Boarded, Bound & Burglarized
Terror on the Rio Dulce, Again
For the last 10 months most of what we have experienced cruising has really been fun and exciting. The events I relate below happened just over two months ago and I have been slow to write about them as I have tried to process through my own thoughts and emotions. As we prepare to leave the Rio Dulce It seems like the right time to relate this information. I initially submitted a revised version of this article to the Idaho Statesman back in September but this more candid and detailed account has been subsequently published by Sailing World. If you read the original article read down to learn more about significant security risks on the Rio Dulce.
We were all saddened by the tragic death of a fellow cruiser, Daniel Dryden, at the hands of bandits on the Rio Dulce on August 9, 2008. Our deepest condolences and prayers remain with Nancy as she recovers from her injuries, and the family and friends of the Dryden's as they put the pieces of their lives back together without Dan. What is not as well known is that the unrest on the Rio was not isolated to this single event.
For s/v Dream Odyssey, s/v Ctoy, and s/v Mima, August 11 began and ended with a range of emotions uncommon to this sailor and author. We had all arisen at 2:30 a.m. to weigh anchor and head the 25 miles to the mouth of the Rio Dulce to take advantage of an early morning high tide to get across the bar at sunrise and into Livingston, Guatemala. Our careful and thoughtful planning was rewarded by a smooth and "bottomless" crossing. The bar at the mouth of the Rio Dulce has a mean low water depth of 5 feet 6 inches. Of the three boats I draw the most at nearly 6 feet 6 inches. As such we had planned our crossing to correspond with high tide and we never saw less than 7 feet 2 inches. None of the boats touched bottom and by 6:30 a.m. we were safely across the bar and anchored, waiting for the local officials to check us in and purchasing shrimp from the local fishermen.
We were all checked in and cleared by lunch time. We had a quick meal in Livingston and weighed anchor to head up river. I was ecstatic to finally be in the famed Rio Dulce. The first turn in the river ushered us into the jungle, and the river was as beautiful as I had imagined with 200 foot cliffs on one side and lush jungle on the other. We had been advised of the Dryden murder upon our arrival in Livingston by our immigration agent, he also reminded us to not anchor in the middle of the river so as to keep out of the way of boat traffic, and to anchor near a town and close together if we did anchor. In his words the Dryden murder was an isolated case and the river otherwise was a safe place given the advice mentioned above. As such, we chose to anchor at the mouth of the Rio Tatin. The cruising guides suggest this anchorage and talks about the Mayan community here and the volunteer opportunities available in the local school and clinic. We wanted to check it out and arrange to do some volunteer work with our kids during the summer, and maybe visit the spring fed pools at the head of the river.
We were able to meet the local school teacher and his family and visit the spring fed pools. It was a lovely afternoon but as the sun set we all began to feel our 2:30 a.m. wake up call. All three boats did dinner early and retired. Dinghy's were lifted and locked as usual; extra lights were left on for security and visibility. After a wonderful shrimp dinner I was in bed and asleep by 8:30 p.m., thrilled to be in the Rio Dulce and excited about what the next day would bring.
At 9:30 p.m. after having been asleep for only an hour all hell broke loose. We were awoken by Greg yelling from s/v CToy that Dream Odyssey had been boarded and robbed. Greg and I secured our boats and crews and I dropped our dingy and picked up Greg and Barbara and went immediately to Dream Odyssey. What we learned from Roy and Michelle and saw onboard Dream Odyssey impacted us all deeply. Here is the account that Michelle gives.
"At around 8:30 p.m., while eating dinner, watching a movie and running the generator, at least 5 men with machetes & a gun, boarded our boat and actually came right into the salon and stood behind me before we even knew they were there!!!! We did not resist.
Before it was all over, they tied us up, gagged us, threatened Roy with a knife for the dinghy keys, took our money/credit cards, two laptops (with all of our charts, navigational guides & travel logs for the past 4 years, plus all of our photographs!!!), printer, watches, cameras, camcorder, DVD player, LCD-TV, phones, various chargers, radio/cassette player, our safe, etc., etc. They tried very hard to steal the dinghy & motor but were unsuccessful.
We estimate at least $20,000.00 worth of equipment was taken!!!! Some equipment was damaged while ripping things out but they did not otherwise trash or damage the boat & THANKFULLY we were not hurt!!! They were on board at least an hour.
We believe they got us to us via a large wooden boat but we never saw it or heard anything. I managed to get untied after they left and they had missed taking the VHF in the cockpit, so we were able to radio our friends who were safe and completely unaware, even though they both said they had made a visual check of our boat during that hour. It was a traumatic experience to say the least & we are doing our best to put it behind us!!!"
True to Roy and Michelle's personality all they kept asking me is "are your kids safe?" These two are the salt of the earth and we are blessed to be their friends. We are all thankful that neither of them had been physically hurt, never -the- less, the senseless and cowardly nature of the robbery still leaves us asking why. Crime at any time is a cowardly act and usually it is viewed from afar, but this time it was our friends and we were involved. Much of what was taken will have very little value on the street and these two wonderful individuals have been rocked to the core.
As disturbing as the robbery was it unfortunately does not end there. Later that night another boat was boarded and fortunately again, no one was hurt. We have learned that this sort of activity has been going on for years here and yet none of the guide books or internet websites gives cruisers any warning regarding the very real and palpable security risks that exist on the Rio Dulce. I have been unable to find any security warnings on local cruiser based business websites and although everyone is verbally sympathetic to Roy and Michelle and the robbery there seems to be a sense that if we don't talk about it maybe it will go away or at least won't hurt business. A local ex-cruiser now resident told me "everyone knows that if you anchor near the Rio Tatin you will be boarded". It is odd to me that no one here on the river has ever taken the time to post anything on the web or in print media for those of us who are first time visitors. In fact the cruising guides suggest anchoring where we did as an intermediate stop up the river.
The authorities learned the identity of the perpetrators within days but were unable to react because in their words it is "very sensitive." Once a raid did occur and some of the stolen items recovered the police were run out of town by 40-50 locals carry machetes and boards with nails through them and they were unable to finish their raid. Unfortunately the police and navy have such a bad reputation that they are not trusted by the local Guatemalans. Four arrests were made and the men identified as the robbers. Two of the cowards were underage and could not be held. The father and ring leader, along with his adult son, were held and then just 10 days later they were released with "not enough evidence to hold them". I guess the authorities forgot about the stolen items recovered and positive identification made. To add insult to injury, the judge presiding over the case (whom Roy and Michelle have been unable to meet with after several attempts) asked Roy and Michelle directly to be paid (bribed) to release the recovered items that were stolen from them.
Ironically, the local police force developed to protect tourists and their interests (INGUAT), although helpful to Roy and Michelle initially, seemed to think nothing of the bribe requested by the judge. The take home message is clear to this cruiser. We must never let our guard down and be aware that as good as the cruiser information web is in other parts of the Caribbean it is sorely inept here. The primary purpose of the VHF net here seems to be who has the best lunch special. The day after Roy and Michelle were robbed a local restaurant owner actually asked on the net if the information being relayed could wait until after the net was over so people could get on with their lunch special announcements. In fact a number of individuals who have taken up residency here have suggested that we should have known better than to anchor where we did. Our only question of them is how we are supposed to know if they don't communicate with the cruising community regarding these security issues. The brotherhood that normally exists among cruisers has been lulled into complacency here.
I recognize this report will ruffle a few feathers, but with a combined cruising experience among the three boats of over 12 years and more than 75 countries visited, the lack of any rule of law here, and an apathetic resident community should give all future visitors to the Rio Dulce a moment of pause. Having now spent the hurricane season on the river I have attempted to talk with every cruiser I could to get their take on the river. The feeling is unanimous among "cruisers". "Cruiser" being defined as yachtsman still on the move and who have not taken up permanent or semi-permanent residency on the river that this is the most unsafe place they have ever visited while cruising. The murder rate in Nicaragua is 3.1 per 100,000, in the United States it is 7.1 per 100,000, in Guatemala it is 47 per 100,000. The statistics speak for themselves, do the math.
It is not my desire to place blame on anyone regarding the unfortunate events on Dream Odyssey. We remain thankful that they were not hurt but also desire that everyone entering the Rio Dulce in the future be fully aware of the security risks. Perhaps Jodi Picoult in her book Keeping Faith said it best, "The truth doesn't always set you free; people prefer to believe prettier, neatly wrapped lies." Guatemala is a breathtaking country and the people are lovely but we are all best served knowing all the information not just the nice stuff.
Use the information that you can and disregard the rest, but please be careful here and in all your cruising destinations.
Fair Winds, Mark, Susan, Amy and Marshall Wheeler aboard s/v Mima