Latvia 2011 OSAC Crime and Safety Report
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
Latvia continues to be a relatively safe country, compared to a U.S. metro area or rural region of similar size. The economic crisis enveloping the country has resulted in a slight increase of crimes of opportunity, including pickpockets, theft from automobiles, and some residential thefts that, mainly occur in the larger cities, with the majority of occurrences in Riga. Violent crime is still present, including assaults and in some extreme cases, homicide. Other violent assaults have involved young intoxicated males in public parks or in the Old Town. An illicit drug culture exists, and the organized crime community remains active, with operations expanding into credit card fraud, bank card fraud, and extortion. As the main city Riga becomes more of a tourist destination, the exposure of foreigners to these types of crimes will likely increase.
Visitors to Latvia generally experience a safe and secure country, and many of the reported crimes could have easily been avoided using common sense practices. The city of Riga is filled with public parks and a boisterous Old Town center. At night, these areas can become dangerous, replete with thieves, and intoxicated groups of people. Over the last few years, the Riga Mayor and the Municipal Riga Police have launched a successful program to clean up the Old Town and warned historically notorious establishments, informing each that they would be shut down if any physical intimidation or extortion of foreign visitors occurred. Since that time, incidents of such activity have plummeted. Of the reported crimes against Americans and other foreign visitors, many have occurred in dimly-lit parks or outside of clubs late at night; however, there have been assaults and menacing behavior in broad daylight. In addition, criminals prey on intoxicated victims. Bank card/ATM fraud has also been reported to the U.S. Embassy. It recommended that foreign visitors use clearly marked cab companies such as Riga Taxi or Riga Taxi Park. Vehicle thefts, kidnapping, and residential thefts have not been significant issues.
Major highways in Latvia are in a generally good state of repair; however, conditions frequently change due to the weather. Secondary roads can be treacherous, poorly lit, and without proper signage. Caution is advised at all times, as pedestrians and unsafe drivers are numerous along the roads. In 2010, Latvia experienced a slight increase in traffic accidents with 3,171 involving injuries resulting in 214 fatalities.
The threat of political violence in Latvia is extremely rare; however, there has been more activity in recent years due to an economic downturn and allegations of corruption in the government. Peaceful demonstrations do occur, the majority of which target the government. Some annual events routinely result in arrests, including May Day events and “Latvian Legionnaires” march. The U.S. Embassy in Riga has not been specifically targeted for demonstration or protest and only is tangentially affected by other protests aimed at government buildings or other foreign missions which share the same street. Anti-American sentiment is minimal.
Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime
No known indigenous terrorist organizations are present in Latvia. Organized crime continues to be a growing concern. Groups are active in narcotics and prostitution, among other illicit enterprises.
International Terrorism or Transnational Terrorism
With Latvia’s recent inclusion in the Schengen regime, the ease with which an international terrorist group could enter Latvia has increased; however, the threat is consistent with most of the rest of Western Europe. Latvia’s vigorous support of coalition efforts in the Middle East and South Asia give it a higher profile and the increased vulnerability of attracting the attention of international terrorist groups.
There have been no instances of significant civil unrest.
Spring floods regularly impact the Southeast region of Latvia along the Daugava River basin.
Drugs and Narcoterrorism
The illicit drug trade has become more robust in the past few years, with entry points on the sea and through land border crossings. Latvian border agencies have made some considerable headway, but the amount entering and/or transiting to Russia is estimated to be growing. Cocaine, heroin, and synthetic drugs are the most frequently seized drugs. Drug cartels have used Baltic banks for money laundering operations. Latvia officials are working closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on curbing the flow of illegal narcotics into and through Latvia.
Latvia’s police force has been making strides to improve in a variety of areas. Senior Latvian officers have taken advantage of training opportunities abroad in areas of community policing and racial sensitivity. Municipal police officers are becoming more high-profile and prolific throughout the public parks and in the Old Town. Camera technology is increasingly used to reduce police response time and identify potential crime incidents. A tourist police unit, comprised of specially trained officers skilled at a variety of languages, was created to respond to the alarming number of extortion cases perpetrated against foreign visitors. The success of this police unit has significantly reduced the number of reported incidents in “Old Town” Riga.
Where to Turn for Assistance If One Becomes a Victim of a Crime
For any emergency, one should dial “112”. The police can be directly dialed at “02”. English speaking operators are available at those numbers. In addition, a special 24-hour tourist hotline has been established by the tourist police unit at +371-67181818. The operator can also advise where the victim may file a police report. If an American is detained, he or she should contact the U.S. Embassy in Riga at the 24-hour number: +371-6703-6200.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
While unlikely, in the event that a foreigner is detained or harassed by the police, the individual should comply with police instructions. However, a request for an interpreter and the individual’s respective embassy should be made immediately. The individual should then immediately contact their respective embassy for assistance.
For medical emergencies, one can dial “112” or “03” for a medical professional directly. While medical facilities are improving, recent negative experiences by U.S. staff have indicated that more resources are needed to improve health care in Latvia. Foreigners are advised to maintain private health insurance and medivac insurance as well.
Air Ambulance Services
Latvia maintains one facility with a helicopter for catastrophic emergencies. It is called the Centre of Emergency and Disaster Medicine and can be reached by phone at +371-761-5534.
How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
Crimes/Scams unique to Latvia
As mentioned above, common sense should dictate a foreigner’s time in Latvia. Avoid dimly-lit parks and streets at night. If possible, travel in a group. Stay alert when navigating the streets as a pedestrian or a driver. It is a good idea to secure all valuables in the home, in the car, and on the person. Avoid displaying items of value, including expensive cameras, cell phones, or jewelry. Vehicles should be parked in well-lit or visible areas. Items of value, including bags or purses, should not be kept in plain sight inside the vehicle. Identity theft is reportedly on the rise in Latvia. It is advisable to remain cautious when using ATM’s on the street, as well as maintaining all credit card receipts. Care should be taken when using bank machines (ATM’s), especially in Old Town. Avoid dimly lit or remote locations when using the machines.
In many of the night clubs, there is a scam where a foreigner will buy a drink and then be presented with an exorbitant bill based on a separate menu. He or she will then be detained until the bill is paid, sometimes through physical intimidation. It is best to avoid these places or else agree to the price before ordering. Racially motivated and alternative lifestyle harassment and assaults have occurred in the last few years and continue to be of great concern to U.S. Embassy Riga. Crimes of this nature should be immediately reported to the foreign visitor’s embassy and to the police.
Areas to Avoid/Best Security Practices
The market area and the Old Town are popular with pickpockets. The underground tunnels linking Old Town to the bus station and shopping malls are also particularly attractive to opportunist criminals. Care should be taken with regard to wallets and purses in those areas. Merkala Street, between Barona and Caka streets across from the train station, should be avoided due to a variety of illicit activities.
The Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Riga can be reached at +371-6703-6214. For any other concerns, including American Citizen Services, Consular Affairs, Political/Econ and Post 1, contact the 24-hour main number at +371-6703-6200. Other information about Embassy Riga can be found by visiting our website at www.usembassy.lv/.
OSAC Country Council
Latvia has an active OSAC Country Council and U.S. organizations are encouraged to contact Regional Security Officer Michael Stutzman for any security related matters at +371-6703-6214