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Lesotho 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Maseru. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Lesotho. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Lesotho 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 Lesotho at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions. 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 Maseru as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Endemic poverty and widespread unemployment continue to contribute to an increase in criminal activity. Limited private-sector work opportunities in Lesotho and South Africa contribute to high rates of unemployment; the official published statistic is 27.5%, but the actual rate is likely much higher, at around 40%. Steadily declining remittances from Basotho workers performing seasonal or mining work in South Africa continue to have a negative impact on this trend as well. The large number of unemployed individuals loitering downtown, in residential areas, and in other areas expatriates frequent allows criminals to blend into the populace easily. 

There is no evidence that criminals are targeting U.S. citizens for criminal activity; rather, they target all foreigners because of perceived affluence. Most reported incidents are crimes of opportunity for immediate gain (e.g. simple assault, pickpocketing, petty theft). Victims of street crime are often inattentive targets of opportunity. Theft of cell phones, computers, money, jewelry, and other handheld electronic devices is common. Thieves can and do snatch valuables through open vehicle windows. There has been an increase in the number of criminal incidents involving expatriates walking during dusk and overnight hours. The crime rates in the Leribe and Mafeteng areas are higher than in other districts. The crime rate in Maseru is approximately five times higher than other districts. Review OSAC’s reports, All That You Should Leave Behind.

Even though Lesotho has very strict gun-control laws, criminal elements smuggle firearms in from South Africa through the porous border. The use of firearms in conducting criminal acts is on the rise. Increases in the use of tactics more commonly seen in South Africa are also on the rise in Lesotho. This includes the increased use of car remote jammers/blockers to steal from vehicles parked at large shopping areas with limited guard or camera visibility. 

Criminals are generally armed and not averse to using violence to achieve their objective, especially when they encounter resistance. Should an armed individual confront you, comply immediately, avoid making sudden movements, and do not offer any resistance. Criminals could perceive any hesitation as a threat, turning to violence. Crimes committed at gunpoint have increased, and are the most common type of force; however, crimes committed at knifepoint are also common.  

The limited amount of police data available indicates an increase in violent crime (e.g. armed robbery, sexual assault, homicide, residential break-in) in recent years. Increasingly, criminals are resorting to violence to subdue their victims, obtain items of value, commit a sexual offense, and/or elicit information regarding valuables in the home. Current trends indicate an increase in motor vehicle theft, armed home invasions, and increased cooperation with criminal elements in South Africa.  

Residential security, especially in Maseru, should include mitigating measures such as intrusion alarms, perimeter walls topped with an anti-climb feature, sufficient perimeter lighting, window/door grilles, automated vehicle gates, security guard services, solid core doors, and deadbolt locks. Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

Vehicle theft in Maseru is common. Park in well-illuminated areas with high foot traffic and security guards. While carjacking is not as prevalent as in South Africa, vehicle theft takes place at all hours, in both downtown and residential neighborhoods.  

Organized crime is uncommon and generally involves participants from South Africa. Organized criminal groups are involved in vehicle theft and human trafficking. While the government is taking active steps to combat both, well-established and often sophisticated organized crime networks use Lesotho as a venue to register stolen cars. Human trafficking is on the rise as promises of jobs continue to lure Basotho citizens into South Africa; traffickers then force many to work in illegal mining or the illegal sex trade. There have been incidents involving gang violence in Lesotho by groups based in the Mafeteng district, south of Maseru. These gangs, often affiliated with the local political parties, occasionally clash in the capital and in outlying areas. 

While ATM scams (such as skimming) are not common, they are prevalent throughout South Africa. Police indicate an increase in attempts to use cloned debit cards at ATMs in Lesotho. Exercise caution when using any ATM, and only use ATMs inside shopping malls, hotels, and banks; these are normally high-traffic areas monitored by security guards/cameras. Before approaching the ATM, scan the area for any suspicious persons or activity. Should anyone approach you while you are withdrawing money, immediately cancel the transaction and leave the area. Never accept assistance from a “Good Samaritan” while using an ATM; this could be a distraction technique. Avoid the vicinity of an ATM when it is undergoing maintenance; such servicing typically includes the transfer of large sums of cash, and could be the target of criminals. Scan the ATM for any odd or out of place device (especially around the area of the card reader), an altered keypad, hidden camera facing the keypad, etc. Check your credit card and other bank statements on a regular basis. If you note discrepancies, inform your banking institution immediately. Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit.

Cybersecurity Issues 

Fraud-related crimes remain low, but cybercrimes are increasing regionally. Cybersecurity should remain a priority for any organization operating in Lesotho, and security managers cannot overstress the importance of using and updating legitimate software. 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?

Transportation-Safety Situation 

Road Safety and Road Conditions  

Driving is one of the biggest risks to personal safety and security. Traffic circulates on the left side of the road. Travel is easiest by private car. Rental cars are available in Maseru. Drivers may bring cars rented in South Africa into Lesotho with the written permission of the rental company. Many vehicles in Lesotho are not roadworthy, and not all drivers have proper training. The average speed limit in cities is 50 km/hour and outside cities/towns is 80km/hour, but not all vehicles drive at this speed. It is common to come up behind a vehicle moving at little more than a crawl or to encounter vehicles that pull out onto the roadway without their drivers looking first or leaving proper distance for acceleration.  

Most of Lesotho’s 5,000 miles of roads remain unpaved. Most secondary roads are either gravel or hard-packed earth. A few main rural highways are comparable to U.S. two-lane rural roads, but lane markings, signs, shoulders and guardrails would not meet U.S. standards. Some residential roads in Maseru and roads leading to rural districts are in poor condition, with potholes, ruts, and collapsing shoulders. Vegetation can grow over the edge of the road, particularly during the rainy season, causing a lack of visibility on bends and concealing hazards at the side of the road. 

Lesotho's mountainous terrain makes driving on secondary roads hazardous. Unpaved roads in the interior—often narrow, winding, and steep—lack proper maintenance. Rubble from rockslides often partially obstructs mountain roads, and there is no proper signage noting the hazards. For travel in the interior, especially in wet or snowy weather, use vehicles with high ground clearance and/or four-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive is also a requirement for entering or departing Lesotho through the Sani Pass on the eastern border.  The authority for road safety issues rests with the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS); there are no auto clubs or reliable ambulance services.  Drivers should contact the police in case of road emergencies.

Vehicle accidents are a major safety concern. A lethal combination of factors makes driving a challenge: poorly illuminated roadways, roads in a state of disrepair, inexperienced/irresponsible drivers, pedestrian traffic, wandering livestock, and intense rain are all contributors.  Drivers frequently change lanes into oncoming traffic without looking and expect others to take evasive maneuvers to compensate. Street lighting is poor and frequently non-existent. Pedestrians do not look when crossing the road, and frequently walk out into traffic. Livestock often appear on roadways without warning, as there is an overall lack of fencing—especially in rural areas. Even if the road appears fenced, people leave gates open so livestock can feed along the sides of the road. Many people operate vehicles while under the influence of alcohol/drugs, leading to erratic, unpredictable, and unsafe driving conditions. Insobriety is a significant contributing factor to many accidents, particularly in the evening, on weekends, holidays, and month’s end (payday).  

Use a GPS navigation tool with appropriately updated software; note police stations, hospitals, shops, and fuel stations along your route. Carry a cell phone with you and preprogram emergency numbers. It is illegal to use a cell phone while driving; many drivers do so to the detriment of their attention and driving ability. Local cellular network coverage is generally good on the major routes and in most major towns.  

All passengers should wear their seatbelts in motor vehicles. Keep windows up and doors locked. Leaving vehicles unlocked, even for a brief period, can result in thieves taking items from the car. Do not leave any valuables visible in the passenger compartment of your car. Be especially vigilant at intersections; leave distance to maneuver any time you must be in a static position. Be aware of your surroundings when leaving or entering your residence, and at traffic lights and stop signs. Obey traffic laws and drive defensively, especially at night. Always try to park in illuminated and secure parking areas. Be suspicious of anyone who hails you or tries to get your attention while you are in/near your car. Although a common practice in Lesotho, do not pick up hitchhikers. Do not drive after dark outside of Maseru.  

Drivers involved in traffic accidents should attempt to exchange insurance information with the other party and summon a traffic police officer if possible. Do not make restitution at the scene, especially if livestock/pedestrians are involved. While local law requires that operators involved in a road traffic accident remain at the scene until police arrive to make a report. Be wary of crowds gathering at the scene of an accident. Depart the area immediately if you perceive a threat to your safety. 

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

The most common forms of mass transportation are minibuses and four-plus-one taxis; however, they are not safe means of transport. Every year, there are serious, fatal accidents involving minibus taxis. Many lack proper safety equipment and do not adhere to vehicle safety standards. It is common for criminals to pose as four-plus-one taxi drivers to lure unsuspecting victims into their vehicle. The drivers are often reckless, making frequent, unauthorized stops to pick up passengers and speeding from one stop to the next. 

Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

 

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Maseru’s Moshoeshoe I International Airport (MSU) has direct flights to Johannesburg. As there is no direct commercial air service to the United States by carriers registered in Lesotho, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed the government of Lesotho’s Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards.

Terrorism Threat 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Maseru as being a LOW-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. However, Lesotho’s border with South Africa is porous; individuals or groups connected to terrorism could move easily back and forth between the two countries. 

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Maseru as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. The political environment is highly contested within and among Lesotho’s numerous (30 plus) political parties. The most recent free and fair elections (in 2017) occurred without incident and were transparent. A peaceful transition to a new administration, composed of a four-party coalition government, capped an electoral period free of political violence. Many of the administration’s actions are consistent with a government prioritizing rule of law. 

Civil Unrest  

Lesotho has a history of politically related civil unrest, exemplified by Lesotho Defense Force (LDF) attacks on Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) personnel in 2014. Following the clashes, Maseru was without a law enforcement presence for almost four days. However, during this period, there were no episodes of civil disruption or unrest. While improved since then, differences between the police and army remain.  

In 2015, the army arrested more than 50 soldiers on charges of mutiny or failure to suppress mutiny. The former LDF Commander died in what the then-LDF leadership called a botched arrest, but the victim’s family called an assassination. In response to the incident, a Southern African Development Community (SADC) Commission of Inquiry recommended the dismissal of the LDF commander, the release of a group of soldiers accused of mutiny, accountability for those accused of torture, murder, and other crimes, and wide ranging reforms. Police have since arrested the LDF Commander, who is awaiting sentencing. 

In 2017, two top ranking LDF officers assassinated another LDF commander after having forced their way into his office. The current LDF commander has made security sector reform a hallmark of his leadership, and has expressed his commitment to maintaining a professional army subservient to civilian rule. 

There were numerous demonstrations in 2019. Demonstrations are primarily small, non-violent, and politically- or economically-motivated. Demonstrations are a tactic throughout the country of opposition political parties and groups. Several marches and protests in 2019, while not violent, caused disruption to the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Towards the end of 2018, one particular multi-day, multi-area factory worker strike was violent and involved rock throwing at surrounding pedestrians, vehicles, and buildings; burning of tires; and closing of main roads with rocks and debris. Avoid demonstrations or large gatherings of people, as even non-violent gatherings can quickly turn violent. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Post-specific Concerns  

Environmental Hazards 

The most common environmental hazard is heavy rain accompanied by lightning. Lesotho has one of the highest rates of lightning strikes per square mile in the world, and lightning-related deaths are not uncommon.  The high frequency of lightning strikes during a storm presents a very real hazard.  If you find yourself in a storm, find shelter in a building or car.

While urban areas and roads are fairly well drained, torrential downpours in short periods occasionally result in standing water, soil, and other debris washed onto roadways. Rural and mountain roads are neither well illuminated nor well drained; avoid travel on these roadways during heavy rainfall. 

Visitors to the interior of Lesotho should bring clothing and equipment suitable for extreme cold weather during the winter months of June through August.  Weather conditions can deteriorate rapidly in the mountains, and snow may close mountain passes.  Temperatures can drop below freezing even in the lowlands.

Critical Infrastructure Concerns

Lesotho has become less reliant on South Africa for electrical power as of late, but concerns exist regarding how the extended Eskom crisis will affect the country.   

Lesotho has two major dams that supply water to South Africa. Lesotho has one major dam providing water to Maseru, and smaller dams providing water to other parts of the country. Poor infrastructure and distribution issues plague the country’s water supply and have put high demands on this resource. The water supply in Maseru has been largely uninterrupted, but the water system has been less reliable outside of the capital, leaving even medical facilities without water and in drought-like conditions.  

Personal Identity Concerns 

Lesotho is relatively tolerant of sexual minorities. Openly LGBTI+ individuals are not prominent in the country, and Basotho issues relating to LGBTI+ rights are poorly understood. Consensual same-sex sexual relations are legal in Lesotho, but there are no laws protecting the LGBTI+ community from discrimination.  Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

People of East Asian descent may be at higher risk of becoming robbery victims due to the perception that many are wealthy business owners. 

Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

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

The Buildings Control Act of 1995 requires that all buildings be accessible, but enforcement thus far has been negligible.  There are no mandatory standards of accessibility for sidewalks, road crossings, public transportation, and parking areas.  There are no free or reduced fares for transport, and very few accessible medical facilities, restaurants, cafes, or bars. Accommodations for persons with disabilities are limited.  Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crime

A variety of drugs, especially marijuana, is present. Occasionally, authorities arrest passengers attempting to smuggle drugs through the airport or across the border with South Africa. Avoid being involved in any form of narcotics activity, as penalties are stiff and taken seriously.  

Kidnapping Threat 

Kidnappings are uncommon; most are more accurately categorized as false imprisonment, and are usually the result of a domestic dispute or an express kidnapping wherein the criminals drive the victim to an ATM to retrieve money before subsequent release. Most victims are members of the local population. There were no reported instances of expatriates kidnapped in 2019. Review 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 emergency line in Lesotho is 112. There are limited police vehicle and foot patrols in residential or commercial areas. The LMPS does not have an adequate response capability, and commonly lacks transport to respond to an incident. Visitors requiring police assistance should appear in person at the police station in their area or at Police Headquarters in Maseru. The LMPS telephone number is +266-22-317-263 or +266-5-888-1010 from any phone.  

The LMPS, the national police service, is a centralized, national organization that falls under the Ministry of Police and Public Safety. Its headquarters are in Maseru, with offices in all districts and border post locations with South Africa, as well as an office at the airport. Most areas of policing and law enforcement fall under the LMPS (e.g. airport security, emergency response, criminal investigations, and drug enforcement), except for immigration matters, handled by the Lesotho Immigration Department. 

Foreigners must present documentation to law enforcement personnel if they request it. All foreign visitors should always carry identification (e.g. passport, residence permit, or copies thereof).  

While incidents of police detention, corruption, bribery, or harassment occur, they are not common in the expatriate community. Should an encounter with police occur, acting with respect and cooperation is the best way to avoid potential problems. Do not do anything that could put your personal safety at risk. Never bribe a police officer; this is likely to increase the incidence of expatriate vehicle stops. 

Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure.

Medical Emergencies 

Medical facilities are inadequate by Western standards. Local medical facilities do not generally offer the standard of care available in more developed countries. Specialist care is available in Bloemfontein, South Africa, 90 miles away. There are medical clinic facilities in Lesotho that provide limited, basic medical treatment. Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the U.S. Embassy website.

The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

Lesotho has one of the highest HIV rates in the world.  Approximately one-quarter of the adult population of Lesotho infected with HIV.  Practice safe sex if engaging in sexual activity, and use caution if exposed to blood products through injuries or rendering assistance to accident victims. 

Tuberculosis is present. The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Lesotho.

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  

Maseru does not have an active Country Council. Contact OSAC’s Africa team for more information.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information  

254 Kingsway Road, Maseru 100

Hours of Operation: Monday-Thursday 0730-1700, Friday 0730-1330 

Embassy Operator: +266-22-312-666 

Website: http://ls.usembassy.gov/ 

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

OSAC Risk Matrix

OSAC Travelers Toolkit

State Department Traveler’s Checklist

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

 

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