What Can Women Travelers Learn From the Death of Karen Colclough?

Two women hang out at a beach in Nicaragua.

Tim Rogers/Nicaragua Dispatch

All seasoned travelers understand the importance of a kindly stranger in a foreign land. No matter how careful or self-reliant you think you are, there’s always some unexpected moment in your trip when you could use a helping hand; mine came when a I got pulled from a mean-tempered undertow by a Costa Rican surfer who happened to be strolling by on the beach as I was drowning (Pura vida, mae!).

Most of us are fortunate enough to encounter good Samaritans in our time of need.

Karen Colclough wasn’t so lucky. On April 11, she met the wrong stranger on a lonely beach in Nicaragua. And now she’s dead.

The 37-year-old Massachusetts native first realized she was in trouble when she discovered the beach path back to her hotel had been blocked by the rising tide.

She was out taking photos and reflecting on her service-project trip to rural Nicaragua, which ended with a relaxing weekend at the Hotel Barceló, Montelimar, an all-inclusive resort on the sun-kissed Pacific coast of Central America.

Sensing Karen’s high-tide predicament, Fernando Antonio Aburto, a 35-year-old local resident with a long criminal record, reportedly approached the stranded tourist and offered to show her an alternate route back to the hotel. Karen agreed to follow the stranger, unaware that he had an extensive rap sheet for rape and assault.

Once the two were off the beach, Aburto — known locally by the criminal alias “Somazón” — allegedly strangled Karen to death with her own clothing. Her body was found three days later a quarter mile north of the hotel gates. Aburto was arrested when Nicaraguan Police traced him to the crime through Karen’s stolen camera, which he reportedly sold to a neighbor for $27. The suspect had battle-scar scratch marks down his arms. Karen’s funeral was held in Lynnfield, Massachusetts on Friday.

Described by friends as fiercely independent and outdoorsy, Karen was not a rookie traveler. It wasn’t even her first trip to Central America. Friends say she wasn’t naïve or foolish—just victim of a senseless crime. “If someone initiated a conversation with her, she would reply. But it was not like her to engage a stranger,” says childhood friend Stephanie Scaffidi.

Karen Colclough, pictured here working on a wolf release program in Yellowstone National Park.

Karen, tragically, has become part of Nicaragua’s growing femicide statistic — one of 27 women killed so far this year in the Central American country. Violence against women is not endemic to Nicaragua, however; it’s metastasized throughout the region.

U.S. exchange student Leah Britton, 24, lies in hospital bed in neighboring Costa Rica after being shot in the chest during a curbside stickup last week in a quiet neighborhood in the capital city of San José. According to local media reports, unidentified assailants shot Britton when she refused to lie down on the sidewalk after getting robbed along with three other exchange students. The assailants remain at large.

Violent crime can happen anywhere in the world, in the blink of an eye. But the long-term effects of crime suffered overseas can warp lives forever. The trauma of violence is further complicated by a foreign language, an unfamiliar culture, unknown laws, and unnavigable bureaucracies. It can also be financially ruinous to the family of the victim.

Kansas native Jeanette Stauffer has wrestled with all those issues for the past 13 years. Her daughter, former University of Kansas honors student Shannon Martin, was viciously stabbed to death in Golfito, Costa Rica in 2001. Her body was found in a dark field near a local bar. Stauffer got the phone call on Mother’s Day.

Shannon Martin was stabbed to death in Golfito, Costa Rica in 2001.

She spent the next six years working indefatigably to convict her daughter’s killers, fight multiple requests for appeals, and demand answers from U.S., Costa Rican and university authorities. Stauffer’s lonely crusade for justice cost her $285,000 — her entire lifesavings —and eventually her marriage.

“I will never be the same; I lost a part of me. But, what is worse, my daughter lost her life, her goals, and her future,” Stauffer told Fusion.

More tourism means more crime

Common sense would lead one to believe that crime grows with tourism. Unfortunately, the U.S. is only good at keeping stats for half that equation. While U.S. travel data is atomized tidily into demographic groups and subgroups, the State Departments’s crime data for U.S. victims overseas is a slapdash collection of inconsistently categorized deaths slopped into a clunky country database that’s unsearchable in any way that’s helpful. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, the office charged with assisting U.S. victims abroad, says it “doesn’t have any data categorized by gender” and has no “resources specifically tracking U.S. victims overseas,” according to office spokeswoman Ashley Garrigus.

Still, the government readily acknowledges that crime against U.S. tourists overseas is expected to increase as more more people get passports — 13.5 million U.S. passports were issued last year alone. The State Department is also taking extra steps to warn about the risks to women travelers — the fastest growing demographic of U.S. tourists heading overseas

According to government data, the number of U.S. women traveling overseas has increased by a whopping 98.7% between the years 1993 and 2012. Women travelers ages 18-24 now outnumber their male counterparts by three to two.

Overall, some 61 million U.S. tourists travel abroad last year, up from 35.7 million in 2000. And Central America has quietly become one of the fastest growing destinations. The region receives some 2.5 million U.S. tourists each year, far more than its much larger neighbor to the south (South America received only 1.7 million U.S. tourists last year). That trend is continuing this year. In the first month of 2014 (the most recent data available), Central America was the fastest growing tourism destination in the world for U.S. travelers, up 9.5% from the same time last year, according to government data.

Central America’s popularity might surprise some, considering the “northern triangle” (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — plus Belize) is one of the most violent regions in the world. But the southern half of the isthmus is a different story; more U.S. citizens have died from suicides than homicides in Nicaragua and Costa Rica over the past decade.

Still, as the Colcloughs and Ms. Stauffer know only too well, crime can happen anywhere.

Stauffer’s advice to parents? Educate yourself before your son or daughter books his or her travel ticket. And do your own homework— don’t trust that anyone else has your best interests in mind.

“Check with the U.S. Embassy in the country your child is traveling to for advice and warnings,” she says. “You can't trust university study abroad programs or travel agencies that are profiting from their programs. They do not have the best interest of your child in mind.”

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