling stopover for Colobian cocaine traffickers. The drug runners’ practice of paying off their Belizean helpers with product (in addition to irresistible sums of cash) has created a national market for cocaine and crack with devastating effects, especially in Orange Walk Town and numerous coastal communities.
According to the U.S. State Department, Colobian narcotraffickers increasingly use maritime operations in conjunction with aircraft “wet-drops” or off-loads from sea vessels to smuggle drug shipments into Belizean waters. Cocaine, air-dropped off the coast of Belize, is transported to the Belizean mainland or Mexico by small “go-fast” boats, stored, and then shipped onward to the United States. Occasionally, unintended recipients find this “sea lotto.” Also known as “square grouper” and “white lobster,” these bales of uncut cocaine are also sometimes dumped overboard by traffickers who are about to get busted.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is active in Belize—as it is throughout Central America—to battle the flow of cocaine and other illegal drugs; the agency provides boat patrols, overflights, drug war technology and herbicides, and sniffing dogs at roadside checkpoints.
Cannabis sativa, or ganja, grows naturally and quite well in the soils and climate of Belize, although the country is no longer the major producer it once was. In the early 1980s, “Belizean Breeze” was smuggled in massive enough quantities to make Belize the fourth-largest marijuana exporter to the United States. In the early 1980s, the DEA put an end to that with chemical-spraying programs, seizing and destroying 800 tons of marijuana in one year. Today, small-scale production continues, primarily for the domestic market. Some argue that the job vacuum created by marijuana suppression led directly to Belize’s role in the trafficking of cocaine and the subsequent entrance of crack into Belizean communities.
Foreign, hip-looking tourists like yourself will most likely be offered pot (locally known as “ta-boom-boom”) at some point during their visit. Be careful: The proposal may be a harmless invitation to get high on the beach, or it may be coming from a hustler or stool pigeon who is about to rip you off and/or get you arrested. Legally, marijuana prohibition is alive and well in Belize, despite widespread use of the herb throughout the population (not just among the Rastas). The anti-ganja policy allows harsh penalties for possession of even tiny quantities for both nationals and tourists alike. Tightly wrapped nuggets of buds, usually under two grams, are referred to as “bullets,” and possessing even one of these can bring a fine of hundreds of dollars and possible incarceration. Also, watch out for guys selling prerolled joints called serias, as they may be laced with crumbled crack cocaine.
Although illegal in Belize, the sale of sex is alive and well at a handful of brothels throughout the country, usually on the highways outside major towns. Prostitutes are rarely Belizean and are often indentured sex slaves unwittingly recruited from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador with false promises of legitimate employment. It is undeniable that foreign johns contribute to Belize’s sex economy, especially on cruise ship arrival days.