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Overseas Security Advisory Council
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Colombia 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Colombia. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Colombia country page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Colombia at Level 2, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution due to crime, terrorism, and kidnapping. Do not travel to Arauca, Cauca (except Popayan), Chocó (except Nuquí), Nariño, and Norte de Santander (except Cucuta) departments due to crime and terrorism. Reconsider travel to several departments throughout the country due to crime and terrorism. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Bogotá as being a HIGH-threat location, and Cartagena as a MEDIUM-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Bogotá and other large cities in Colombia share many of the same crime problems that plague large cities around the world. The perception of wealth is a primary reason criminals target U.S. and other foreign nationals. On a daily basis, the most prevalent threat to travelers is street crime. The most common types of crime include mugging, assault, cell phone theft, credit card fraud, and burglary. Criminals commonly use knives and firearms. Crime can turn violent quickly; it is not uncommon for serious injury or death to result for a victim resisting a robbery. 

Thefts and assaults occur frequently on public buses in urban and rural areas. Vehicle break-in, theft, and carjacking are also risks. 

Three U.S. citizens died in homicides in 2019, two of which occurred in Cartagena; more than a dozen private U.S. citizens reported being the victims of armed robberies. There was one reported incident of sexual assault of a U.S. citizen. Underreporting affects these numbers significantly. Additionally, 222 U.S. citizens had their passports stolen while visiting Colombia. 

Crime levels in the major tourist areas of Cartagena, including the historical center (El Centro, San Diego), and the neighborhoods of Getsemani, Bocagrande, El Laguito, and Castillogrande are considerably lower; crime in these locations rarely turns violent, but petty theft and similar crime remain common in these areas. 

Extortion is also a significant security concern. FARC dissidents not participating in the peace process, the ELN, and criminal groups have extorted all types of commercial entities in their areas of operation. They may use violence, including bombings, if targets do not meet their demands. 

Criminals carry out a variety of street scams in order to rob people. For example, individuals may pose as police officers by presenting false police identification. They will ask to inspect a victim’s money to verify that it is not counterfeit. They will issue the victim an “official receipt” for their “counterfeit” money and instruct the victim to proceed to a police station to reclaim legitimate currency. When victims submit the “official receipt” to the police, they find out their money was not counterfeit, and that they were scammed. Criminals also use street gambling games to set up victims. Be wary of people who approach you asking for directions, handing out fliers, selling you things, etc. They may be trying to distract you while picking your pockets. 

Cybersecurity Issues 

Cyber threats remain a significant security concern in Colombia. Politically motivated incidents have included a breach of then-President Juan Manuel Santos’s email account and the illegal monitoring of Colombia’s peace negotiations with the FARC, both revealed in 2014. Authorities also report an increasing number of financially motivated cyberattacks, as Colombia extends Internet access and Colombians increasingly depend on the Internet. Total cybercrime complaints have increased annually each of the previous few years. According to an Intel security study, 15% of crime against companies in Colombia is associated with cybercrime, generating losses of approximately $600 million. In order to develop its institutional framework and capacity to address cyber threats further, Colombia prepared an updated cybersecurity policy (CONPES 3701) in consultation with the Organization of American States, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other partners. This policy includes a national strategy and a set of priority goals to minimize risk levels. Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Other Areas of Concern 

Colombian criminals often use drugs to rob their victims. The most common drug used has been scopolamine, which can render a victim unconscious for 24+ hours; in large doses, it can cause brain damage and death. Unofficial estimates put the number of annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia at approximately 50,000. Criminals often administer the drug by placing liquid or powder in foods and beverages. Incidents frequently occur in nightclubs and bars where young, attractive women target men they perceive to be wealthy. In 2019, there were more than 20 reported cases of scopolamine attacks against private U.S. citizens, most of them in Medellín targeting male victims. Many cases likely go unreported. Review OSAC’s report, Scopolamine Incidents on the Rise in Colombia.

U.S. employees of the U.S. Embassy and their families must ask for permission to travel throughout much of Colombia. They must fly rather than drive to most major cities; consider following these precautions. 

Transportation-Safety Situation 

Road Safety and Road Conditions

In general, road conditions in the major cities are adequate, but not good, for vehicle travel. Traffic in Bogotá is exceptionally congested and road conditions are often poor, contributing to traffic accidents and creating opportunities for criminals to rob vehicles. In rural areas, roads can be substandard and dangerous (e.g., no emergency lanes, and poor lighting) and landslides frequently close roads. Accident response in rural areas is slow. 

The Colombian government continues to advance its ambitious Fourth Generation (4G) program, a $17 billion effort to modernize outdated primary road infrastructure. The aging primary road network means that travel between large cities, such as Bogotá and they key port city of Barranquilla can take up to two days. Travel at night is also dangerous due to the potential for accidents along mountain roads and violence from criminal groups. 

In Bogotá, the Colombian National Police (CNP) and military may have a large presence on the major roads, especially during rush hour. The government deploys extra security to promote road travel throughout the country during holidays. Outside of these periods and in rural areas, terrorists and criminals can make road travel dangerous. In areas where the government does not have a strong presence, terrorist and criminal groups have set up roadblocks to rob and kidnap travelers. 

Authorities often do not enforce traffic laws, including speed limits, are drivers often do not obeyed them, creating chaotic and dangerous conditions for drivers and pedestrians. The penalties for drunk driving are severe and very expensive. Police deploy sobriety checkpoints, especially in urban areas, and can require sobriety tests during traffic stops. Texting while driving is illegal. Seat belts are mandatory for front-seat passengers in a private vehicle. Car seats are not mandatory for children, but a child under ten years of age may not ride in the front seat. U.S. government employees may not use motorcycles in Colombia, or travel by road outside of urban areas at night. 

In case of a vehicle accident, Colombian law requires that the vehicles remain in place, and all parties remain at the scene, until the police arrive and complete their preliminary investigation. In addition, criminals may stage traffic accidents and attract a crowd that could turn hostile. Drivers who feel threatened and leave the scene should immediately contact their insurance company and the police. In an accident involving an injury, the police will require a sobriety or blood-alcohol test and may take the driver to the police station and impound the vehicle(s). 

Drivers and passengers should always be aware of their surroundings, lock doors, roll up windows, and keep valuables and packages out of sight. Criminals, sometime masquerading as vendors, may reach into cars at intersections to steal items and tear off car parts such as side mirrors, antennas, and windshield wipers. Always place briefcases, bags, and other belongings in a locked trunk. Due to the possibility of traffic jams, always keep gas tanks above half full. Separate car keys from house keys. Park vehicles in designated parking lots and garages with valuables out of sight.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Public Transportation Conditions  

Taxis are available, but passengers must exercise caution. Do not flag down taxis on the street or accept rides from strangers. Hail taxis via phone or web app, or at a taxi stand. Airports, hotels, and some restaurants/shopping centers have taxi stands, and can call taxis for customers. A ride called by phone or app will provide the number of the taxi and a two-digit code to give the driver. Apps such as Uber, Tappsi or EasyTaxi are popular and provide the passenger with information to verify a taxi is en route. Review OSAC’s report, Safety and Security in the Share Economy. U.S. Embassy employees may not hail cabs from the street.

Taxi-related crimes commonly involve a cab hailed from the street by a lone passenger. After the passenger enters, the driver will stop, and armed robbers will enter the vehicle, sometimes taking the victim to ATMs over several hours to take out as much cash as possible. There have been multiple reports of armed assailants robbing taxis traveling from Medellin’s José María Córdova International Airport (MDE) into the city of Medellín. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

In rural areas, FARC and ELN terrorist groups and other armed criminal groups have attacked public and private buses. Terrorists, criminals, and demonstrators alike sometimes burn buses. 

Major accidents involving intercity buses are common, sometimes resulting in death and serious injury. U.S. Embassy employees and their families may not use inter- or intra-city buses. Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Aviation/Airport Conditions 

The Federal Aviation Authority’s International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program rates Colombia as Category 1, indicating it meets International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. 

  • El Dorado International Airport (BOG) is located in Bogotá approximately 9 miles (15 km) west of the city center. It is the largest airport in Colombia, and a major hub for various passenger and cargo airlines.
  • José María Córdova International Airport (MDE) is located in Rionegro, approximately one hour (in light traffic) east of Medellín. It is the second largest airport in Colombia, and serves various passenger and cargo airlines.
  • Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport (CLO) is located in Palmira, 12 miles (19 kilometers) east of Cali. It is Colombia’s third largest airport and serves various passenger and cargo airlines.
  • El Eden International Airport (AXM) is located in La Tebaida, about 20 minutes southwest of Armenia. It serves various passenger and cargo airlines.
  • Matacaña International Airport (PEI) is located in the city of Pereira. It serves several passenger and cargo airlines.
  • Rafael Nuñez International Airport (CTG) is located in the center of Crespo, a neighborhood in northern Cartagena approximately 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) northeast of the tourist district, and approximately 6 miles (10 kilometers) northwest of the city center, serving various passenger and cargo airlines.
  • Ernesto Cortissoz International Airport (BAQ) is about 7 miles (12 kilometers) from the center of Barranquilla, serving various passenger and cargo airlines.

Terrorism Threat 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Bogotá as being a HIGH-threat location and Cartagena as a MEDIUM-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. There is an elevated risk of terrorism throughout Colombia. Colombia has endured a decades-long conflict that pitted the government against several leftist terrorist organizations, two of which remain active (FARC dissidents and ELN). Armed criminal groups have evolved from demobilized terrorist organizations and right-wing paramilitary organizations. The Colombian government signed a peace accord with FARC in 2016 after more than four years of negotiations. FARC members then moved to concentration zones to complete a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process. Nearly 12,000 FARC ex-combatants continue to abide by the terms of the accord despite some high-profile defections. In 2019, following the release of a high-profile FARC member by the Colombian government, dissident leadership made public announcements stating their abandonment of the peace process and renewing vows to fight the Colombian government. Given the nexus between terrorism and transnational crime, the use of terrorist-like activities, including bombing, kidnapping, and narcotrafficking by those not participating in the peace accord is possible.  

Former President Santos aspired to reach a separate peace accord with the ELN before the end of his term in 2018, but his government and ELN were unable to reach an agreement. The Duque administration initially expressed its intention to continue peace negotiations with the ELN, with the demand that the group ceases all kidnappings and armed actions before it takes part in any negotiations. In early 2019, the ELN attacked a private helicopter and kidnapped the crew in Hacari (Norte de Santander), further deteriorating relations between the Duque administration and the group. Later the same month, the ELN claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack perpetrated against the national police academy in Bogotá, killing at least 22 people and wounding 87 others. Following the attack -- Colombia’s worst in 15 years -- President Duque ended peace talks, and reinstated a capture order requesting the Cuban government hand over ELN peace negotiators to Colombian authorities. The decision effectively represents the end of negotiations with the group, which will likely worsen security conditions in parts of Colombia. 

Illegal armed groups in Colombia are well-organized criminal enterprises that have carried out kidnappings, extortion, assassinations, bombings, and other terrorist activities throughout the country. Throughout Colombia’s long conflict with the FARC and ELN, over 250,000 Colombians have died, with 6 million forcibly displaced from their homes. Given the situation in Venezuela, criminal or terrorist elements may seek to exploit uncertainty and increased media attention on the Colombia-Venezuela border. Travelers should expect increased police presence in border regions. 

U.S.-Colombian counterterrorism cooperation remains strong. In terms of military pressure, the Colombian government continues significant military operations against ELN insurgents. The military and police have also intensified operations against major organized crime groups around the country.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence 

Civil Unrest 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Bogotá and Cartagena as being MEDIUM-threat locations for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. In 2019, the country saw its most severe civil unrest in years. Labor and student groups staged several large-scale protests. A national walkout in November turned violent, with several hundred protestors and police officers injured. The Colombian government declared a one-day citywide curfew in Bogotá, the first such declaration in decades. Protestors have used Molotov cocktails and homemade improvised explosive devices, called “papas explosivas,” against the police. Universities have active leftist student organizations that sometimes stage protests with an anti-U.S. message. Protests center on social and economic reforms and usually involve union or student group leadership. Protestors often march on major roads, disrupting traffic.

Specific to Cartagena in 2019, demonstrations were typically peaceful and directed at the local government to address public concerns with major utilities, transit systems, and wages. This year also saw an increase in student demonstrations for education benefits. Demonstrators often block traffic on major roads to gain attention. There were no demonstrations in Cartagena in 2019 with an anti-U.S. message.

Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

The armed conflict disproportionately affects native ethnic minorities, mostly because of the locations in which they live. 

Post-specific Concerns 

Environmental Hazards 

Natural disasters in Colombia include earthquakes and volcanic activity. Many parts of Colombia suffer from periodic severe drought conditions, and large-scale fires are common. In other areas, heavy rainfall causes landslides that block roads, damage infrastructure, and can leave travelers stranded for 24+ hours. 

Good emergency preparation includes setting aside emergency supplies and having a plan for what to do during and after a disaster. Planning should consider that help may not be available for 72+ hours. Stockpiling supplies is useful for any situation that includes the temporary interruption of municipal services (e.g. power, water). The U.S. Embassy encourages its employees to have the following items on hand: flashlights with spare batteries, a portable commercial radio with spare batteries, fire extinguishers, food, and water. Centrally locate important documents (e.g. current passport for each family member, driver’s license, credit cards, checkbooks, country of residence identification papers, vaccinations records, inventory of household effects for insurance purposes, and sufficient cash for family expenses for a reasonable amount of time) for easy retrieval in the event of an evacuation. 

During an earthquake, shelter in place next to/under substantial furniture but away from glass and objects that may fall over. Do not leave a building until the shaking stops to avoid injury from falling glass or building materials. If outside, stay in an open area, away from trees, power lines, bridges, and overpasses. Be prepared for aftershocks. 

Critical Infrastructure

The ELN frequently attack oil pipelines and has attacked power stations and roads with explosives. In 2019, the ELN continued attacks against Colombian critical infrastructure, including oil pipelines, mostly in remote areas of the country near the Venezuelan border. 

The Colombian government continues to advance its ambitious Fourth Generation (4G) program, a US$17 billion effort to modernize outdated primary road infrastructure. The aging primary road network means that travel between large cities such as Bogotá and Barranquilla can take up to three days.

Economic Concerns 

While the Government of Colombia has made progress on some dimensions of intellectual property rights (IPR) in recent years, including the development of its National Intellectual Property Administrative System, key challenges remain. Online piracy continues to grow, particularly via mobile devices. Authorities with relevant jurisdiction, including the National Police and the Attorney General, have yet to conduct meaningful and sustained investigations and prosecutions against the operators of significant large pirate websites and mobile applications based in Colombia. Colombia has also not been able to reduce significantly the large number of pirated and counterfeit hard goods crossing the border for sale at San Andresitos markets in Bogotá and other urban centers, on the street, and at other distribution hubs around the country. The United States has encouraged Colombia to increase efforts to address online and mobile piracy, and to focus on disrupting organized trafficking in illicit goods. 

Internet access in Colombia has been growing steadily, and with it internet-based piracy. According to the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce (SIC), trade-secret theft is a minor problem and charges are typically mentioned tangentially and accompanied by other unfair competition charges such as deception, confusion, clientele diversion, or intentional disruption of normal operations. Only one case involving trade secret theft has been to court, in 2011.

Personal Identity Concerns

The antidiscrimination law specifically prohibits discrimination based on gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social status. The Attorney General’s Office and NGOs report some attacks, including homicides, in which prejudice regarding race, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity was a factor.

Colombian law enforcement operates an emergency number specifically for women’s issues. Call 767. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

There are no legal restrictions on same-sex sexual relations or the organization of LGBTI+ events in Colombia. Authorities do not fully enforce legal prohibitions on discrimination. The government has taken measures to increase the rights and protection of LGBTI+ persons, but there are reports of societal abuse and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Review OSAC’s report, Freedom to Practice, and the State Department’s webpage on security for faith-based travelers.

Access to buildings, sidewalks, and transportation is extremely difficult for persons with disabilities. Most hospitals in major cities are wheelchair accessible. Sidewalks (if they exist) are uneven and rarely have ramps at intersections. Pedestrian crossings are infrequent and motorists almost never give pedestrians the right of way. Buses and taxis do not have special accommodations for disabled persons. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crimes 

Approximately 75% of the U.S. citizens incarcerated in Colombia faced narcotics-related offenses. Do not agree to carry packages for anyone without knowing the person well and being certain of the contents of the package. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Colombia are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long pre-trial detention and lengthy prison sentences under harsh conditions, with significant expense and great hardship for themselves and their families. Colombian law may require that released offenders serve a lengthy period of parole in country, during which authorities offer no housing and may deny permission to work. Family members must often support the offender until the parole period expires.

Kidnapping Threat 

Although Colombian government efforts have dramatically reduced the number of kidnappings over the last ten years, the threat of kidnapping remains a concern. From 2002-2016, official statistics show that the number of kidnappings dropped more than 90%. Kidnappings can be spontaneous; criminals/insurgents have kidnapped persons at roadblocks on the outskirts of major cities. Foreigners are potential targets due to their perceived wealth. Kidnappers may also target U.S. citizens because of their potential political significance for terrorist groups. However, most kidnappings now fall into the category of “express” or “paseo millionario,” in which criminals hold victims until they can no longer withdraw cash from ATM. Criminal taxi drivers often abduct victims after them on the street. Express kidnappings may last up to 48 hours. 

The Embassy is aware of two kidnappings of U.S. citizens in 2019 perpetrated by criminal elements. There were no reported kidnappings of U.S. citizens in 2018 

The police and army have effective anti-kidnapping/anti-extortion units called GAULAs around the country. Any victim of kidnapping/extortion, or who knows of a victim, should call the police immediately at 165Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Other Issues

Review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

Read the State Department’s webpage on customs and import restrictions for information on what you cannot take into or out of other countries.

Police Response 

The Colombian National Police (CNP) is a professional organization recognized around the world for its success. However, the force is often overworked and lacks resources to deter or investigate crime. Response to alarms or emergency calls to disrupt burglaries or crimes in progress can be 15 minutes or longer. Police patrol on foot and in vehicles and are posted at “Centros de Atención Inmediata” (CAI), police substations staffed by several officers. You will also find police and military presence at important facilities and along major routes. The Embassy’s American Citizen Services (ACS) section has documented some poor CNP responses to crimes against U.S. citizens—specifically, failure to facilitate filing of police reports. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure.

CNP is a professional force, but corruption continues. For example, an officer may request a bribe during a routine traffic stop. If you feel you are the victim of police harassment or corruption, call the police complaint line, called Transparencia Institucional, at 166. 

Contact police at the following numbers: 

General Emergencies: 123 

Anti-kidnapping / Anti-Extortion (Grupos de Acción Unificada por la Libertad Personal- GAULA): 165 

Complaints about the police: 166 

Women’s issues: 155 

Road Safety and Transit: 767 

Antiterrorism: 018000-919621

Medical Emergencies 

Medical care is adequate in major cities, but varies in quality elsewhere. Public hospitals are well below U.S. standards. Traffic frequently delays ambulance service in Bogotá; consider other options in a medical emergency. Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the U.S. Embassy/Consulate website.

The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Departments webpage on insurance overseas. Confirm that your medical insurance provides coverage in Colombia, including treatment of complications from elective procedures or medical evacuation (medevac) if necessary. Consider purchasing additional travel medical insurance, especially if yours does not provide coverage in Colombia or requires you to pay for foreign medical care out of pocket and seek reimbursement later. Uninsured travelers without financial resources may need to seek treatment in public hospitals, where the standard of care is below U.S. standards

U.S. citizens have died after cosmetic or other elective surgery, including four in 2018 and one in 2019 to date. Visit the CDC website for information on the risks of medical tourism, as well as the website of Colombian Society for Plastic, Aesthetic and Reconstructive Surgery. If you have elective surgery in Colombia, make sure to have international travel insurance that covers medical evacuation and repatriation of remains. Your legal options in case of malpractice are very limited in the Colombian legal system.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

Colombia requires yellow fever vaccine for travelers arriving from Brazil, Uganda, Congo, and Angola, administered at least ten days before entry to Colombia. Vaccination documentation must appear on a yellow WHO immunization card. Other countries require yellow fever vaccine for travelers coming from Colombia. 

The following mosquito-borne diseases are prevalent in Colombia: Chikungunya; Dengue; Malaria; Yellow fever; and Zika. The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Colombia.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Country Council in Bogotá meets monthly. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Latin America Team with any questions. 

U.S. Embassy Contact Information

U.S. Embassy Bogotá, Calle 24 Bis No. 48-50, Bogotá, D.C. 

Monday-Friday, 0800-1700 (closed on U.S. and Colombian holidays) 

Embassy telephone number +57 (1) 275-2000 during working hours 

Regional Security Office +57 (1) 275-2903/2458 during working hours. 

ACS +57 (1) 275-2000 during working hours; +57 (1) 275-4021 after hours emergencies 

Other U.S. Diplomatic Posts in Colombia

Consular Agency in Barranquilla: Calle 77B, No 57-141, Suite 511; +57-5-353-2001 or conagencybarranquilla@state.gov. U.S. citizens must call ahead for an appointment. 

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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