Cher, August 2010
When we tell people we’re cruising in the Southwest Caribbean, they commonly ask us, “Is it dangerous?”

The 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. 

But 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. Cher's island
Cher’s 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.


Cher with the kinkajou

When 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 also told us about her personal project, to get drinking water piped to the local one-room schoolhouse for Indians.

Banyan trees on one of Cher’s favorite rivers

We 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.

Six 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 whole story isn’t yet known, but it appears that Cher was killed for her property. 

OK, 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). 

Four 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. 

Part 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, if somebody 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.

Whatever 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.

Cher pic