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Colombia 2012 Crime and Safety Report: Cartagena

Western Hemisphere > Colombia

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Cartagena is a popular tourist destination on the Caribbean coast with a rich history that has led to its recent distinction as a popular port of call for many cruise lines and to its being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nonetheless, U.S. Department of State rated Cartagena as HIGH for terrorism and MEDIUM for political violence, residential crime, and non-residential crime. The State Department’s most recent Travel Warning was issued on February 21, 2012 (https://www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=12039) and advises U.S. citizens that: “Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations like Cartagena and Bogota, but violence by narco-terrorist groups continues to affect some rural areas and large cities.” The potential for violence by terrorist and other criminal groups continues to exist 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 check the U.S. Embassy Bogota website at www.bogota.usembassy.gov for messages concerning U.S. citizens regarding travel and other security notices.

Crime Threats  

Cartagena, as well as other large cities in Colombia, shares many of the same problems that plague the majority of the world’s biggest cities. On a daily basis, 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. Criminals are quick to resort to physical assault and commonly use knives and firearms in the commission of crimes. Crime levels in the major tourist areas of Centro Historico, Bocagrande, and Castilogrande are considered comparably lower but are continually areas of much petty theft and other similar crimes. 

The public bus systems in Colombia have a history of dangerous incidents and various terrorist attacks. Criminals target passengers for theft and sexual assaults. Major accidents involving inter-city buses are a regular occurrence in Colombia, resulting in deaths or serious injuries. Demonstrators have taken control of buses and then set them ablaze in order to show support for their cause. Buses in Cartagena are also very dirty, have poor safety features, and are considered off limits for U.S. diplomatic personnel.

Taxis are generally a safe form of transportation, but passengers need to exercise caution and be extremely vigilant when riding in taxis. A trend in taxi-related crime is when the victim has been riding alone. Usually, the taxi driver will stop abruptly to allow a counterpart to enter the vehicle. The two individuals will then rob the passenger and in some cases take the passenger to as many Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) as possible. In Cartagena, taxis hailed off the street in the Historical Center are considered generally reliable, as are taxis hailed off the street in front of major restaurants and hotels in the Bocagrande and Castilogrande areas. Cabs operating outside these areas should be called for from each company’s dispatch or by a hotel or restaurant owner. Most hotels, restaurants, and stores will call a taxi company for a passenger, and the taxi generally arrives in a matter of minutes. 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 taxi has been dispatched.

Vehicle thefts and carjackings do occur in Colombia. Traffic in Cartagena is exceptionally congested during major travel holidays, so the potential for robberies while the victim is stuck in traffic is real. Those who choose to drive a personal vehicle should 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 level never be below half-full. Drivers and vehicle occupants should use discretion in the event of an incident such as a carjacking as to whether they should exit the vehicle or drive the 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.

Poor road conditions and mudslides frequently result in road closures, especially in rural areas. 

Traffic laws, 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 10 is not permitted to ride in the 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 Cartagena, particularly in the tourist areas, the Colombian National Police (CNP) and military have a large presence on the major roads, setting up several checkpoints along the roads to ensure drivers have the proper license. 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 guerrilla 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, guerrilla groups 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.

Political Violence 

Historical Perspective

Colombia is in the midst of a decades-long conflict, pitting the government against two leftist insurgencies--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 created new criminal organizations, known as “BACRIMs.” The United States government has officially designated these three organizations as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTOs) due to their continuing armed attacks against U.S. interests in Colombia. The internal conflict has caused the deaths of thousands of civilians over the course of 60+ years, and, according to the United Nations High Commission, over two million people have been internally displaced over the past 15 years, forcing them into urban areas in an attempt to escape the violence. 

Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime

The FARC, ELN, and BACRIM are all well organized criminal enterprises and regularly carry out kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, and other terrorist activities throughout Colombia. 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. In the coastal areas of the province of Bolivar, the presence of these groups has been historically lower than in other areas of the country. 

Nevertheless, U.S. citizens should be aware of the existence of criminal organizations that operate independently in major cities throughout Colombia. These organizations may cooperate with guerrilla or paramilitary organizations in the narcotics industry and operate independently when conducting other illicit activity such as prostitution and extortion.  
It is common for businesses--U.S. and Colombian--in Colombia to receive extortion demands. While this is a common practice of the FARC, other criminal groups are known to attempt to extort businesses under the guise of the FARC. Businesses throughout Colombia continue to be the victims of violence to include bombings when a demand for protection money is not met. 

Civil Unrest  

Throughout 2011, there were numerous demonstrations held in various parts of Colombia. Universities throughout Colombia have active leftist student organizations that frequently stage protests, often with an anti-American message. Protests usually involve transportation unions or students demanding government support for educational programs and other social and economic reforms. A common tactic used by protesters is to congregate on major roadways in order to block traffic, thus disrupting normal operations in the city. These protests routinely turn violent, as protestors are known to use Molotov cocktails and a homemade improvised explosive, called “papas explosivas” or potato bombs, against Colombian police. 

Cartagena has seen minor demonstrations during the end of 2011, mostly occurring south of the Manga Port away from major tourist areas. The potential for protests should be taken seriously, as any blockage of one of the major arteries in the city can shut down movement in the historical area of the city, confining people to their homes or hotels, and potentially cutting off access to both the airport and seaport. 

Post-Specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Natural disasters are the result of several different natural hazards that affect the country according to its particular geographic and geologic features. Colombian is part of the Pacific ring of Fire and Andean Volcanic Belt. This produces an increased risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Additionally, heavy rains are extremely common, which causes severe flooding and mudslides in various regions.

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. Because earthquakes occur without warning, it is important to take preparatory steps. Employees and their dependents are encouraged to have the following items on hand: flashlights with spare batteries, a portable commercial radio with spare batteries, fire extinguishers, food, and water. It is also important to have important documents centrally located in the event of an evacuation. A list of important documents to keep readily available is as follows: current passport for each family member, driver’s license, credit cards, checkbooks, country of residence identification papers, vaccinations records, a current inventory of household effects for insurance purposes, and sufficient cash to family expenses for a reasonable amount of time. 

During a major earthquake, you may experience a shaking that starts out gently and within seconds grows violent and knocks you off of your feet. Or, you may be jarred first by a violent jolt. Seconds 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. 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, light fixtures, and exposed electrical wires. 

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 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.

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.

Industrial and Transportation Accidents

In general, road conditions in the major cities are adequate for vehicular travel. Outside these areas and in the rural sections of the country, roads can be extremely dangerous and well below U.S. standards. Response to traffic or other kinds of accidents that occur in rural areas can be expected to have a prolonged emergency response time. 

Kidnappings

The threat of kidnappings remains a major concern in Colombia, although the numbers of kidnappings have fallen dramatically over the last 10 years. Between 2002 and 2009, the government of Colombia reported that the number of kidnappings had dropped 90.63 percent; however, the number of kidnappings was up 25% in the first six months of 2011. 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, including the three FTOs, in Colombia. 

Foreigners are particularly lucrative targets for kidnappers. Bogota’s Pais Libre 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. Americans continue to be the most attractive kidnapping target among foreigners in Colombia because of a perception of wealth and perceived political significance for leftist groups. 

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

Police Response

The Colombian National Police (CNP) as an organization is overworked and lacks sufficient resources. The police are challenged to deter crime, and response to alarms or emergency calls to disrupt burglaries or invasive crimes in progress is often slow (15 minutes or longer). Police and military personnel are posted on foot and at kiosks referred to as Centro de Atencion Inmedietas (CAIs), which are small police substations manned by several 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 substation. 

Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime

The 911 equivalent emergency response number for Cundinamarca Department including Bogota, is 123. To call the police directly from all other areas of Colombia, dial 112. 

If you require assistance from the U.S. government, contact American Citizen Services (ACS) via the Embassy at (1) 275-2000. ACS also monitors email messages sent to ACSBogota@state.gov from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. 

The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and U.S. Embassy Bogota. If you are a victim of a crime while in Colombia, in addition reporting it to the local police, you should contact the Embassy. 

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

The CNP has greatly improved their level of professionalism in recent years; however, corruption continues to exist. It is not uncommon for an officer to request a bribe during a routine traffic stop. If you feel you are the victim of police harassment or corruption, report it immediately to the police emergency number and to American Citizen Services. 

Medical Emergencies

Medical care is adequate in major cities but varies in quality elsewhere. Public hospitals are well below U.S. standards. 

Contact Information for Local Hospital and Clinics

In the event of a medical emergency, the following contact information is provided for the five major cities in the country.

Cartagena
Hospital Bocagrande, Tel: (5) 650-2800 Ext. 113, 665-5270
Hospital Naval de Cartagena, Tel: (5) 665-1073/7073/5360/61/62/63/64
07 (5) 655-5360 and 07 (5) 655-8405

Bogota
Santa Fe Hospital (24 hours) Tel: (57) (1) 603-0303
Clinica de County, Emergency Room Tel: 343-6600 Ext. 1105
City Emergency Medical Service (24 hours), Tel: 123
Prevention and Medical Emergencies, Tel: 310-7087
Accidents and Transit, Tel: 123
Red Cross Ambulance (24 hours), Tel: 437-6369, 310-260-2323
SETELMEC (24 hours), Tel: 634-9457/58

Cali
City Ambulance Service, Tel: (2) 123 or (2) 132
Clinica Fundacion Valle de Lili (24 hours), Tel: (2) 331-9090/7474 Ext. 3276
Clinica de Occidente (24 hours), Tel: (2) 660-3000 and (2) 608-3200

Medellin
City Ambulance Service, (4) 123
Clinica las Americas (24 hours), Tel: (4) 342-1010 Ext. 1170
Emergency (4) 342-2262
Clinica Soma (24 hours), (4) 567-8400 Option #4, (4) 576-8480/8555

Barranquilla
City Ambulance Service, Tel: (5) 132
Police, Tel: (5) 123
Cruz Roja, Tel: (5) 358-8514
Defensa Civil, Tel: (5) 144
Clinica del Caribe, (24 hours) Tel: (5) 3564861/340100
Dr. Freddy Farah, Tel: (5) 358-6590, (5) 356-4291, Cell: 315-721 6246, Cra. 51 B #52-41

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, 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, sometimes masquerading as vendors, frequently reach into cars at intersections to steal jewelry from a passenger or take an unattended bag. 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 and 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.

Crimes and Scams

One common and particularly dangerous method that criminals use in order to rob a victim is through the use of drugs. The most common has been scopolamine. Unofficial estimates put the number of annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia at approximately 50,000. Scopolamine can render a victim unconscious for 24 hours or more. In large doses, it can cause respiratory failure and death. It is most often administered in liquid or powder form in foods and beverages. 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. In the event of a suspected scopolamine-type incident in Cartagena, victims should immediately proceed to the Naval Hospital located Bocagrande. Phone: (5) 665-1073/7073/5360/61/62/63/6407 (5) 655-5360 and 07 (5) 655-8405

Criminals in Colombia also carry out a variety of street scams in order to rob people. For example, individuals may pose as police officers by presenting false identification. They will ask to inspect a victim’s money to verify that it is not counterfeit. They will issue 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. 

Areas to be Traveled and Best Security Practices

The U.S. Embassy recommends that American Citizens remain in the areas mentioned below during evening hours.

Centro Historico: The most famous and most frequented area of the city. Police frequently post guards on almost every block and guard the perimeter to the walled city at all hours of the day.
Bocagrande: More modern and residential area of the city with hotels and casinos and Cartagena’s most popular beach. 
Castilogrande: Mostly residential area to the south of Bocagrande with another popular beach.
Castilo San Felipe: Old castle very popular with tourists. Recommended to visit only during the day or when special events such as concerts are held there at night. 
Pie de la Popa: Highest point in Cartagena that offers a fine view of the city. Should be visited only during the day as the mountain borders one of Cartagena’s most dangerous neighborhoods to the south side.

The U.S. Embassy recommends that American Citizens adhere to the following to Official Americans and their families are permitted to travel to major cities 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. Official Americans in Cartagena are allowed to travel by car to surrounding coastal cities of Barranquilla and Santa Marta, provided they use only major highways and travel during the day. All Americans in Colombia are urged to follow these precautions. 

To minimize the chances of being victimized:

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

Further Information

Embassy Contact Numbers

The Regional Security Officer (RSO) in Cartagena can be reached at (57) (5) 664-2229 during regular business hours and 24 hours a day at (57) (314) 359-2668. 

The U.S. Embassy telephone number in Bogota is (57) (1) 275-2000. The RSO Duty Agent in Bogota, 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) 275-2701. For additional information regarding the Embassy and for American Citizen Services information please refer to www.bogota.usembassy.gov.

OSAC Country Council

Bogota

Janet Van Deren, OSAC Country Council President, Tel: (57) (1) 610-6500.