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Colombia 2014 Crime and Safety Report: Bogotá

Western Hemisphere > Colombia; Western Hemisphere > Colombia > Bogota

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Bogotá is considered High for terrorism, residential crime, non-residential crime, and political violence by the Department of State. The Department of State’s Travel Warning for Colombia was updated on October 03, 2013 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 Bogotá, 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. 

Crime Threats 

Bogotá and other large cities share 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, including, but not limited to, muggings, assaults, cell phone theft, credit card/ATM card fraud, and burglaries. Criminals are quick to resort to physical assault and commonly use knives and firearms in the commission of crimes. 

U.S. citizens should be aware of the existence of criminal organizations that operate independently in major cities. These organizations may cooperate with insurgent or paramilitary organizations in the narcotics industry and operate independently when conducting other illicit activities, such as prostitution and extortion. 

It is common for businesses to receive extortion demands. While this is a common practice of the FARC, other criminal groups are known to extort businesses under the guise of the FARC. Businesses in Bogotá continue to be the victims of violence, to include bombings, when a demand for protection money is not met. 

Overall Road Safety Situation

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

Road Safety and Road Conditions 

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. Poor road conditions and mudslides frequently result in road closures, especially in rural areas. Traffic laws, including speed limits, are sporadically obeyed and are 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 Bogotá, the Colombian National Police (CNP) and military have a large presence on the major roads, especially during rush hour traffic. The government has instituted extra security to promote road travel throughout the country during holidays, but outside of these periods, the possible presence of insurgent 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, insurgent and criminal groups are known to set up roadblocks to rob and kidnap travelers. Government or insurgent control is subject to change, sometimes quickly and without notice.

Taxis are available, but passengers need to exercise caution and be extremely vigilant. A common trend in taxi-related crime is when a lone victim hails a taxi on the street. Usually, the taxi driver will stop abruptly to allow a counterpart(s) to enter the vehicle. The two individuals will rob the passenger and in some cases bring the passenger to withdraw money from as many ATMs as possible. In 2013, a DEA agent was killed during this type of robbery scheme. Rather than hailing a taxi, passengers are strongly encouraged to use a telephone dispatch service or a web-based application to order a taxi. 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 a security code from the dispatcher, which the passenger can use to ensure the correct vehicle was dispatched.

The public bus systems have a history of dangerous incidents and various terrorist attacks. Theft and assault are frequent on-board public transportation. In rural areas, both public and private buses are targeted in attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and organized crime groups known locally as Bandas Criminales (BACRIM). The FARC have set fire to public transport vehicles. In urban locations, demonstrators have been known to take control of buses and set them ablaze to draw attention to their cause. Major accidents involving inter-city buses are a regular occurrence, resulting in deaths or serious injuries.

Vehicle theft and carjacking is also common. Traffic in Bogotá is exceptionally congested, and the potential for robberies while the victim is stuck in traffic exists. Those who choose to drive a personal vehicle should always maintain a good sense of personal security on local roads. Vehicles should be parked in designated parking lots and parking garages whenever possible, with valuables out of sight. Drivers should always drive with their car doors locked, windows up, and it is highly recommended that the fuel level is never 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.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

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 demobilized members from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a defunct right-wing paramilitary organization whose former members have created new criminal organizations, commonly referred to as BACRIMs. The U.S. government has officially designated these three different organizations as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (FTOs) due to continued armed attacks against U.S. interests in Colombia. 

The domestic conflict has resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths over 60 years. 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 continued violence. 

The FARC, ELN, and BACRIM are all well organized criminal enterprises and regularly carry out kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, and other terrorist activities throughout Colombia. These organizations operate in areas where there is a weak host country security presence.

Civil Unrest

Throughout 2013, there were numerous demonstrations throughout Colombia but particularly in Bogota. Universities have active leftist student organizations that frequently stage protests, sometimes with anti-American messages. Protests usually involve students or transportation unions demanding government support for educational programs and other social/economic reforms. A common tactic used by protestors is to congregate on major roadways in order to block traffic. These protests can turn violent, as protestors are known to use Molotov cocktails and homemade improvised explosive devices, called “papas explosivas” (potato bombs), against the police. 

Post-Specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Natural disasters are the result of several different natural hazards. Colombian is part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and the Andean Volcanic Belt. This positions Colombia at an increased risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Additionally, heavy rains are very common and frequently cause 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 any other situation in which municipal services (power or water) are temporarily interrupted. Because earthquakes occur without warning, it is important to take precautionary 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 include: 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 cash for family expenses. 

During a major earthquake, you may experience shaking that starts out gently and grows violent and knocks you off of your feet. Or, you may be jarred first by a violent jolt. Then, you will feel the shaking, and you will find it very difficult to move from one room to another. 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. 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 (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.

Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones

U.S. citizens serving the U.S. government in Colombia, and their families, are permitted to travel to major cities 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. All Americans in Colombia are urged to follow these precautions. 

Kidnapping Threats

The threat of kidnappings remains a concern, although the numbers of kidnappings have fallen dramatically over the last 10 years. Between 2002-2009, the government reported that the number of kidnappings had dropped 90.63 percent. In 2013, there were 292 kidnappings, with 43 occurring in Bogota. 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. 

Bogotá’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. Americans continue to be attractive kidnapping targets among foreigners because of a perception of wealth and perceived political significance for leftist groups. 

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

Police Response

The Colombian National Police (CNP) is a professional, national organization and is recognized around the world for its success. However, the force is often overworked and occasionally lacks sufficient resources to deter crime. Response to alarms or emergency calls can sometimes take 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. 

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. 

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

The emergency response number for Cundinamarca Department, including Bogotá, 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 the Embassy in Bogotá. 

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 Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics

Bogotá
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

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

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

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

For vaccine and health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/colombia.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Crimes/Scams

One common and particularly dangerous method that criminals use in order to rob a victim is through the use of a variety of drugs, particularly 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, nor 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 Bogotá, victims should immediately proceed to the Santa Fe Hospital located at Calle 119, No. 9-10, Tel: 603-0303.

Criminals also carry out a variety of street scams in order to rob people. For example, individuals may pose as 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 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. 

Best Situational Awareness Practices 

Following strict personal security practices is a necessity for Americans visiting and working in Colombia. Americans 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 or 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 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, 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. Also, cell phones left on tables are an easy target for criminals. 

Vary your routine and be unpredictable in your movements, vary your routes and departure/arrival times. Be alert to possible surveillance. Note and avoid any individual who appears out of place along your routes to scheduled activities, such as going from home to office. At restaurants, do not sit along the perimeter fence or wall of the outside dining area. Instead, try to find a seat in an area not clearly visible from the street.

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

It is also essential to routinely check the U.S. Embassy Bogotá website at www.botoga.usembassy.gov for messages regarding travel safety and security issues of concern to U.S. citizens.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information 

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation 

Calle 24 Bis No. 48-50 Bogotá, D.C. Colombia 

Embassy Contact Numbers

The general Embassy telephone number is (57) (1) 275-2000. The Regional Security Office (RSO) can be reached at (57) (1) 275-2903/2458 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) 275-2701. 

For additional information regarding the Embassy and for American Citizen Services information please refer to www.bogota.usembassy.gov.

OSAC Country Council Information

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

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

Cartagena: Diana De Lequeria, AmCham, Tel: (575) 655-77-24

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

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