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Bolivia 2017 Crime & Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Bolivia; Western Hemisphere > Bolivia > La Paz

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

U.S. Embassy La Paz does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED LA PAZ AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.

Please review OSAC’s Bolivia-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.

Crime Threats

Most reported criminal incidents involve non-confrontational property crimes that occur in major cities, particularly in markets and commercial districts. Pickpocketing, purse snatching, and theft of jewelry/cell phones are routinely reported by tourists and visitors. This modus operandi has also been successful at the airports in La Paz and Santa Cruz. Thieves typically operate in groups of two or more. Usually, one or two members of the group will create a distraction, and others will surreptitiously steal from the victim. Stay alert to pickpockets when in crowds and when taking public transportation, and be conscious of distractions created to target you. Carry a wallet in the front trouser pocket or front jacket pocket with a zipper. Carry a clutch purse or a neck purse instead of a shoulder bag. Only change money at banks/hotels, as street exchanges can lead to fraud/robbery. Be alert to possible surveillance. Note any individual who appears out of place along your routes. Avoid sitting outside at restaurants; try to find a seat in an area not clearly visible from the street.

Violent crimes (assaults, robberies) against foreigners are statistically low, but they do occur. In the event of a robbery, the Embassy urges travelers to comply with the demands of the aggressors while attempting to observe identifying characteristics of the perpetrators. No item is worth risking serious injury or death.

Thefts from vehicles are a significant, pervasive problem. Unattended vehicles are broken into, and the computer modules, spare tires, stereos, headrests, and other valuables are stolen. Theft of the vehicle's operating computer and sound system is a common crime. The installation of a car alarm is recommended. Also, if you purchase a car radio, look for a model that can be removed and locked in the trunk. Such crimes are not exclusive to business and shopping districts; they occur in residential areas as well.

U.S. citizen residents have also been victimized by residential burglary. Thefts of unsecured bicycles, gardening tools, pets, and lawn furniture are fairly common. Furthermore, thefts from inside the home by household staff, workmen, and other visitors are not uncommon.

Cybersecurity Issues

The frequency and level of sophistication associated with computer crime is relatively low.

U.S. citizens have fallen victim to fraud related to their credit/debit cards. Skimming, the theft of credit card information during an otherwise legitimate transaction, can occur in restaurants or bars where the server takes the card out of the owner’s view. Pay for items in cash when possible and use credit cards at larger establishments (hotels). To avoid skimming, take the credit/debit card to the register yourself and never let the card out of your sight. Also, be sure to monitor your bank account or credit card statement frequently.

Other Areas of Concern

Due to regular civil unrest and the use of roadblocks by protesting segments of the population, as well as the destructive power of the rainy season on unimproved roads, travelers are advised to check on the road conditions and status before departing on overland trips. U.S. citizens visiting the Chapare and Yungas regions should monitor local news and media before traveling.

Stay particularly alert for crime in La Paz near the San Francisco church, El Alto market, markets on Sagarnaga Street and in the Sopocachi area and in municipal bus stations/terminals. Due to increased pickpocketing and mugging during the evening, travelers are advised not to walk through the Prado after dark.

Santa Cruz suffers from higher levels of criminal activity.

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Outside the major cities, road conditions are hazardous. Many roads are not paved, and the remainders are topped with gravel/dirt. Unpaved roads can be quite hazardous during the rainy season (December-March) when rock slides and road/bridge washouts are common. Many winding stretches are insufficiently illuminated mountainous areas, without guard rails, traffic signs, or designated traffic lanes. The mountainous areas pose even greater challenges, with weather conditions varying from snow to heavy rain storms and narrow, unpaved roads that are frequently blocked by rock/mud slides.

The North Yungas road (from La Paz toward Coroico and Caranavi) has earned the dubious designation of "The World’s Most Dangerous Road" and has become a hub for thrill-seeking mountain cyclists. Weekly media reports describe accidents along the road, usually involving buses and multiple fatalities. A better alternative, "Carretera Cotapata – Santa Barbara" (Carretera nueva a Coroico) should be used. Many of the roads north of La Paz that pass through Guanay, Mapiri, Consata, Apolo, and Sorata are extremely dangerous due to landslides and narrow roadways traversing sheer cliffs. Compounding this, these roads are lightly traveled, and motorists involved in accidents or encountering mechanical problems often find themselves miles from the nearest village with little hope of assistance. In addition, fast moving streams/rivers cross many roads in Beni province. Rivers, many with no bridges, frequently cross the road between La Paz and San Borja. Some of these crossings have barges that are propelled by a pull rope and pulley system. Travel along less-utilized routes is dangerous due to poor roads, reckless drivers, and poorly-maintained buses/trucks.

The general disregard for traffic laws makes driving particularly dangerous. Pedestrians, with a general inattentiveness to traffic, pose a hazard to drivers. Accidents involving pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycle/moped drivers are common in both urban and rural areas. Added dangers are the lack of formal training for most drivers, lack of lights on vehicles, and drunk/overly tired drivers, including commercial bus drivers.

Most roads are rarely patrolled by police and have many isolated stretches between villages. Consequently, traffic accidents and vehicle breakdowns are particularly hazardous. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”

To avoid carjacking or theft from your vehicle while you are stopped at intersections, keep your doors locked and windows rolled up. Park inside a residential compound, in a parking lot with an attendant, or at least within view of the location of your visit. If this is not possible, leave your car at home and take a taxi.

Public Transportation Conditions

Intra-departmental public transportation is poor, except along the more frequently traveled routes where roads have been upgraded and maintained (La Paz-Cochabamba, Cochabamba-Santa Cruz, La Paz-Oruro). Bus service along these routes is generally safe, although accidents occur, often with fatalities. Urban bus transportation is considered risky for foreigners, with frequent incidents of theft and robbery reported.

Avoid hailing taxis off the street or using unofficial taxis.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

There are two international airports: La Paz and Santa Cruz. Both are relatively modern and secure facilities.  

Other Travel Conditions

Protestors often block city streets and highways, and public transportation tends to be disrupted during demonstrations and protests.

Terrorism Threat

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED LA PAZ AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED LA PAZ AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.

Civil Unrest

Demonstrations, road blocks, protests, and other forms of civil unrest are common, especially in La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba. Student, labor union, and indigenous groups often use protests and strikes to obtain promises of increased government spending on social benefits and infrastructure. While disruptive, especially to transportation, violence is usually limited and localized. Protestors occasionally burn tires, throw Molotov cocktails, engage in destruction of property, and detonate dynamite during demonstrations, but fatalities have been rare. U.S. citizens are normally only affected indirectly by having to contend with traffic disturbances and transportation stoppages. It is against the law for foreigners to engage in political activity.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

In November 2016, Bolivia experienced its worst draught in recent history. The water shortage led to demonstrations and implementation of severe water rationing measures in the Zona Sur district of La Paz, where many hotels and restaurants are located. Though the situation improved with arrival of the rainy season, visitors should remain cognizant of potential water shortages during the dry season (April-November).        

Earthquakes are also a concern. Data gathered by the San Calixto Observatory in La Paz shows there have been 13 reported incidents of seismic activity since January 1994; the last significant earthquake was in November 2011 when a 6.7 earthquake hit San Ignacio de Moxos.

Travelers should be aware that low lying areas in Beni, Pando, Tarija, Potosi, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba experience annual flooding, especially during the rainy season (December-March).

In light of these environmental conditions, it is important that travelers and residents maintain an emergency supply of food/water and establish an emergency plan.

Economic Concerns

There is an abundance of pirated merchandise readily available from street vendors.


Privacy Concerns

There are very strict privacy laws that govern the release of personal information; however, widespread corruption and poor record keeping present vulnerabilities to privacy.

Personal Identity Concerns

Travelers with disabilities may encounter difficulties, as wheelchair accessible entrances are uncommon.  

Drug-related Crimes

Bolivia is a producer of coca leaf, and a source/transit country for cocaine, which is shipped to markets in Latin America and Europe. The major agricultural areas of coca leaf cultivation are the Chapare and Yungas regions. Government coca eradication efforts can result in violent reactions by producers. U.S. citizens are encouraged to contact the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy prior to traveling to the Chapare and Yungas regions. Although there is a concern about the growing presence of representatives from Colombian, Brazilian, and other narco-trafficking groups, Bolivia has not experienced narco-violence.

Penalties for possession of illegal drugs are very strict, and offenders receive lengthy prison sentences if convicted. Those accused of drug offenses are often imprisoned two years or more before being tried and sentenced.

Police Response

The police have limited resources, particularly outside major cities. In many cases, officers assigned to smaller villages/towns do not have a vehicle to respond to traffic accidents or criminal activity. Even when resources are available, response is extremely slow by U.S. standards.

While traveling in Bolivia, you are subject to Bolivian laws. Prison conditions are extremely primitive by U.S. standards.

U.S. citizens are advised to cooperate with the police if stopped or questioned.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

If you are arrested, under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and customary international law, you may request that the authorities alert the U.S. Embassy/Consulate. Outside of major cities, awareness of international protocols is uneven. If you feel that you are a victim of police corruption, bribery, or harassment, contact American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy for assistance. The Consular Section maintains a list of attorneys in Bolivia.

Crime Victim Assistance

U.S. citizens may contact the Consular section at the U.S. Embassy for assistance with police matters. The police emergency telephone number is 110, but response time can be lengthy.

If involved in a traffic accident or victimized by crime, you may be required to accompany the investigating officer to the police station to file a complaint or respond to questions. If a police report is required for an insurance claim, a nominal fee will be charged.

Police/Security Agencies

The police are divided into two major branches:

  1. Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico (FELCN), which focuses on narco-trafficking and related crimes
  2. Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Crimen (FELCC), which focuses on crimes not associated with narco-trafficking (kidnapping, robbery)

Smaller units exist, with jurisdictions in more specialized areas (traffic police) or local commands responsible for community policing duties.

Medical Emergencies

Medical care in large cities is adequate for most purposes but of varying quality. Medical facilities, even in La Paz, are not adequate to handle serious medical conditions. There is no reliable ambulance service.

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

LA PAZ

Clinica del Sur, 3539 Avenida Hernando Siles, Obrajes. Tel: (591) (2) 278-4001, 278-4002, 278-4003 (located near the embassy’s residential neighborhoods)

Clinica Alemana, Av. 6 de Agosto 2821, San Jorge. Tel. (591) (2) 243-0355 (located in Sopocachi near the embassy)

Arco Iris German Hospital, Av. 15 Abril, Barrio Grafico, Villa Fatima; Tel: (591) (2) 221-6021 (located nearest to the Yungus/Death Road)

SANTA CRUZ

Clinica Foianini, Avenida Irala 468; Tel: (591) (3)336-2211, 335-3075

COCHABAMBA

Centro Medico Belga, Calle Antezana 0455 (between Calles Venezuela and Paccieri); Tel: (591) (4) 422-9407, 423-1403, 425-0928

Insurance Guidance

The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to consult with their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to confirm that their policy applies overseas and that it will cover emergency expenses (medical evacuation). U.S. medical insurance plans seldom cover health costs incurred outside the U.S., unless supplemental coverage is purchased. Further, U.S. Medicare/Medicaid programs do not provide payment for medical services outside the U.S. However, many travel agents and private companies offer insurance plans that will cover health care expenses incurred overseas. Useful information on medical emergencies abroad, including overseas insurance programs, is provided in the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs brochure, "Medical Information for Americans Traveling Abroad."

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Bolivia.

OSAC Country Council Information

There is currently no active Country Council in La Paz. Please contact OSAC’s Western Hemisphere team if you are interested in private-sector engagement in La Paz or have questions about OSAC’s Country Council programs.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Embassy
2780 Avenida Arce
La Paz

Hours of Operation: Mon-Thurs: 0800 – 1730 and Fri: 0800 - 1200

Embassy Contact Numbers

Switchboard (including after-hours calls): (591) (2) 216-8000

Regional Security Office: (591) (2) 216-8300; e-mail: LAPAZRSO@state.gov

Consular email: consularlapaz@state.gov

Website: http://bolivia.usembassy.gov/

Embassy Guidance

U.S. citizens are encouraged to register their travel with the Department of State through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). U.S. citizens with questions or concerns about their travel or who need assistance can contact American Citizens Services.

Additional Resources

Bolivia Country Information Sheet