Rumors On The Río

By Douglas Bernon
August 10, 2001
At the fork of Río Tatin and Río Dulce, Guatemala
15 46.695 N 88 48.200 W

The Río Dulce is a much-discussed and revered place among cruisers in the Northwest Caribbean. There are loads of stories of people who thought they might stay a month and left three years later. In the past dozen or so years the Río Dulce has become a sanctuary for a small cruising community that stays at about a half dozen marinas around Fronteras, a small town just before Lake Izabel, about 20 miles inland from Livingston. Even in the worst days of Hurricane Mitch, which roared right through these parts, boats in the Río were safe and sound. Among its many virtues, the Río is an inexpensive place to leave a boat when you want to travel inland in Central America. It's a fresh-water zone, free of reefs and shallows, and on top of everything else, it's one of the natural jewels in this part of the world: magnificent fishing, breathtaking wildlife, accessible rainforests, and only a five-hour bus ride to Guatemala City. For wealthy Guatemalans there's a private air strip nearby. With this level of opulence in the midst of punishing poverty, it's not surprising there's been, and will continue to be, trouble here. This year, the Río has been the subject of many frightening rumors.

Photo of cruising the Rio Dulce

Last December, on the Northwest Caribbean Net, we started hearing the horror tales of cruising boats being boarded at gunpoint on the river, of machete-wielding pirates, armed bands of marauding sea-bandits who were infesting the river, and one bona fide murder. Tales were fantastic and frightening, and none of us knew what to make of them. Just after the first of this year, we were told that there was a mass exodus of American cruising boats, sometimes traveling as an armada, sometimes guarded by hired men with automatic weapons sitting on the bow pulpits. Curiously, as we listened to the net, most of these stories came from Americans. Cruisers from other nations, it seemed, were unfazed by the stories and continued to enter the Río in droves.

By February, however, the robbery reports on the morning net had dried up altogether. Explanations for the revived safety tended to include a circuitous denouement. It went something like this: "The problem's been taken care of locally." No one knew or knows exactly what to make of this explanation, but the gist of it was put pithily one morning on the net by Bob, an American ex-pat living here on his sailboat DXBound: "Some people have ended up dead, and now its gotten very safe and quiet here."

Photo of a misty morning on the Rio Tatin in Guatemala A misty morning dawns on Sea Camp, at anchor beside us near the Rio Tatin.

Here are several distillations of his comment, which we've heard from different cruisers:

One version: A band of local pirates began preying on the cruising community. Success led to ambition, and they made the fatal error of stealing an outboard engine from a local fisherman who's a member of a powerful fishing co-operative. The fishermen are said to have tracked down the leading bandito, slaughtered him and his family, and thereby convinced his compatriots to find new work.

Another version: The brigands were former military men who in these relatively more peaceful times are out of work. Trained for nothing but fighting, they'd resorted to thievery but were massacred by former guerillas in the sporadic continuation of the blood-letting that's cost so many thousands of lives here.

Another version, less poetic and least likely: The Guatemalan navy is patrolling more frequently.

Any or all of these tales may not hold water. What's known for sure is that the farther one is from the source of a rumor, the more frightening it can seem. Down here, on the scene, one can get day-to-day updates in person and via the radio net, and what seems preposterously dangerous at greater distance takes on a marginally more reasonable feel close at hand. Regardless of proximity, however, it's scary to imagine being boarded and robbed.

The truth is that all cruisers are billionaires compared to the general citizenry of Central American nations, and we're essentially sitting ducks, especially when anchored in remote places alone, which few sailors are doing these days. Regardless, though, of where one lives or vacations, all the concertina wire in the world and a totally gated and guarded community, offer an illusion and a hope, not a guarantee.

Despite all this, everyone who's been to the Río sings its praises, and we've met many European boats who, year after year, leave their vessels here for hurricane season, fly home, and return in the fall. After hearing every possible tale of impending disaster, we put it in perspective in Belize, and decided we still wanted to come. We're glad we did. In many ways, getting to the Río is the big accomplishment of our first cruising year. We're amazed we're here.

Photo of a young Guatemalan boy holding a parrot A visitor on the river.

Amazing, too, is the story of the sailor who was murdered on board his vessel. Like all sea stories, mysteries and Third-World yarns, the details of this tale are sometimes a direct function of time and alcohol, but the consensus among cruisers and locals with whom we've spoken goes something like this. Last December an American was found murdered on his sailboat. His Columbian wife was off visiting her family in Cartagena. His body, discovered on board five days after his demise, was in an unpleasant state. In addition to its inevitable ripening, there were bullet holes in both knees, both shoulders and his forehead. By general agreement, the head shot was the final one. Cynics feared that the local constabulary would find little advantage to their involvement and would likely rule the death to be a suicide. It turns out the cynics weren't far off. Police deemed the killing a robbery, and no culprit was apprehended.

When the corpse was found, the police looked over the boat but found nothing missing. A friend of the dead guy cleaned the boat up before the wife returned, and any evidence was effectively destroyed. There never was any murder investigation, and although nothing was reported stolen, the fiction of a robbery gone sour was steadily maintained.

But stories started and rumors spread. Finally, the friend of the deceased was included in the rumors, his charitable clean-up activities leading some to suggest that he'd been covering his tracks. His life became miserable. People began to shun him. Finally, he fled the area to get some peace. Such are the powers of rumors on the Río.

We're glad that we decided to come. The rumors have stopped lots of people from coming, so we have the place relatively to ourselves. Occasionally, we meet another cruiser in passing, and we talk about what we've heard lately, where we've been, where we're going. We like it here. By the way, yesterday I heard a conclusion to the last rumor.

Supposedly, the Good Samaritan is living in Columbia with the dead man's widow.