Surviving Piracy on Guatemala’s Rio Dulce
An Exclusive Interview with S/V Dream Odyssey

By Buddy Stockwell
Latitudes & Attitudes Seafaring Magazine
May 2009

Rio Dulce

Guatemala’s popular Rio Dulce suffered a violent crime streak in 2008 wherein two separate pirate gangs boarded vessels. On August 9, 2008, Daniel Dryden, aboard Sunday’s Child, was murdered in Monkey Bay. His wife Nancy survived a punctured lung.

Just two days later, on August 11, three yachts, Dream Odyssey, C-Toy, and Mima arrived for hurricane season and anchored downriver away from Monkey Bay. For Roy and Michelle Parsons aboard Dream Odyssey, it became a nightmare: they were boarded, bound and gagged at gunpoint while twenty thousand dollars worth of equipment was stripped from their boat.

These incidents were appalling; however, the focus here is on not on the attacks but the aftermath. Crime can happen anywhere. The more compelling issue is how the local community reacts to it. In this exclusive interview aboard Dream Odyssey, it becomes clear that the Parsons were victims twice, once at the hands of Rio Dulce pirates and once again at the hands of corruption within Guatemala’s criminal justice system.

Michelle and Roy Parsons

Thanks for having me aboard and for having the courage to speak out. Before we discuss the aftermath of your attack, I would like to debunk a widespread local rumor that blames the piracy attack on you. It is alleged that the Livingston agent who checks vessels into the Rio warned you not to anchor; that you were told about the Dryden murder and told to go to a marina. Also, local boaters maintain that cruising guides warn against anchoring where you did. What is your response to all that?

The agent told us about Daniel Dryden’s murder. But, he said it was an isolated incident; the first in four years. He emphasized the Rio Dulce is safe. He said we would be safe as long as we anchored together. He did not say anything at all about dangerous areas or going to a marina.

By the time we checked in it was too late in the day to reach the marina areas upriver before closing time. We were going to have to anchor. Rather than anchor upriver where Daniel Dryden was just murdered, we anchored downriver. We read the cruising guides carefully. None of them have any warnings at all against anchoring anywhere on the Rio Dulce.

We were very conscientious but bad advice put us in a very dangerous position and we paid a heavy price.

Let’s move on to the prosecution of the criminals. You wrote online that "lawyers seemed determined to prosecute" the pirates. Tell me more.  

The lawyer handling the case said we needed to work together to send the pirates to prison for as long as possible. He was excited. He felt that for once he could get a conviction. He explained that it is very hard to convict criminals in Guatemala.   Why did the lawyer feel your particular case was such a good one?   There was conclusive evidence and a confession.

The pirate gang was a father and three sons with one other man. Our lawyer and police raided their village. The only way to get there is by boat, but the police do not have a boat. So, locals arranged for a private launch and gasoline. Our lawyer and approximately twenty-five policemen planned to search six houses. Three houses were searched and our flat screen television, digital camera, CD player, printer and laptop computer were found. The oldest son then confessed.

The other three houses were not searched because a “Mayan call” went out on the river alerting nearby villages that police were present on the river. While search efforts were ongoing a mob of forty to fifty appeared. Some came by canoe from villages across the river.

Armed with machetes and boards with nails in the ends, the mob ran our lawyer and the police out of town. The police almost capsized the launch while running away. That ended search efforts. The rest of our property was never found. The recovered items were held as evidence and two of the pirates were later arrested.

We also identified one of the pirates by photograph and described the leader of the group and his pistol in fine detail. After all, we looked at him for over an hour while he pointed his gun at us. We were assured our descriptions were a perfect match.

The evidence was conclusive.

Who provided the private boat for the police? 

They do not want to be identified. They fear for their personal safety. They claim they could be harmed or killed if word got out they helped the police. 

There are rumors that the judge demanded a bribe to release your recovered property, is that true?  

It was implied. INGUAT [Guatemala’s government office on tourism] assigned us an agent and interpreter. We never saw the judge; he kept standing us up and sending messages for new, additional paperwork.

We made numerous trips from the Rio Dulce to the city of Puerto Barrios where our case was pending. We kept visiting the Guatemala Ministerio Publico and the Courthouse, but the judge stood us up every time.

It took all day every time we went. Our INGUAT agent finally told us to stop going and that he would go to court for us. Many different times he submitted new paperwork, but the judge would not budge nor see him.

At that point, a lady attorney in Guatemala City was hired by INGUAT to come to Puerto Barrios and get to the bottom of the problem. But, the day before her trip to Puerto Barrios, her brother, also a lawyer, was assassinated. He was shot to death while riding his motorcycle to work in Guatemala City. So, understandably, she could not come.

We were out of options. INGUAT said we could go to the Guatemalan press and expose the whole thing, or offer the judge a bribe, a very common custom in Guatemala.

While we were deciding what to do next, the judge threw INGUAT off the case and sent word that we had to hire a private lawyer. Either he wanted a bribe or figured we would give up and abandon the recovered items worth $3,800.00. This same judge used the same type of stall tactics in the Daniel Dryden murder case.   There are "frontier justice" advocates amongst the ex-patriots and live aboard boaters on the Rio Dulce who contend that crime problems are handled very effectively in Guatemala, just differently than we “gringos” are used to, that’s all. What do say in response to that?   No one has come out of the frontier in Guatemala to bring us justice, we can tell you that. We will never see the majority of our stolen goods. Policemen with guns can't stand up to villagers armed with sticks and machetes because these matters are "very sensitive."

Twenty-nine policemen were taken hostage at the mouth of the river earlier in the year due to ongoing land disputes in Guatemala. Belgian tourists were taken hostage at that time too. It is not true that the Rio Dulce has not had problems for years. These are ongoing, unresolved problems.

The police are afraid of the people and the people don't trust the police. Our case had hard evidence but the judge let our pirates go as well as the two arrested pirates in the Dryden murder case.

It is widely rumored by locals that the judge was bribed for approximately one thousand dollars to let our pirates go. Who knows? All we know is that the judge let absolutely guilty criminals go free. That is not effective justice it is anarchy.   

Your incident aside, though, isn’t the Rio Dulce relatively safe when compared to truly high-risk destinations you have been to in the Caribbean?  

No, it is not relatively safe in comparison. We have sailed the entire Caribbean, including high-risk areas in Venezuela and Colombia. The Rio Dulce is just as risky in our opinion because information about crime is suppressed and that puts cruisers at risk.

In all the other high-risk areas of the Caribbean, safety and security information is openly shared. In Venezuela, for example, marinas’ web sites warn cruisers about specific precautions they should take. But, on the Rio Dulce there are no such warnings and no proactive efforts to warn cruisers at all. You hear excuses like it might hurt business, cause trouble, or get someone killed. That is just the way it is in Guatemala.

What do you mean when you say "that is the way it is in Guatemala”?   

When we were at our wits end with the judge, INGUAT suggested that our very last resort was to go to the press. But, we were warned that if we elected to do that INGUAT would have to immediately provide armed guards around the clock and we should leave Guatemala. People really do get murdered for speaking out here. Again, that is just the way it is in Guatemala.

Please tell me specifically what the judge’s formal ruling was?  

We were told the ruling was “dismissal for lack of evidence." That was extremely offensive. The evidence was perfect; however, our pirates were all released. The same judge also released the two gang members who were arrested for the murder of Dan Dryden. All of them are completely free and back on the Rio Dulce.

Were you in court when the judge released the pirates who robbed you?

We had no day in court, ever. Everything was done behind closed doors. When we learned of the ruling we contacted the U.S. Embassy. They were very upset about a release of criminals who confessed to harming U.S. Citizens. The U.S. Embassy, the Guatemala Ministerio Publico and INGUAT all brought pressure to bear and soon thereafter a replacement judge processed our paperwork and released our five recovered items within ten days. We will never get the other sixty stolen items back.   Did you get to appear before the new judge?   No. We tried but he refused. We can’t tell you what a Guatemalan judge looks like. We were not included in any part of any proceedings.   What about all the various pirates who were set free? Couldn’t the new judge haul them all back into court?   No. All the pirates who were arrested on the Rio are now free again. That is the end of it.

S/V Dream Odyssey

What impressions are you left with regarding the Guatemalan government?  

Well, INGUAT tried their best to help and the lawyer tried his best too. But, corruption in the judicial system, the ineffective police force, and the public's fear of being murdered for speaking out and standing up for justice in Guatemala makes it very difficult to convict criminals. Don’t take our word for it. Guatemala’s Attorney General resigned in July of 2008 because of the thousands and thousands of unsolved murders that year alone in Guatemala. We feel bad for all the good people who risk their lives and are getting killed while trying to bring justice to Guatemala.  

What was the reaction of the lawyer and INGUAT when the pirates in your case were released? 

They didn't say much. The impression we got was that they were terribly disappointed and terribly frustrated. It was horrible for all of us. 

What was the biggest disappointment for you in this whole process? 

We have to say it was the lack of concern by some in the local boating community on the Rio Dulce. Out of all the boaters living there, only two or three came by initially and asked if they could help. Our incident was announced on the VHF Cruiser’s Net on day-one, but by day-two it was no longer broadcast and any attempted discussions on the subject were shot down as unrelated to the format. Word of our attack was quickly and effectively squelched on that program.

We have become accustomed to cruising communities everywhere else in the U.S.A. and the rest of the Caribbean where support pours out when a fellow cruiser is harmed or in trouble. We did not get that support on the Rio Dulce. We were isolated, ignored and alone, partly because many locals do not want to discuss the serious security issues on the Rio Dulce.

It finally dawned on us that the Rio Dulce is not a typical cruising community. It is largely a live aboard and ex-patriot community that keeps to itself and protects local business interests. In our opinion, cruisers like us are just tourists passing through for hurricane season, that's all.

Do you think cruisers should avoid the Rio Dulce? 

No, not necessarily. There are many beautiful things to see in Guatemala. It is a very interesting destination. We don’t shy away from risky places. We traveled inland in Colombia. We spent significant time in risky areas of Venezuela. The only concern we have personally about the Rio Dulce is that many in the local community are, for whatever reason, simply unwilling to inform cruisers about the dangers here.

It is a problem to have an agent welcoming newcomers to the Rio Dulce by saying the river is safe for anchoring when it is common local knowledge that it is definitely not safe to anchor in certain areas. A simple warning could very well have prevented our incident altogether.  

What would you tell cruisers coming to the Rio Dulce?  

Understand that once you come into the Rio Dulce it is very hard to relocate. Once hurricane season begins you are at higher latitudes on a windward coast. In Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, you are far south and have many options. You can move to different countries and still comply with boat insurance requirements. Once deep into the Rio Dulce, however, you are there for the duration of the season.

We advise making sure you have a reservation in a marina that provides armed guards. Marinas are very reasonably priced and fill up quickly. If trouble breaks out, you do not want to be left out on the hook with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.    

I am conducting this interview aboard your yacht, anchored upriver in the Rio Dulce just off from one of the marinas where you have been waiting for a slip to come available. Are you concerned about being anchored out now?  

A little, yes. Prior to getting robbed, without fail, we always locked up before going to sleep. The pirates were successful because they attacked in the early evening before we locked up. Now we lock up at dusk. Unfortunately, this is not the way we had envisioned cruising.

Even though we are relatively safe when locked in, we still get a little nervous when we hear outboards come very close at low speed after dark. This is a busy river. During the day, most passersby are friendly and wave, but a few guys stare without smiling or waving. Surely some of them are sizing us up. Based on our personal experiences, only a fool would believe otherwise.   Have you gotten over the emotional stress caused by the incident?   We are better. Initially, it was all-consuming. We relived the event over and over; how we were tied up and held at gunpoint for over an hour, all while we feared the very real possibility of being killed. It was such a personal violation.

But, at the same time we refuse to let it color our dream of cruising or diminish our love of meeting new people. We have been very active cruisers sailing the East Coast of the U.S., the Bahamas, the entire Eastern and Western Caribbean, South America, and Central America. We have been on the move for five years now. We will not let this single incident on the Rio Dulce, nor frustration over the lack of law and order in Guatemala diminish our joy for cruising. We love discovering new destinations and learning about new cultures. That will not change. You take the good with the bad.

We are lucky to be alive after what happened and we are counting our blessings. We also pray a lot for Nancy Dryden. As bad as we feel, we can’t even imagine walking in her shoes. Our hearts go out to her and the Dryden family.  

Thanks for having me aboard and sharing your experiences. As we speak, the sun is setting and it is time for me to return to Indigo Moon. Thanks again, and may your next hurricane season be less eventful!

Let’s hope so!

Story originally published in Latitudes & Attitudes Seafaring magazine May, 2009.