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Boarded, Bound and Robbed - Cruising the Rio Dulce

by Mark Wheeler on 10 Oct 2008
Mark Amy Susan and Marshall - the lucky ones .. .
Mark and Susan Wheeler left Idaho on Jan. 6 with their children, Amy and Marshall, to pursue a longtime dream of sailing the Caribbean for eight months on their yacht Mima. Sail-World has been following their progress, which has taken them northwards from Panama along the coastline to Guatemala. Most of what they have experienced has been 'fun and exciting ... not all'. Here Mark Wheeler describes how fellow cruisers and friends find out that robbery, violent crime is a long-standing danger in Guatemala's Rio Dulce.

The events I am describing here happened well over a month ago. I have been slow to write about them because I have been processing my thoughts and emotions.

Some of you may be aware of the violent attack on fellow cruisers Dan and Nancy Dryden, s/v Sunday's Child, on Aug. 9. (See Sail-World story ). The attack caused the tragic death of Dan Dryden at the hands of bandits on the Rio Dulce. Our deepest condolences and prayers remain with Nancy as she recovers from her injuries, and the family and friends of the Drydens 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, Aug. 11 began and ended with a range of emotions. We all had 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.

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.

We were checked in and cleared by lunch time. We had a quick meal in Livingston and weighed anchor to head upriver. 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.

The immigration agent had advised us of the Dryden murder when we arrived in Livingston. He also reminded us to not anchor in the middle of the river so we were out of the way of boat traffic, and to anchor near a town and close together. In his words, the Dryden murder was an isolated case and the river otherwise was a safe place.

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 arrange to do some volunteer work with our kids, and maybe visit the spring fed pools at the head of the Tatin River.

We met the local school teacher and his family and went for a quick swim in 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.

We all had an early dinner and retired. Dinghies were lifted and locked as usual; extra lights were left on for security and visibility. After a wonderful barbeque shrimp (Cajun style) 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., all hell broke loose. We were awakened by Greg yelling from s/v CToy that s/v Dream Odyssey had been boarded and robbed at gunpoint. 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 on-board affected 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 five men with machetes and 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 and travel logs for the past four 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 and motor but were unsuccessful.

'We estimate at least $17,000 worth of equipment was taken! Some equipment was damaged while ripping things out, but they did not otherwise trash or damage the boat and THANKFULLY we were not hurt! They were on board at least an hour.

'We believe they got 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 and we are doing our best to put it behind us.'

These two were our very first cruising buddies and we are blessed to be their friends. We are all thankful that neither of them were hurt physically, but the senseless and cowardly nature of the robbery still leaves us asking why. Crime at any time is cowardly and usually seen from afar. But this time it was our friends. Much of what was taken will have very little value in the jungle, and these two wonderful individuals have been rocked to the core.

As disturbing as the robbery was, it does not end there. Later that night another boat was boarded, but again no one was hurt.

This sort of activity has been going on for years here, but none of the guide books or Web sites give cruisers any warning about 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 Web sites.

Although everyone is verbally sympathetic to Roy and Michelle, 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 and 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 for those of us who are first time visitors.

The authorities learned the identity of the robbers within days but were unable to react because, they said, it is 'very sensitive.'

When local police tried to recover some of the stolen items, they were run out of town by 40-50 locals carrying machetes and boards with nails through them. Law enforcement officials 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 them were underage and could not be held. The father and ring leader, along with his adult son, were held and just five days ago were released with 'not enough evidence to hold them.' I guess the authorities forgot about the recovered stolen items and positive identification. To add insult to injury, it was recently suggested to Roy and Michelle that a payment to the judge might speed up the release of their recovered stolen items.

The take-home message is clear: We must stay ever vigilant and not forget that the world is still a place where greed and selfishness often rules the day.

Even so, it has become a learning experience. We have talked with the kids at length about the impact such a selfish act has had on Roy and Michelle. We also have talked about the need to be safe, but to be careful not to paint everyone (in this case an entire village of indigenous Mayan) with the same paintbrush. One bad family does not mean that the entire community is corrupt. We are admittedly a little more on edge now than before but we contin
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