The rapes of two Detroit women at a Jamaican resort has highlighted a pervasive problem on the island getaway: sexual assaults are ignored. Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press
Jamaica’s top tourism official has ordered a security audit of its major resorts and attractions in the wake of a Free Press investigation that found sexual assaults are a long-standing and unchecked problem on the island and that several resorts have tried to cover it up.
In what Jamaican media has described as a “tourism rescue” mission, an international security expert from Texas arrived in Jamaica this month to assist in the island-wide security audit, which is expected to be completed by June.
The audit will address multiple issues, including whether there are enough security cameras at resorts and allegations that several resorts either ignored or tried to cover up sexual assault claims. Multiple tourists said Sandals Resorts offered them free vacation stays or cash refunds in exchange for signing nondisclosure agreements.
Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, ordered the audit in October following the rapes of two Detroit women who were sexually assaulted at gunpoint in their all-inclusive resort by an employee who broke into their room with a gun. The suspect, who was arrested and charged, was wanted for a string of rapes in a nearby parish six months prior to the resort attack.
Security expert Peter Tarlow, a Texas rabbi and well-known consultant for the tourism industry, will help oversee the audit and ultimately draft a document detailing problems found and recommendations for fixing them, such as revoking a license for a security breach. He said Jamaican officials acknowledge they have a problem and that the U.S. Embassy is “very concerned” about allegations that have surfaced involving tourism safety and alleged cover-ups.
“From the two days that I was there, I got a sense that people, of course, are concerned,” said Tarlow, who will return to Jamaica on Jan. 28 to continue the audit process at the request of Bartlett.
“He’s very concerned about trying to make Jamaica a secure destination. He’s very aware of the importance of tourism security. I’m going to do everything I can to help them,” said Tarlow, who received a phone call from Bartlett in December.
Investigation prompts an audit
Tarlow is a scholar in the area of tourism safety, an industry consultant and founder of Tourism & More Inc. He is the author of Event Risk Management and Safety and teaches tourism safety to police chiefs worldwide.
Jamaica’s request of Tarlow came on the heels of a Free Press investigation that found sexual assaults of tourists is a bigger problem than Jamaican authorities have acknowledged, with State Department data showing nearly one American a month is sexually assaulted in Jamaica. The investigation was triggered by the September rapes of two Detroit women at the all-inclusive Hotel Riu Reggae in Montego Bay.
The Detroit women said resort staff and police officials told them rapes (on resorts) were rare. Police and tourism officials told the Free Press the same thing — that they’ve “never heard of this happening before.” So the newspaper looked into those claims and found a widespread problem: According to State Department warnings, sexual assaults are a continuing and historic problem in Jamaica, where 78 Americans reported being sexually assaulted over the last seven years. That’s almost one a month,though the U.S. government suspects this number may be higher as sexual assaults are often underreported.
As the State Department warned in a travel advisory in 2018:
“Exercise increased caution in Jamaica. … Sexual assaults occur frequently, even at all-inclusive resorts,” the U.S. State Department wrote in the 2018 travel alert. “Local police lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
The State Department’s advisory wasn’t the first such alarm.
For three consecutive years, the State Department issued similar warnings in 2012, 2013 and 2014 crime reports, stating: “A special concern continues to be the number of sexual assaults perpetrated by hotel employees at resort hotels on the north coast of Jamaica, and the need for forceful investigation and follow-up by the hotels and by police and other security officials.”
Tarlow said that he is aware of the State Department warnings and that Jamaican officials are committed to addressing them.
“As I get more involved, I’m not going to cover it up. I’m going to yell and scream and do everything I can,” said Tarlow, who believes Jamaicans are sincere in their effort to fix any security issues. “They’ve said, ‘if you have to scream and yell at us, do it.’ “
Tarlow recalled the phone call he received in December from the tourism minister. He said there was no mention of media reports in the call, only a plea for help.
“They asked me to work on tourism security. … This was a short call saying, ‘We would like to have you come to Jamaica. Please come here and work with us on our security,’ ” Tarlow recalled.
After the phone conversation, Tarlow said he looked up the Free Press articles, which included detailed accounts of multiple women who said they were sexually assaulted while vacationing in Jamaica, but that their fears were either downplayed or ignored by the resorts and law enforcement. Two Michigan victims — a 17-year-old girl who said she was raped by a resort lifeguard and her 21-year-old friend, who said she was gang-raped by three resort lifeguards at a Beaches resort in 2015 — have been waiting for more than 3½ years for a trial.
“l feel terrible,” Tarlow said. “I’m married. I have a daughter, granddaughters. I don’t want this to happen to any human being. The real goal is how do we make sure it never happens again.”
Security expert will also review nondisclosure practice
Tarlow also said he will address allegations that Sandals Resorts silenced multiple victims over the years by offering them free trips or cash refunds, in exchange for them signing nondisclosure agreements and promising not to discuss the incidents ever again.
When asked whether he believed this was a proper way to handle sexual assault claims, Tarlow only said that he is aware of such allegations and that he will look into them.
Sandals has denied covering up any sexual assault claims, saying there’s “nothing more important than the safety and security of our guests” and that all sexual assault and harassment claims “are fully reported to law enforcement.”
Tourism Minister Bartlett said he is “very concerned” about any allegations that resorts did not properly handle sexual assault complaints by tourists.
“I am, of course, deeply concerned about the allegations,” Bartlett wrote in a Jan. 7 letter to the Free Press. “The safety and security of our visitors are of utmost priority, and we are seeking a full accounting of what occurred.”
When asked whether he was concerned about the State Department warnings, Bartlett responded:
“Jamaica takes the issues raised in the State Department’s warning seriously, and we are redoubling our efforts to be a leader in tourism safety and security,” Bartlett wrote, adding that efforts include increasing police resources, increasing training and renewed scrutiny of tourism industry hiring practices.
Bartlett also defended the island’s reputation as a top destination for millions of travelers worldwide.
“While we acknowledge the U.S. State Department’s report, it is also a fact that crime can happen anywhere in the world. Last year, more than 4 million people visited Jamaica and the safety and security of each and every individual visiting our country is our highest priority. However, we believe that one violent crime or one sexual assault is too many. Prevention of serious crime in Jamaica is critical, and our vision is getting to zero percent.”
Bartlett said Jamaica also is committed to making sure that hotel staff receive the education and training they need to “properly deal with situations should they arise” and to ensure staff and police are better equipped to “handle these incidents, when they occur, with speed and sensitivity.”
Sexual assaults happen everywhere, experts say
Meanwhile, Tarlow said he does not believe sexual assaults of tourists is unique to Jamaica.
“I would be shocked if what you’re saying is not true about many places around the world, including the United States,” he said. “Tourism stats are often awful around the world. Would I say that Jamaica is worse than any place else? I don’t know. What I can tell you is that throughout much of the world, women travelers have been taken advantage of.”
He stressed: “I’m not condoning any of that, in fact, I’m condemning it.”
Tarlow said he has stressed to Jamaican officials the importance of being transparent when problems occur, which, he believes, they are.
“If something happens, the way to heal that is to be transparent — to deal with it, fix it and to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Tarlow said, adding: “You don’t ever make something better by hiding it.”
Contact Tresa Baldas: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Tbaldas.
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