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Colombia 2011 Crime and Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Colombia

Colombia 2011 OSAC Crime and Safety Report

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

The U.S. State Department’s most recent Travel Warning for Colombia was issued on November 10, 2010 and warns U.S. citizens, “of the dangers of travel” to Colombia. Although the security situation has improved in most urban areas, the potential for violence by terrorist and other criminal groups exists in all regions of the country. Following strict personal security practices is a necessity for Americans visiting and working in Colombia. It is also essential to routinely check the U.S. Embassy Bogota website at bogota.usembassy.gov for messages concerning U.S. citizen travel and other security advice.

Bogota, as well as other large cities in Colombia, shares many of the same problems that plague the majority of the world’s biggest cities. The most prevalent threat to Americans in Colombia’s largest cities is street crime. The most common types of crime include, but are not limited to, muggings, assaults, general thefts, credit card fraud, and burglaries.

One common and particularly dangerous method that criminals use in order to rob a victim is through the use of a variety of drugs. The most common has been the drug Scopolamine.  Unofficial estimates indicate there are approximately 50,000 Scopolamine incidents in Colombia per year. Scopolamine can render a victim unconscious for 24 hours or more. In large doses, it can cause respiratory failure and even death. It is most often administered in liquid or powder form in foods and beverages, however, in powder form, it can also be blown into a target’s face. The majority of these incidents occur in night clubs and bars, and usually men, perceived to be wealthy, are targeted by young, attractive women. To avoid becoming a victim of Scopolamine, one should never accept food or beverages offered by strangers or new acquaintances or leave food or beverages unattended. Victims of Scopolamine or other drugs should seek immediate medical attention.

Criminals in Colombia also conduct a variety of street scams in order to rob people. For example, individuals may pose as plain clothed 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 then issue the victim an “official receipt” for their “counterfeit” money and instruct the victim to proceed to a designated police station to reclaim legitimate currency. When they submit the “official receipt” to the police, they find out that their money was not counterfeit and that they were scammed. Uniform and plain clothed police can ask for a person’s identification, but they should not be asking to review a person’s money.

The public bus systems in Colombia have a history of dangerous incidents and various terrorist attacks. Buses, both public and private, are targeted for attack by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC have, on several occasions, set fire to public transport vehicles, particularly in the more remote areas of Colombia. Criminals target passengers for theft and sexual assaults. Demonstrators have been known to take control of buses and then set them ablaze in order to show support for their cause.

Official Americans and their families are permitted to travel to major cities, but only by air, and may not use inter- or intra-city bus transportation. They also are not permitted to travel by road outside of urban areas at night. On the North Coast corridor, vehicular travel between Cartagena, Baranquilla, and Santa Marta is allowed but only during daylight hours. All Americans in Colombia are urged to follow these precautions.

Taxis are generally a safe form of transportation, but passengers need to exercise caution and be extremely vigilant when riding in this form of transportation. A common trend in cases of taxi-related crime is when the victim is alone and hails a taxi on the street.  Once the victim is on board, the taxi driver will stop abruptly to allow a counterpart to enter the vehicle. The two individuals will then proceed to rob the passenger and, in some cases, bring the passenger to as many Automatic Teller Machines as possible. Rather than hailing a taxi, passengers are strongly encouraged to use the telephone dispatch service that most taxi companies offer. Most hotels, restaurants, and stores will call a taxi company for a passenger. When a taxi is dispatched by telephone, the dispatcher creates a record of the call of the responding taxi. Additionally, the caller receives the license plate number of the taxi and security code from the dispatcher, which the passenger can use to ensure the correct vehicle has been dispatched.

Vehicle thefts and car-jackings do occur in Colombia. Those that choose to drive a personal vehicle should always maintain a good sense of personal security while driving the local roads.  Vehicles should be parked in designated parking lots and parking garages whenever possible. Drivers should always drive with their car doors locked and windows up, and it is highly recommended that the fuel tank’s level be kept above half-full. Drivers and vehicle occupants should use discretion in the event of an incident such as a car-jacking as to whether they should exit the vehicle or drive away from the situation.

Road Safety

The general information provided below concerning Colombian road conditions is for general reference only and may not be accurate in all locations or circumstances.

Major accidents involving inter-city busses are a regular occurrence in Colombia and often result in deaths or serious injuries.

Traffic laws in Colombia, including speed limits, are sporadically obeyed and rarely enforced creating chaotic and dangerous conditions for both drivers and pedestrians in major cities. Seat belts are mandatory for front-seat passengers in a private vehicle. Car seats are not mandatory for children, but a child under ten is not permitted to ride in a front seat. If an accident occurs, the involved parties must remain at the scene and not move their vehicles until the authorities arrive. Moving a vehicle or leaving the scene of an accident may constitute an admission of guilt under Colombian law.

In Bogota, the Colombian National Police and military have a large presence on the major roads, especially during rush hour traffic.  The Government of Colombia has instituted extra security to promote road travel throughout the country during holidays, but outside of these periods, the possible presence of guerilla and paramilitary groups and common criminals in rural areas, makes travel on these roads dangerous. In regions where the government has not established full authority, guerilla groups have been known to set up roadblocks to rob and kidnap travelers. Government or guerrilla control in a given area is subject to change, sometimes quickly and without notice.

In general, road conditions in the major cities are adequate for vehicle travel. Outside these areas and in the rural sections of the country roads can be extremely dangerous and well below U.S. standards.

Political Violence

Historical perspectiv

On August 12, 2010, the FARC detonated a vehicle bomb outside the Caracol Radio Building located in Bogota. Throughout 2010, there were a significant number of insurgents arrested within Bogota. This is in continuation of a decades-long conflict pitting the government against two leftist insurgencies to include the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the recently demobilized right-wing paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), whose former members have transferred to various criminal organizations, known as “BACRIMs.” 

Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime

The United States Government has officially designated these three different organizations that operate throughout Colombia as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTO) due to their continuing armed attacks against U.S. interests in Colombia.

The internal conflict has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians over the course of 40 plus years. The United Nations High Commission reports that by mid-2010, the number of officially registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) rose to more than 3.4 million. The violence caused by various armed groups has forced these people from their homes and into urban areas in an attempt to escape the violence.

All three of these groups are well organized and regularly carry out kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, and other terrorist activities throughout Colombia. The many narco-trafficking organizations in Colombia are of additional concern because of their own violent criminal activity and their close nexus to the terrorist groups.

In addition to the organizations listed above, U.S. citizens should be aware of the newly emerging criminal organizations known as “BACRIMs” which are spreading throughout the region. These organizations, in many cases, are comprised of former paramilitary group members who have shed their political agendas in favor of purely criminal ends.  They usually control territories and are involved in narcotics related activities. These organizations tend to be violent and operate in areas where there is a weak presence of host country security personnel.

International Terrorism or Transnational Terrorism

There are no known specific international terrorist threats directed against official or private U.S. citizens in Colombia. However, many groups exist in Colombia that have ties to international terrorist organizations. It has been reported that the regional terrorist groups have cooperated with international/transnational terrorist groups in the form of training. Recent open source reporting indicates that the Basque Armé Euskadi Ta Akatasuna (ETA) have provided training to FARC.  Visitors are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.

Civil unrest

Throughout 2010, there were numerous demonstrations held in various parts of Colombia and Bogota in particular. The National University is located directly across the major avenue that connects the airport with city. Historically, the National University has been a base for anti-American activity conducted by the FARC and ELN militia. Continuous reporting indicates the FARC has continued to be engaged in recruiting and operations at the National University, including the manufacturing and distribution of small homemade incendiary explosives, called “papas explosivas”(potato bombs), for use against Colombian police.

Protests usually involve transportation unions or students demanding social and economic changes. A common tactic used by protesters is to congregate on major roadways in order to block traffic disrupting normal operations in the city.

Post-Specific Concerns

Natural Disasters

Natural Disasters in Colombia are the result of several different natural hazards that affect the country according to its particular geographic and geologic features. Colombia is part of the Pacific ring of Fire and Andean Volcanic Belt due to the collision of the South American Plate and Nazca Plate. This produces an increased risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  Additionally, heavy rains are extremely common throughout Colombia, which in turn causes severe flooding and mudslides in various regions. The North Coast was hit particularly hard this year with severe rains and flooding among large sectors of densely populated areas. The Government of Colombia expects to see a rise in crime due to the large amount of displaced persons affected.

Earthquake Preparedness

The U.S. Embassy provides the following earthquake guidance:

Crucial to emergency preparation is setting aside emergency supplies and having a plan for what to do during and after a disaster. Your planning should take into account that help may not be available for 72 hours or more.

Stockpiling supplies is useful not only for earthquake preparation but for any other situation in which municipal services such as power or water are temporarily interrupted.

Movement of the ground is seldom the actual cause of death or injury. Most earthquake casualties result from partial building collapse and falling objects and debris such as toppling chimneys, bricks, ceiling plaster, and light fixtures.

Because earthquakes occur without warning, it is important to take steps now.  Employees and their dependents are encouraged to use the following information to improve their chances of surviving and earthquake.

Have on hand:

  • Flashlights with spare batteries. Should power go out due to an earthquake, do not use matches or candles until you are certain there are no gas leaks.
  • Portable commercial radio with spare batteries. Telephones may be out of order or used for emergency purposes, so a commercial radio will be your best source of public information. 
  • Fire Extinguishers. Keep a fire extinguisher handy for small fires.  Some extinguishers are only good for certain types of fires, such as electrical, grease, or gas.  Class ABC extinguishers are designed to use safely on any type of fire.
  • Food. Keep a supply of nonperishable food on hand which can be rotated into your diet and replenished on a regular basis.  Have a sufficient supply of canned or dehydrated food, powered milk, and canned juices for at least 72 hours.  Dried cereals, fruits, and unsalted nuts are a good source of nutrition.
  • Water. Water should be stored in airtight containers and replaced every 6 months. Store at least three gallons of water per person to be prepared for a 72 hour period.
  • Tools. Keep a pipe wrench and adjustable wrench for turning off gas and water mains.
  • Gas Grills. If you have a grill by propane gas tanks on your balcony, ensure the tank is full and consider having a spare tank available for cooking purposes.  NEVER USE A GAS GRILL INDOORS.

How to Ride out an Earthquake

During a major earthquake, you may experience a shaking that starts out gently and within a second or so, grows violent and knocks you off of your feet. Or, you may be jarred first by a violent jolt. A second or two later, you will feel the shaking and, as in the first example, you will find it very difficult to move from one room to another.

  • If you are indoors, stay there. Get under a desk or table or stand in a doorway or corner. Stay clear of windows, bookcases, cabinets, mirrors, and fireplaces until the shaking stops.
  • If you are outside, get into an open area away from buildings, trees, walls, and power lines.
  • If in a crowded public place, do not rush for the doorway as other people are going to have the same idea.  Move away from display shelves containing objects that may fall.
  • If in a high-rise building, get under a desk, and stay away from windows and outside walls.  Stay in the building on the same floor. Do not be surprised if the electricity goes out or if the elevator, fire alarms or sprinkler systems go on. DO NOT USE THE ELEVATORS.
  • If you are in a car, pull to the side of the road and stop. Do not park under overpasses or power lines.  Stay in your car until the earthquake is over. If the earthquake has been severe, do not attempt to utilize damaged bridges or overpasses.

When the ground stops shaking

  • If anyone has stopped breathing, give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Stop any bleeding injury by applying direct pressure to the wound. Do not move seriously injured people unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Cover injured persons with blankets to keep them warm.
  • Do not use the telephone unless there is a severe injury. For more detailed emergency procedures, consult your first-aid book.
  • Wear shoes in areas near fallen debris and broken glass.
  • If possible, put out small fires; if you cannot, leave your home immediately.
  • Check gas, water, and electrical lines and appliances for damage. If you smell gas or see a broken line, shut off main valves. Do not switch on the gas or electricity again until the power company has first checked your home.  Do not search for gas leaks with a lighted match.
  • Do not use electrical switches or appliances if gas leaks are suspected because sparks can ignite gas from broken lines.
  • Switch off electrical power if there is damage to your home’s electrical wiring.
  • Do not touch downed lines or broken appliances.
  • Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, gasoline and other flammable liquids.
  • Check to see that sewage lines are intact before using the toilet. Plug bathtub and sink drains to prevent sewage backup.
  • Check food and water supplies. If water is cut off, use emergency water supplies found in toilet tanks (not the bowl), water heaters, melted ice cubes.
  • Check the building for cracks and damage, particularly the chimneys or masonry walls.  Do not use fireplaces unless the chimney is undamaged and without cracks.
  • Check closets and cupboards. Open doors cautiously. Beware of objects tumbling off shelves.
  • Turn on your battery-powered commercial radio (or car radio) for damage reports and information.
  • Use charcoal grills for emergency cooking (only outdoors).
  • Do not use your vehicle, unless there is an emergency. Be aware of downed live power lines. Do not go sightseeing through badly damaged areas. You will only hamper the relief effort. Keep streets clear for the passage of emergency vehicles.
  • Be prepared for aftershocks. These are usually smaller than the main quake, but some may be large enough to do additional damage to structures weakened during the main shock.

If you have to evacuate

Emergency Kit

  • First Aid kit and adequate supply of prescription medication.
  • Flashlight with fresh batteries and/or candles.
  • Small transistor radio with extra batteries.
  • Matches, preferably waterproof and windproof.
  • Blanket and/or sleeping bag for each family member.
  • Supply of current road maps of metropolitan and country areas.
  • Dry Food Items to last three days.
  • Bottled water.

Personal Documents/Checklists

  • Current passport for each member of family.
  • Appropriate visa (s) and accreditation documents.
  • Vehicle driver’s license.
  • Vehicle technical passport with power of attorney to drive the vehicle.
  • Sufficient cash to cover family expenses for reasonable amount of time.
  • Credit cards and checkbooks.
  • All necessary country of residence identification papers.
  • Vaccination records.
  • Current inventory of household affects/or video recording of household effects for - insurance claim purposes.

Do not take

  • Valuable or expensive-looking jewelry
  • Irreplaceable family objects
  • Unnecessary credit cards
  • Social Security card, library card, and similar items you may routinely carry in your wallet.  

Kidnappings

The threat of kidnappings remains a major concern in Colombia. In 2010, a total of 282 extortive and simple kidnappings were reported. Between 2002 and 2009, kidnappings in Colombia have dropped 90.63%. However, in 2010, extortive kidnappings increased 17.5% to 188 kidnappings.  These were kidnappings that were reported to authorities and were committed by terrorist groups or for-profit kidnap gangs. This number may be higher due to family members who are afraid to report kidnappings to authorities. Of the 188 reported extortive kidnappings, 156 were released, 22 remain captive, and 10 have died in captivity. 

Kidnapping is a recognized criminal profession in Colombia. Military and police intelligence estimates indicate that up to 28 kidnapping gangs operate in the country. Many of them serve directly for one or more of the illegal armed groups in Colombia, including the three FTOs.

Foreigners are particularly lucrative targets for kidnapping. Bogota’s Pais Libre (Free Country) Foundation, an organization dedicated to monitoring the problem of kidnapping, estimates that the ransom that is demanded for a foreigner is substantially higher than can be asked for a typical Colombian victim. However, as of 2010, it is reported that one foreign national from Ecuador is being held in Colombia.  Americans continue to be the most attractive kidnapping target among foreigners in Colombia. In July 2008, Colombian government forces successfully rescued 15 hostages from the FARC. This operation resulted in the safe return of three American hostages held for more than 5 years.

Kidnappings are not always planned carefully in advance against specific individuals. Colombian criminals and guerillas have kidnapped persons at random roadblocks on the outskirts of major cities.

Extortion

It is common in Colombia for U.S. and Colombian businesses to receive extortion demands. In 2010, a total of 1,352 extortions were reported to authorities. While this is a common practice for the FARC, other criminal groups are known to attempt to extort businesses under the guise of FARC. In January 2009, a U.S.-branded video store was destroyed in a bombing in Bogota following the owner’s refusal to pay to pay an extortion demand. Also in January 2009, improvise explosive devices (IEDs) were detonated on 2 public buses in response to the company’s refusal to cooperate with the criminal’s demands for payment. Nine additional buses were incinerated in similar incidents throughout the country in 2009.

Police Response

The Colombian National Police (CNP) is overworked and lacks sufficient resources. The police are challenged to deter crime, and response to alarms or emergency calls is often slow (15 minutes or longer) which makes it difficult to disrupt burglaries or invasive crimes in progress.  Police and military personnel are posted on foot and at kiosks referred to as Centro de Atencion Inmedietas (CAIs), which are small structures spread around the metropolitan area and manned by several police officers. Random acts of theft and violence on roads or at intersections may occur without police interruption unless they happen in front of a police post or a kiosk.

The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the Embassy in Bogota. If you are a victim of a crime while in Colombia, in addition reporting it to the local police, you should contact the American Citizen Services office located at the U.S. Embassy.  American Citizen Services (ACS) can be reached by calling (1) 315-0811 and asking for American Citizen Services.  ACS also monitors email messages sent to ACSBogota@state.gov  from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  The police non-emergency contact number in Bogota is 315-9499, (for police emergencies call (1)123.) 

Medical Emergencies

Medical care is adequate in major cities but varies in quality elsewhere. Public hospitals are well below U.S. standards. In the event of a medical emergency, the following contact information is provided for the five major cities in the country.

Bogota

All Emergencies:  (1) 123

(This number is also for car accidents, police, fire, ambulance, and all medical emergency needs.)

Hospital:

Santa Fe Hospital (24 hours): (1) 603-0303 Ext. 100

Clínica de Marly - Emergency Room: (1) 343-6600, Ext. 2222 / 1222

Ambulance:

Red Cross Ambulance (24 hours): (1) 437-6369; (1) (03) 310-260-2323; 132

SETELMEC (24 hours): (1) 634-9457/8

http://guialocal.com.co/bogota/tag/ambulancias

Air Ambulance:

Air Ambulance Professionals (954) 491-0555

Aero Jet International, Fort Lauderdale, FL (787) 724-1694

dawn@areo-jet.com

Cali

All Emergencies:  (2) 123

(This number is also for car accidents, police, fire, ambulance, and all medical emergency needs.)

Hospital:

Clínica Fundación Valle de Lili (24 hours): (2) 331-9090/7474 Ext. 3276

Clinica de Occidente (24 hours): (2) 660-3000 Ext. 150 / 154

Ambulance:

City Ambulance Services: (2) 123

Cartagena

All Emergencies:  (5) 123

(This number is also for car accidents, police, fire, ambulance, and all medical emergency needs.)

Hospital:

Hospital Bocagrande: (5) 650 – 2800 Ext. 100

Hospital Naval de Cartagena: (5) 6651073 Ext.504

Medellin

All Emergencies:  (4) 123

(This number is also for car accidents, police, fire, ambulance, and all medical emergency needs.)

Hospital:

Clínica de las Americas (24 hours): (4) 342-1010 Ext.113 / 1324

Clínica Soma (24 hours): (4) 576-8400 ext. 8415 / 8555

Ambulance:

City Ambulance Service: (4) 123

Barranquilla  

All Emergencies:  (5) 123

(This number is also for car accidents, police, fire, ambulance, and all medical emergency needs.)

Hospital:

Clinica del Caribe (24 hours): (5) 356-4861 Ext. 405

Ambulance:

City Ambulance Service / Police: (5) 132

Red Cross: (5) 358-8514

Other:

Defensa Civil: (5) 144; (5) 341-4165

(For assistance after a disaster.)

Dr. Freddy Farah: (5) 358-6590; (5) 356-4291; Mobile: 315-721-6246; Cra 51b # 82 - 141

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Americans in Colombia should practice good personal security at all times and especially maintain a low profile. The perception of wealth is a primary reason why criminals target Americans and other foreign nationals. You should not wear flashy or expensive jewelry, carry large purses or bulky wallets, or use ATMs in the open, such as on the street. You should only carry items with you that are needed at the time, and wallets and identification should be carried in a front pant pocket. If you are confronted by an armed assailant who intends to rob you and you are not in fear of your life or serious bodily harm, you should cooperate with the criminal. Crime can turn violent quickly in Colombia and most criminals carry one or more weapons; it is not uncommon for a victim to be seriously injured or killed when resisting a robbery.

You should avoid traveling alone, especially at night. Whether you are driving or riding in a vehicle, ensure that the windows are always closed and the doors are locked. Criminals, sometime masquerading as vendors, frequently reach into cars at intersections to steal jewelry from a passenger, or take a bag that is unattended. Briefcases, bags, and other belongings should always be placed in the vehicle’s locked trunk.

When frequenting shopping malls, restaurants, cafes, etc., never leave a briefcase or other personal items unattended, or a purse or bag hanging on the back of a chair, where it can easily be stolen.

Vary your routine. Be unpredictable in your movements, vary your routes from home to the office, as well as your departure and arrival times.

Be alert to possible surveillance. Note and avoid any individual who appears out of place along your routes to regularly scheduled activities, such as going from home to office.  Avoid sitting outside at restaurants. Instead, try to find a seat in an area not clearly visible from the street.

Areas of Town to Avoid and Effective Security Practices

The U.S. Embassy recommends that American Citizens avoid the following areas in Bogota due to the high crime rate and propensity of Scopolamine incidents.

  • “Galerias”district (between Calles 53 and 54 with Carreras 24 through 27)
  • “Plaza de las Americas” district (Avenida Primera de Mayo between Carrera 68 and Avenida Boyaca)

Avoiding Scopolamine incidents

The U.S. Embassy recommends that American Citizens adheres to the following to minimize being victimized:

  • Avoid going into bars or nightclubs alone (although groups have also been targeted)
  • Never leave food or drinks unattended
  • Do not accept food or drinks from strangers
  • Do not leave bars, restaurants or nightclubs with strangers

In the event of a suspected Scopolamine type incident, victims should immediately proceed to the Santa Fe Hospital located at Calle 119, No. 9-10, Tel: 603-0303.

Further Information

The general Embassy telephone number is (57) (1) 315-0811.  The Regional Security Office (RSO) can be reached at (57) (1) 383-2903/2458 during regular business hours.  The RSO Duty Agent, in emergencies, can be contacted seven days a week and 24-hours a day through the Marine Security Guard at Post 1, Tel:  (57) (1) 383-2701.  For additional information regarding the Embassy and for American Citizen Services information please refer to bogota.usembassy.gov.

OSAC Country Council

Bogota possesses a robust and active Country Council.  It meets the second Tuesday of every month except in January. 

Points of Contact:

Bogota

Janeth Vanderen, Tel: (57) (1) 610-6500,

Email: CEA1@ceacolombia.com

Monica Velandia, Tel: (57) (1) 610-6500,

Medillin

Carlos Enrique Restrepo, AmCham, Tel: (574) 268-74-91

Cartagena

Diana De Lequeria, AmCham, Tel: (575) 665-77-24

Baranquilla

Vicky Ibanez, AmCham, Tel: (575) 360-67-10

Cali

Ana Lucia Jaramillo, AmCham, Tel: (572) 667-29-93