Saturday, October 15, 2011

Gunfight Ensues at San Pedro Sula Airport

As we all know, the world has gotten smaller with the advent of better and faster airliners. Unfortunately, many of us who fly internationally often forget that the ease of travel does not change the dramatically different environment that we will find ourselves in when we reach our destination. Emotionally and intellectually, we often subconsciously expect things to be very much like where we came from, but often they are much, much different and the level of personal risk is dramatically higher.

To illustrate the above statement, yesterday (October 14) masked gunmen opened fire on four luxury SUVs as they left the parking lot of San Pedro Sula International Airport in northern Honduras, killing six men and wounding another three. According to police, the assailants were waiting for the men at La Mesa International Airport. As this posting is made, police know very little other than most of the injured were in their 20s and have no motive for the airport attack.

COMMENT: Strangely, the victims were apparently also carrying guns, but police found none of them, perhaps because the assailants collected them before they left, so as to avoid them being traced. Although this incident appears to typify an Old West shootout in the US, very likely it was an exchange between rival drug gangs, although gun battles rarely occur at an international airport, even in Honduras.

Apart from rival drug wars, for travelers to Honduras, crime is endemic and requires a high level of caution by foreign visitors and residents alike. Widespread poverty and unemployment, along with significant street gang and drug cartel activity, have contributed to the extremely high crime rate. There were 6,236 homicides in Honduras in 2009, a rate of 77 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Since 1995, 98 U.S. citizens have been reported murdered in Honduras; however, only twenty-eight cases have been resolved by Honduran police. As of July 2011, four U.S. citizens have been reported murdered in Honduras in 2011; nine in 2010; 18 in 2009; seven in 2008; four in 2007; eight in 2006; and nine in 2005. Assuredly, these are very high levels of victimization for foreign visitors of one nationality.

Kidnappings have also been on the rise in recent years, with large ransoms paid and rare capture of kidnappers. Seven U.S. citizens were reported kidnapped in 2010; 12 in 2009; three in 2008; three in 2007; four in 2006; and three in 2005.

Foreigners are largely targeted because of their perceived wealth. Firearms abound in Honduras and armed street robberies are especially common, with criminals taking advantage of relatively isolated victims to steal their valuables. Young males working in pairs, often riding motorcycles, are perpetrating many of the armed robberies in Honduras’ urban areas. Criminals and pickpockets target visitors as they enter and depart airports and hotels, so visitors should consider carrying their passports and valuables in a concealed pouch. There have also been reports of armed robbers traveling in private cars targeting pedestrians on isolated streets.

In northern Honduras, carjacking and kidnapping are very common. There have been frequent incidents of carjacking and highway robbery on a number of roads including the main highway (CA-5) between San Pedro Sula and Siguatepeque, with the greatest risk between Potrerillos and Pito Solo in the lake area.

Travelers should always drive with their doors locked and windows rolled up to avoid potential robberies at traffic lights and other places, such as congested downtown streets. Driving at night should be avoided whenever possible. Choose taxis carefully, and note the driver’s name and license number. Instruct the driver not to pick up other passengers, agree on the fare before you depart, and have small bills available for payment, as taxi drivers often do not make change.

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