The deaths of Canadian Francesca Matus and her American boyfriend, Drew DeVoursney, in Belize are currently being investigated as homicides, and a security expert says travellers should exercise caution when visiting the tropical hot spot.
The bodies of Matus, 52, of Markham, Ont., and DeVoursney, 36, from Georgia, were discovered Monday in a sugar cane field in the Corozal district and police say the cause of death appears to be strangulation.
DeVoursney’s mother says the American embassy told her that the pair was found with duct tape wrapped around their wrists.
WATCH: What we know about the Canadian found dead in Belize
Global Affairs Canada does not have a nationwide travel advisory in place for Belize, but advises on its website that Canadians “exercise a high degree of caution due to a high rate of violent crime throughout the country.”
“Criminal activity, including armed robbery, mugging and sexual assault, is a significant problem throughout Belize,” Global Affairs writes on its website. “Robberies and assaults have been reported in resort areas. There has been a noted increase in violent crime targeting tourists since the end of 2013.”
The agency advises visitors to stay in groups and ensure that personal belongings and travel documents are secure at all times. Tourists are also advised not to show “signs of affluence” and use taxis after dark instead of walking.
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Walter McKay, a former Vancouver police detective and security expert, says the country is relatively “quiet” and safe compared to its neighbours, like Mexico and Honduras.
“It is on the ocean so you’ll have connecting points for drugs and what not but it’s not a main transit point,” McKay said. “There is an uptick [in violent crimes] but in general there is an uptick all over Latin America.”
Belize (approximately 335,000 people) has the world’s third-highest homicide rate, with 44.7 homicides per 100,000 population, according to 2013 data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
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By comparison, U.S. cities like Detroit had a rate of 43.5 in 2015 or Baltimore with a rate of 55.3 homicides per 100,000 people, according to 2015 FBI statistics.
McKay said following travel tips like avoiding bars after dark, limiting alcohol consumption and avoiding unlicensed taxis can help you stay safe in Belize.
“Make sure you have enough money and don’t use an ATM,” he said. “If somebody is going to target you they know they will get money.”
McKay said while there are still few details in this case, drinking to excess can lead to personal injury or death in tourist destinations throughout Central America.
“It’s amazing that people go into a foreign country that they may or may not speak and drink as much as they can,” he said. “Go ahead and have fun, drink in moderation, and be aware of your surroundings.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada has also issued a health notice over concerns of the Zika virus in Belize, recommending that pregnant women and those considering becoming pregnant should avoid travel to the country.
Meanwhile, family and friends of Matus and DeVoursney are still coming to grips with the deaths of the couple who were last seen April 25 leaving a bar at night.
“I’m not able to really do anything, kind of just sit and think and cry and that’s all I’m capable of at the moment,” DeVoursney’s mother, Char, told the Canadian Press. She said her son was a former U.S. marine who had overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.
Canadian and American expats had been scouring the area in the past week in a desperate search to find the couple.
“Our thoughts are with the loved ones of the Canadian citizen who passed away in Belize. Consular services are being provided to the family during this difficult time,” Austin Jean, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, told Global News Tuesday.
“Canadian consular officials continue to liaise with local authorities to gather additional information.”
— With files from the Canadian Press