Belize’s exposure to North Americans and Europeans prior to the mass proliferation of broadcast television, tourism and retiree migration was largely limited to British soldiers, Peace Corps volunteers, and the very few pioneering tourists and wanderers that jealously guarded the paradise that they felt they discovered. In more recent times, the escalation of tourism and of the foreign-owned real estate market has brought about a shift in property ownership and a growth in expat resident populations in traditional and emerging island, coastal and inland communities. This changing face of our population brings all kinds; and increasingly those that are attracted to the free and easy ways that Belizeans have traditionally enjoyed.
Like the lead character, Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, Heart of Darkness, some expats that eventually call Belize their home, find themselves in an environment where their demons, hidden deep within their consciousness, but formerly controlled by formidable legal systems and law enforcement in their home country; emerge to the surface with violent results.
The gruesome strangulation of a white Canadian woman and her ex-marine American boyfriend this past week, possibly by the hand of another expat, seems to be the latest demonstration of this trend of drama playing itself out on the local and international media. Just as the quest for ivory in the 19th century Belgian Congo brought out oppression, violence, insanity and homicide among European expats and locals in Conrad’s novel, it seems that the allure of land and property; and the territorialism and divisions that it brings, is today’s ivory in the expat frontier that Belize has become.
Belize’s real estate boom for expats emerged as a side product of tourism. North American and European visitors increasingly become enthralled by the easy Belizean lifestyle against the backdrop of pristine beaches, coral islands on azure seas and vivid rainforests with breathtaking views. This boom has led to acquisition and exchange of a commodity that Belizeans took for granted, and has led to an appreciation in prices that are now beyond the reach of the average local citizen. The market, now largely void of local participation, has evolved among foreign interests to where values are ascertained not by North American standards of valuation, but by impulse and emotion. This market is wrought with imperfect titles, uncertain shareholdings, and boundaries based on unclear paperwork and surveys. This Gold Rush ease of acquisition of Belizean property has brought all types to Belize, and the culture clash that has resulted, fueled by intolerance by both locals and foreigners, seems to be leading to incidents of violence among their own and to a lesser extent, between expats and locals.
The recent tragedy, as well as others like the Dark Knight saga where one developer is accused of taking out an assassination hit against his former business associate due to land access, paints a picture of a virtual war among the white settlers of this land over territory and possessions. The case of John McAfee, the tech millionaire suspected of killing his neighbor Greg Faul in San Pedro, based on a dispute where it has been reported that McAfee disagreed with his neighbor over the boundaries within where his animals could roam. In the deep south, disagreements between the founders of ACES, a crocodile rescue facility and the local Maya population led to
a burning of their facility to the ground; under allegations by the Mayas that the owners fed two missing children to their crocs, leading ACES founder Vince Rose to state to the media that: “It’s just unacceptable that a pre-meditated group of savages – and they are not human beings, they are savages – they should not even be out on the streets. They should all be in prison because they are not human beings.”
Finally, the horrific incident of former Canadian resident, Guyanese Danny Mason’s alleged involvement in the beheading of Pastor Llewellyn Lucas and as part of an extortion scheme targeting Canadian Mennonites, highlights the nature of the elements that are somehow finding their way to Belize.
These clashes, it seems, is symptomatic of a shift in Belize’s development fueled by the importation of some of the practices that we only saw in movies at the Majestic prior to television and in crime dramas repeated nightly on television and in real news stories on major networks. This importation perhaps, has come as a result of two main factors. Firstly, Belize has no formal process or means of screening the background of those that visit, or that eventually reside and purchase property. Recent attempts by the authorities to monitor real estate transactions and the background and finances of principals involved have been widely criticized as anti-business in nature, and perhaps rightfully so. Secondly, the casual nature of transactions, including business, personal, friendships, and even law enforcement, and the endearing warmth of Belizeans and their welcoming nature is in huge contrast to the nature of exactness in transactions that expats are used to in their foreign country. This newfound freedom of business and relationships, void of strict oversight, has led to an inevitable abuse of systems among their own expat communities as well as in their dealings with locals.
In essence, the permissive nature of Belize’s rule enforcement environment tends to lull expats into a sense of “anything goes”.
Rife among the expat real estate and development community is the proliferation of land scams, illegal employment, and ongoing disputes over business dealings. Some of the disputes related to these practices do make it to the courts, but often languish because of the lack of adequate paperwork, the unavailability of principals, and the absence of effort by attorneys. While this is not an excuse for street justice, it seems, unfortunately, that forceful measures are becoming an option for dispute resolution among expat residents, and between expats and locals.
This alarming trend, though in its infancy in Belize, is not unique in the region. In Costa Rica, scams among the expat communities have proliferated to where the government and local newspapers warn against investment schemes and extortions, more often by other expats, on a daily basis. Similar to Belize, the easy lifestyle in that country has attracted a number of expats seeking warm weather and easy access to leisure as well as otherwise unavailable vices at reasonable costs; many of which are less than scrupulous. The lax regulations related to immigration and property ownership has, on the flip side, resulted in difficulties in legally resolving disputes and the side effect of violence fueled by frustration. A similar trend in Mexico has escalated to where drug gangs have been employed to enforce resolution of disputes using physical threats. Americans living and investing in areas along the Mexican Riviera have developed watch groups to report on risks even among expats.
The good news for us in Belize is that the trend can be reversed. It is without a doubt that Belize is safer than most of our neighbors, and that the vast majority of Belizeans are honest and willing to do that right thing by each other and by those that choose to call Belize home. Crimes by Belizeans against expats are largely limited to petty theft; with the spillage of anger usually resulting at the end of an abusive ordeal, as in the case of the Maya vs ACES. These instances are typically the result of intolerance of local habits by those that don’t understand how simple and easy it is to relate positively with a Belizean, or a misunderstanding of the method or motive of the expat in their dealings with the locals.
The crime and violence among expats, however is a different story. As long as civil disputes don’t make it to the courts; and as long as transactions remain under the radar; with currency exchanges kept out of the domestic banking system; and as long as law enforcement is excluded from complaints, crime among expats will proliferate and the darkness within some will creep to the surface.
Stories of this darkness is deliberately kept hidden, and only comes to the surface when the crisis has gotten to a point of violence and possible loss of life. This entry by expats into this Heart of Darkness is unfortunate and can only be solved through their rejection of intolerance and an understanding of the need to strike a balance between freedom and societal order. Our seemingly lax system of laws and enforcement has long been augmented by civility and good faith among locals. Litigation as a means of dispute resolution in transactions has only more recently become commonplace, as in the past disputes were kept and solved among the aggrieved parties. As we move toward the inevitable internationalization of our society through the invitation of new cultures, though, the maturation of our system of dispute resolution will also have to evolve.
With the onslaught of migration that will no doubt continue unabated, the innocent age of the casual nature of Belizeans in our transactional relationships is surely coming to an end, and with it, unfortunately comes an international media display of the darkness of their own, marring the backdrop of our pristine beauty.