Cher, August 2010
When we tell people we’re
cruising in the Southwest Caribbean, they commonly ask us, “Is it
answer has to be yes. In the last year,
we’ve heard of two boats that have
sunk at sea, and we’ve seen two other boats that had gone onto reefs
and been abandoned. When you take into
account that there are only a few hundred boats cruising this area, and
that there may be other tragedies we haven’t heard of, four lost boats
in a year certainly puts our way of life high on the list of dangerous
things to do.
it’s even more dangerous to be an
American expatriate, one of the thousands of Americans who have taken
residence down here because it’s beautiful, warm, and cheap. We’ve met several expats, and even visited
some of their homes. For example, after leaving Bocas del Toro, Panama,
last September, we stopped in lovely Cauchero, a little bay about an
hour by fast launch from the population center of Bocas Town. There were two other boats in the anchorage,
and, as frequently happens in such situations, we were invited by one
of them for cocktails. But this time,
unusually, our host was not one of the cruisers but the owner of a
nearby island. Her name was Cher.
island in Cauchero
The party was delightful, and so was
Cher. On her little island she had, in
addition to a great view of the Caribbean: a kinkajou; a spider monkey;
and two little rag-mop dogs. The spider
monkey occasionally rode one of the dogs around, and the dog didn’t
seem to mind. Cher told us some local
residents had found the kinkajou as a baby, and she had nursed it to
health. As soon as it was weaned, Cher
released it on the mainland, several miles from her island home. But a few days later the little fellow showed
up on the island, soaking wet – he had traveled the several miles along
the shore through the rainforest, then swum a hundred meters or so to
the island, to return to the only mother he had ever known – Cher.
with the kinkajou
we expressed an interest in the
local rivers, Cher volunteered to take us to a nearby waterfall. It was a great trip, and she suggested we
should all go the following day to another river nearby, this time for
a long trip up into the rainforest. On
that trip, Cher continually told us how much she loved the rivers of
Cauchero, the huge banyan trees with fantastic roots, the monkeys, the
crocodiles, and the local Indian villages. She
us about her personal project, to get drinking water piped to
the local one-room schoolhouse for Indians.
trees on one of Cher’s favorite rivers
sailed away the next day, taking
with us some good pictures and even better memories.
We traveled to the Panama mainland near Colon, then
on to the San Blas Islands, and eventually to Honduras.
We haven’t yet returned to the Bocas area.
months after we left, Cher
disappeared after attending a party held by one Wild Bill Cortez,
another expat who was known to be interested in a building Cher owned
near Bocas. A few weeks ago, her body, and
those of several other expats, were discovered on Wild Bill’s property. Wild Bill and his wife apparently escaped to
Nicaragua and have been arrested there. The
isn’t yet known, but it appears that Cher was killed for
that could be just an isolated
incident. But only a week before we
visited Cher, we met a couple whose house had been burglarized that
week. They considered themselves
fortunate: they told us about another expat who was killed when he
tried to defend his home against some thieves who were after drug money
(it turned out the thieves had the wrong house).
serious crimes in a few weeks,
against only a few hundred expats in the Bocas area, yields a crime
rate substantially higher than that of, say, Washington, DC.
of the problem, of course, is
drugs, which flow through Central America like water.
Another problem is that several countries (including
Panama) have no extradition treaty with the United States, so some
expats aren’t there just for the sun and relaxation.
But part of the problem, in Cher’s case at least, is
that much of the property owned by expats is not deeded, but is held
through “Right of Possession”, which allows anybody to hold property as
long as he can show that he is either living on the property or using
it productively (for instance, for agriculture). So,
wants a nice piece of property and is ruthless enough, he
can simply kill the owner, bury the body, and move in.
He then files for Right of Possession in the local
court, and, presto! He owns the property
without ever having to transfer a deed.
the reasons for her death,
Cher was a wonderful soul whose death touched us – and many others –
deeply, and yes, life in this part of the world is dangerous – and it’s
not just the hurricanes.