Sometimes bad stuff happens…even in beautiful places. And sometimes, bizarre events can affect our investments and even our investing psychology.
The bizarre story about John McAfee’s potential involvement in a grisly murder on the tranquil island of Ambergis Caye Belize has become a major focus of the international media.
It’s a sad story on many counts, most importantly because 52 year old American expatriate Gregory Faull is dead.
We didn’t know Mr. Faull, but our thoughts and sympathies are with his friends and family. They are innocent victims of this unfortunate turn of events. It’s always traumatic and tragic to lose a loved one.
And we don’t know John McAfee personally, so our interest in this story isn’t about him either. It’s more about our our roles as unofficial ambassadors for Belize. Since our first visit nearly 7 years ago, we’ve been telling the world how wonderful Belize is. Then a story like this one breaks, and being so close to the community of Ambergris Caye, our sympathies are not only with the victim, but with the people of Belize.
Of course, what the world is obsessed with is the eccentric tragedy that is becoming the life of John McAfee.
McAfee’s anti-virus software company made him a household name. Sadly, ugly things happen every day all around the globe, but when the parties involved in tragic events are famous, like O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson or John McAfee, the story can easily get blown entirely out of proportion.
For the residents of Ambergris Caye, the ramifications of the world’s temporary fixation on this story range from difficult to devastating.
It’s bad enough to have a horrible murder occur in your community. But when the prime suspect is a celebrity who alleges to the world that your police department is corrupt and your community is unsafe, it’s extremely upsetting. More, for a community whose economy relies significantly on tourism, the magnification of this story can have a highly detrimental impact on the good and innocent people of Ambergris Caye.
Having spent a lot of time in Ambergris Caye, we feel compelled to put the McAfee story in perspective for those who don’t yet know, or are just getting to know, Belize and Ambergris Caye.
We have many friends there and for many years, we’ve been introducing people to this beautiful Caribbean paradise. It saddens us that many people around the world are drawing negative conclusions about Belize simply based on the sensationalism surrounding the McAfee story.
So here are some things to take into consideration when forming opinions about Belize and Ambergris Caye in the wake of the the McAfee murder mystery…
Belize is a country that is roughly the geographical size of Delaware, but has a population of about 330,000. The country has two primary components: the mainland and the islands (Cayes).
Ambergris Caye is the largest island, measuring approximately 24 miles long and 3 miles wide. By comparison, the largest island in The Bahamas is New Providence, which is 21 miles long and 7 miles wide. The well-known city of Nassau is located on New Providence.
Although Ambergris Caye makes up only 63 square miles of Belize’s entire land mass of 8,867 square miles, 70% of all tourists to Belize visit Ambergris Caye. Both John McAfee and his late neighbor, murder victim Gregory Faull, maintained residences on Ambergris Caye. It’s a favorite of many American and Canadian expatriates and when you see it in person, it’s easy to see why. It’s beautiful, warm, friendly and (dare we say?) safe.
Our good friend and American expatriate John Turley, who has been living with his family and working in Ambergris Caye since 2005, recorded a video of both Mr. McAfee’s and the late Mr. Faull’s homes. In the video, John shares his personal perspectives on the sad story.
As you’ll see, these homes are not hiding behind gates and guards deep in some topical jungle. Rather, these homes are right out on the open beach, facing the barrier reef and Caribbean Ocean. We’ve passed by these homes several times during our many travels to Ambergris Caye. We’ve never seen anything that raised a concern for us.
Of course, though we’ve been to Ambergris Caye many times and have walked around freely in town (at all hours of the day and night) without ever feeling unsafe, our experiences are purely anecdotal and potentially biased. It’s no secret we love Belize.
So setting our personal experiences aside, here’s some third party information that’s worth considering…
“Many of the safest places in Belize are the off-shore cayes (islands), which are some of the major tourist destinations. While crime still exists on the cayes, it is much less frequent and generally non-violent.”
This isn’t to say there isn’t crime in Belize. In fact, the murder rate per capita is high by international standards. However the vast majority of these murders are gang related and in the major mainland cities of Belize City and Belmopan, not on Ambergris Caye. When you understand that, then the Department of State’s comment makes more sense.
So, in addition to Mr. MacAfee’s celebrity and eccentricity, another reason Mr. Faull’s murder is such big news in Belize is that this kind of crime rarely occurs on Ambergris Caye.
For additional contrast, consider the Department of State’s report on The Bahamas:
“The U.S. Department of State rates the criminal threat level for New Providence Island as CRITICAL”
Again, New Providence is the largest island of the Bahamas and home to the city of Nassau. New Providence Island in The Bahamas, like Ambergris Caye in Belize, is a beautiful tropical island in the Caribbean and is part of a larger country. Both islands attract tourists, expatriates and international investors. We believe the similarities warrant our comparison.
More from the U.S. Department of State on The Bahamas:
“There were 127 homicides in The Bahamas in 2011, up from 94 in 2010, with nearly all the victims being Bahamian. This is a 35 percent increase from 2010. The police report that many of the homicides were a result of drugs, domestic violence, and retaliation/retribution crimes with firearms being the weapon of choice.”
Yet a cursory search of the internet does not find a plethora of news articles reporting on the dangers of visiting The Bahamas.
In fact, in an article published in the New York Times to help readers enjoy a successful trip to The Bahamas, there is no mention of crime. Neither is the Bahamian murder rate an item of discussion in the many articles describing Prince Harry’s visit there earlier this year.
What do you think the chances are that many of the news articles that will be written about Belize in the coming months will mention the John McAfee murder investigation? And not to belittle the tragic murder of Gregory Faull, is it really fair to the community of Ambergris Caye to cast it in the shadow of a single horrible crime simply because the leading suspect is famous?
Back to Belize, again from the U.S. Department of State:
“There were 125 murders recorded [in Belize] for 2011, four less than 2010, likely due to the gang truce in Belize City that began in September 2011. However, even though the number of murders dipped, ending a three-year trend of new records for murders, the murder rate actually increased slightly, due to a slight decrease in the population. A government of Belize (GOB)-supported gang truce was agreed to in September 2011 and dramatically reduced the intentional homicides during the final four months of 2011. There were also highly-publicized raids in known gang areas by the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU). There were only nine murders reported in the 100 days following the truce. The gang truce will undoubtedly have an impact on violent crime in Belize City in 2012.”
If you’ve made it this far, we assume you’re seriously interested in understanding the context of the McAfee story, so let us point out a few important items.
First, both The Bahamas and Belize have populations in the mid-300,000 range. Each had approximately 125 murders in 2011, most of which were drug and gang related.
However, the crime threat in The Bahamas is considered CRITICAL by the U.S. government, while Belize is not. Yet, if you were to Google “The Bahamas” and “Belize”, the search results (many of which feature the McAfee story) might have you believe that Belize is a far scarier place, which is factually not true.
To add some additional context, consider another U.S. city that attracts millions of visitors every year.
New Orleans also has a population in the mid-300,000’s, putting it on par with Belize and The Bahamas. In 2011, New Orleans had 199 murders, making it statistically far more deadly than either Belize or The Bahamas. Yet many people, especially Americans, don’t hesitate to go to New Orleans for a conference, vacation, entertainment or business.
We hope by now, the point is obvious.
If a celebrity in any town in the U.S. is the prime suspect in a grisly slaying, it gets pasted all over the news. Just think about the O.J. Simpson case.
But Nicole Brown-Simpson’s horrifying murder didn’t suddenly make Brentwood a grossly unsafe place, though we’re certain is freaked out the neighbors.
Of course, as a suburb of Los Angeles, sensationalized news coverage could blend Brentwood’s low crime rate with the larger metro’s higher rate, and then in the context of the Simpson case, it could make Brentwood seem like a war zone. That’s what happens to Ambergris Caye when it gets lumped in with Belize City. But it’s not an accurate story.
The sad part for us, as big fans of Ambergris Caye, is innocent people and businesses will be detrimentally affected by this over-hyped story. Because when tourists and investors turn away from Ambergris Caye simply because of the John McAfee story, the good people who work in the Belizean economy will be unfairly victimized, making an ugly story even more tragic. We’re guessing no one will report on that. It isn’t sexy.
Of course, we see opportunity in nearly every adversity. And just like when a corporate scandal is reported about one company in a given sector can unfairly drop the prices of every other perfectly fine company in the same space, savvy investors can move in when most casual observers are moving away. Then later, when things calm down and perspectives normalize, the level-headed investor finds themselves holding a valuable asset.
So if you’re someone who’s considered Belize for vacation, second home, business or investment, before you judge Belize in the wake of the John McAfee story, be sure to keep the sordid affair in context.
Meanwhile, we invite you to join us on an upcoming trip to Ambergris Caye and come see beautiful Belize for yourself. Statistically speaking, it would be safer than spending a weekend in New Orleans (not that we would discourage from visiting NOLA…we just did and it was great!).
In any case, we encourage you not to allow sensationalized news to taint your view of Ambergris Caye, a.k.a. La Isla Bonita, one of the truly wonderful places on Earth.