For live and premium content, sign up for our email newsletter and we'll send reports directly to your inbox
By now, many of you have likely heard about the horrific death of American cardiologist and Virginia Tech associate professor Dr. Gary Swank of Roanoke, Virginia, while fishing in San Pedro, Belize, near Ambergris Caye. The doctor and his guide, Mario Graniel, were gunned down in a lagoon outside of San Pedro while fishing.
Both men were shot multiple times by someone aboard what is believed to be a dark-colored skiff, sometime between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. on Sunday, June 23. While Graniel was found dead in the cockpit of the boat, Swank was found nearby floating facedown in the water with four bullet wounds.
Early reports state that Graniel had been targeted the night before at his home, but having survived the attack decided to keep his scheduled fishing trip the next morning with Dr. Swank. There is speculation about a dispute between Graniel and a local gang member, but no details are known at this time. What we do know is that these appalling events are linked to a much bigger problem.
While Swank is the first fly fisherman that we know of to succumb to such violence, Belize is currently battling a nationwide epidemic of gang and gun violence. In fact, the country was recently labeled fourth in per capita global murder rates, and in January of 2019, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs raised the travel advisory from level 1 to level 2, encouraging potential travelers to exercise increased caution. It states that “violent crime—such as sexual assault, home invasions, armed robberies, and murder—are common even during daylight hours and in tourist areas. A significant portion of violent crime is gang-related. Due to high crime travelers are advised to exercise caution while traveling to the south side of Belize City. Local police lack the resources and training to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents. Most crimes remain unresolved and unprosecuted.” But the violence is not limited to Belize City, as we see from the tragic events near San Pedro. This is the second death of a US tourist in the Ambergris Caye region in two years.
The Overseas Security Advisory Council’s (OSAC) website posted a statement in regard to traveling to Belize in 2019: “There is no indication that criminals actively target US citizens in Belize. Tourists and expatriates residing in Belize are more susceptible to incidents of crime due to perceived wealth, particularly when not exhibiting robust personal security practices and situational awareness. Major crimes continue to shift from being concentrated in the high-population area of Belize City to districts in the north, west, and south of Belize, as reported in 2018.
“Those who practice good personal security are less likely to be impacted. Criminal acts, including extremely violent acts, occur in all areas of Belize.
“Notable murders of US citizens occurred in 2018. The police are actively investigating; however, all murders in recent years remain unsolved.”
Many anglers feel a strong connection to Belize and its lodges and people, and for good reason, but the skyrocketing murder rate and the police force’s inability to prevent or solve these murders is getting harder to ignore, especially in light of the recent events. There is no evidence suggesting that fly fishermen are being targeted directly, however.
For now, crime rates remain lowest in the more remote areas and islands where gang activity is least likely, and booking trips with trusted and vetted outfitters and lodges is highly recommended. In a recent statement about these events, Jim Klug of Yellow Dog said this: “While tragic, this is an isolated incident that appears to have stemmed from personal issues that the tour guide had with some nasty individuals. For anglers, this situation reiterates the importance of booking a trip with a known, vetted and established guide, outfitter or lodge. All of the operations that we work with in Belize are 100% committed to the safety of our customers, and we feel completely confident that our clients are in good hands with the Belizean guides that we know and endorse.”
Travelers to Belize or any other high-crime nations in Central America should always exercise caution, especially in bigger cities. For the safest experience possible, time in cities should be kept at a minimum or avoided all together if possible.
Dr. Swank’s death and the escalating crime wave in Belize weigh heavily on us at the time of this writing. We did not have the good fortune of knowing the doctor personally, but he was a member of our angling community, and our hearts go out to his family. Stay safe anglers. Best regards, Seth Fields, Editor.
Postscript: Global Rescue, the medical and security evacuation provider, agreed at press time to make its entire Destination Report on Belize available to Angling Report subscribers. To access it, click on the URL below. This report, and hundreds more on countries around the world, are produced in-house at Global Rescue to serve the security needs of its paid members. No government entity or corporate interest has input to these reports. You can read reports like this on an ongoing basis by becoming a Global Rescue member. You can do so at: www.globalrescue.com. The Belize report is available for a limited time at: https://www.anglingreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/BelizeDestinationReport.pdf