Staying Safe In Nicaragua and Central America

A pair of Scarlet Macaw (Ara Macao) perched on a macaw carving.

TODAY TRAVEL – As the cold begins to grip the northern hemisphere, many start thinking about southern climates, be it for a week’s vacation in one country or extended stays that may include travel to various countries around Central America.

Although we can’t agree with all that Robert Loesener writes in his article posted on Assolution.com , it pretty clear that Costa Rica and Nicaragua and pretty safe bets, while the other parts of Central America can be unnerving for some.

Here is the article:

Shortly after opening up our San Pedro branch to provide EP services in Honduras, we wrote about the potential security risks associated with traveling to or living in the area.

We think it’s important to revisit not only Honduras, but the rest of Central America as well. The region—or at least certain parts of it—still represents a serious security threat for unprepared travelers and expats.

Security threats and risks in Central America: what to expect?

Many of the security risks that apply to Honduras also plague the rest of Central America:

  • Kidnapping
  • Gang activity and drug-related crimes
  • Extortion
  • Burglary and petty theft
  • Dangerous roads due to poor conditions and carjackings

Expats and business travelers are more prone to be targeted than locals, since they’re perceived as more likely to carry valuable goods (smartphones, laptops, and so on) or more likely to have their ransom paid.

The reasons for most of the risks associated with Honduras and Central America are unfortunately all-too-common and not easy to fix any time soon. High levels of poverty and inequality, gang activities, drug trade and corrupt officials all contribute to the security situation.

The drug trade is huge. Central America is the major transportation route for cocaine and heroin headed for the U.S., a huge and apparently insatiable market. Roughly 80-90% of cocaine found in the U.S. has passed through the Mexico-Central America region. This is a massive market for gangs, and they’re hellbent on controlling it.

The actual risks vary by country and area

Before you swear off all of Central America, it’s important to put things in perspective and understand the wide range of regional differences.

Nicaragua and Costa Rica have vibrant tourism industries. They also have national homicide rates close to that of Kansas City. While that doesn’t make them safe per se, it does make them generally safer than their neighbors. It also means that you’re more likely to encounter theft in tourist areas rather than outright gun violence.

According to statistics from the Central American and Caribbean Commission of Police Chiefs, Honduras has over 30,000 active gang members while Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama each have less than 5,000. And these numbers are all fairly low estimates—various sources disagree wildly on the exact count.

A country like Guatemala is still reeling from the after-effects of its long civil war (with two-hundred thousand civilian casualties), while Honduras suffers from a militarized—and often corrupt—police force struggling to contain the country’s gang problem and civilians openly carrying weapons.

In some cases, justice has a hard time doing its job. The impression that crime is running wild in countries that make up the so-called “Northern Triangle” (Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador) is strengthened by the relative impunity criminals enjoy there. As many as 95% of the crimes committed are not processed or dealt with in any concrete manner due to weak judicial systems, corruption and overcrowded prisons.

What does this mean for travelers?

You can’t paint Central America with a broad stroke, and risks change significantly from area to area. Any plan to head to one of these countries means you’ll need to rely on local intel and up-to-date info not only about the country, but the specific city or place you’re headed to. We give some general information below, but do be sure to stay up to date on current risks wherever you travel.

Central America: Major security risks in 2016 and early 2017

Belize: The main security risks in Belize are related to drug trafficking and gangs. Political violence, while possible, is not currently a major concern. The country continues to have a high murder rate per capita, which has significantly increased over the past five years. Travelers are relatively safe in the popular tourist areas (such as the Mayan ruins), but should be extra careful when heading out into rural areas.

Additionally, several parts of Belize City should be entirely avoided.

Costa Rica: Like Belize, crime is on the rise in Costa Rica—particularly when it comes to theft, credit card fraud and muggings. As mentioned previously, homicide is unlikely to be an issue, and armed assaults rarely affect tourists—but they remain a possibility. Tourist areas are relatively safe, but do be mindful of wandering alone at night. As for politics, Costa Rica is considered politically stable—so no worries there.

El Salvador: The country has massive issues with crime, as is unfortunately expected from one of the three countries in the “Northern Triangle”. Homicide rates are among the highest in the world and still rising. Gang- and cartel-related violence, muggings, carjackings and extortion are all real concerns. Although the country understandably doesn’t have much of a tourism industry, 38 U.S. travelers have been murdered there since 2010, and almost 500 have had their passports stolen. Extreme caution is required.

Guatemala: With 91 murders per week in 2015, our recommendations for El Salvador apply here, too. While travel to Guatemala is certainly possible and thousands of tourists go unharmed each year, extreme caution is still justified.

Honduras: We’ve already written about Honduras, which with El Salvador and Guatemala shares the unenviable reputation as one third of the extremely dangerous Norther Triangle. We recommend you take a look at our blog post on San Pedro Sula. Unfortunately, the vast majority of what we wrote then remains relevant now.

Nicaragua: Though one of the Central American countries with the lowest reported crime rates, Nicaragua is by no means entirely safe. In 2015, U.S. citizens’ most reported crimes were robberies, vehicle thefts and sexual assaults.

Panama: Political unrest is somewhat of a concern in Panama, and demonstrations and protests are not uncommon. Crime overall has dropped over the past couple of years—but it remains high compared to most of what you’d find in the U.S. If you’re headed to Panama City, avoid lower-income areas, which often have a little presence from law enforcement. As for Colon, the entire city is considered to be a “high crime” zone, so strong caution is recommended.

Be prepared, be street-smart, and don’t take unnecessary risks

Central America has its security challenges, but it is also a deservedly popular tourist destination. Low labor costs and proximity to the U.S. make it an attractive choice for manufacturing facilities. So what are travelers to do? Here are a few tips that will serve you well in this region:

Find local intelligence and support: If you intend to venture out of the tourist areas, or plan to walk around after dark, don’t go it alone. Understand the area. Do some research. Tap local sources to learn what the risks are and how to mitigate them. Red areas after 8pm are a no-go, period.

Be extremely careful on roads at night, especially rural ones: Expect bad road conditions, very poor lighting and the risk of carjackings in some regions.

If you do hit the road in the most dangerous regions, be prepared: We’re talking armored vehicles and even using follow-up vehicles if needed. Know the roads ahead of time. Patrol vehicles and solid intel will make all the difference.

Know how to spot gang signs: Keep your eyes open for tattoos, men and teenagers in groups, and the most obvious sign of all: weapons. Even if you feel like you’re in a “safe” place, there is no reason to risk it. Walk away immediately—whatever is going on may not target you directly, but you can’t be sure whether the situation is dangerous or not.

As usual, travel alerts are your friends: The U.S. Department of State’s website and the U.K. equivalent is frequently updated and will help you determine what to expect ahead of time. For example, Nicaragua held its presidential election in early November, and this caused some concern for foreign travelers—academics, journalists, NGOs, etc.

Don’t forget the basics: Don’t flash expensive jewelry or tech devices. Carry certified copies of your ID when moving around. Cheap local cell phones could be a good idea. Bottled water is a must, and so are up-to-date vaccines.