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Colombia 2016 Crime & Safety Report: Cartagena

Western Hemisphere > Colombia; Western Hemisphere > Colombia > Cartagena

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Post Crime Rating: Medium

Cartagena and other large cities in Colombia share many of the same crime problems that plague large cities around the world. The perception of wealth is a primary reason why criminals target Americans and other foreign nationals. On a daily basis, the most prevalent threat to Americans is street crime. The most common types of crime include, but are not limited to, muggings, assaults, cell phone theft, credit card fraud, and burglaries. Criminals are quick to resort to violence and commonly use knives and firearms. 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.

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 drug has been scopolamine, which can render a victim impaired or unconscious for 24+ hours, and in large doses can cause brain damage and death. Unofficial estimates of annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia are approximately 50,000. It is often administered by liquid or powder into foods and beverages. Many incidents occur n night clubs/bars where men perceived to be wealthy are targeted by young, attractive women. 

Thefts and assaults occur frequently on public buses. In rural areas, public and private buses have been attacked by the terrorist groups Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) and by organized crime elements Bandas Criminales (BACRIM). Terrorists, criminals, and demonstrators sometimes burn buses. 

Taxi-related crimes commonly involve a cab hailed from the street by a lone passenger. After the passenger enters, the driver will stop, and armed robbers will enter the vehicle, sometimes taking the victim to ATMs over several hours to take out as much cash as possible. In 2013, a DEA agent was killed during this type of robbery. In 2015, four non-official U.S. citizens were killed by criminal activity.  

Vehicle break-ins, thefts and carjackings are a risk.    

Extortion is a significant security concern. The FARC, ELN, and criminal groups extort all types of commercial entities in their areas of operation. Violence, including bombings, may be used if extortion demands are not met. 

Crime levels in the major tourist areas, including the historical center (El Centro, San Diego), neighborhoods of Getsemani, Bocagrande, El Laguito, and Castillogrande are considerably lower and are rarely violent, but petty theft, scams, and similar crimes remain common in these areas.

Cybersecurity Issues

Contacts from the public and private sectors indicate that cyber threats remain a significant security concern. Politically-motivated incidents have included a breach of President Juan Manual Santos’ email account and the illegal monitoring of Colombia’s peace negotiations with the FARC, both revealed in February 2014. Authorities also report an increasing number of financially-motivated attacks, as Colombia extends Internet access and Colombians increasingly depend on it. Some 47 percent of Colombian respondents to a June 2015 Unisys Security Insights survey believed their personal data would be accessed by an unauthorized person within the next year. In order to further develop its institutional framework and capacity to address cyber threats, Colombia is preparing an updated cyber security policy in consultation with the Organization of American States, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other partners. 

Other Areas of Concern

Americans serving at the U.S. diplomatic mission to Colombia and their families must ask for permission to travel throughout much of Colombia. Embassy official Americans and their families are not permitted to travel by road outside of urban areas at night. They are required to fly to most major cities. All Americans in Colombia are urged to follow these precautions. 

Transportation-Safety Situation

The general information provided below concerning Colombian road conditions is for 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, but not good, for vehicle travel. Traffic in Cartagena is congested and road conditions are often poor, contributing to traffic accidents and creating opportunities for criminals to rob vehicles. In rural areas, roads can be substandard and dangerous (no emergency lanes, poor lighting), and landslides frequently close roads. Accident response in rural areas is slow. Travel at night is also dangerous due to the potential for accidents along mountain roads and violence from criminal groups.

The Colombian National Police (CNP) has a presence on major roads, including at well-marked, fixed checkpoints. The government deploys extra security to promote road travel during holidays. Outside of these periods and in rural areas, terrorists and criminals can make road travel dangerous. In areas where the government does not have a strong presence, terrorist and criminal groups have set up roadblocks to rob and kidnap travelers.

Traffic laws, including speed limits, are often not obeyed/enforced, creating chaotic and dangerous conditions for drivers and pedestrians. The penalties for drunk driving are severe and very expensive. Police will deploy sobriety checkpoints, especially in urban areas, and can require sobriety tests during traffic stops. Texting and driving is illegal. Seat belts are mandatory for front-seat passengers in a private vehicle. Car seats are not mandatory for children, but a child under 10 may not ride in the front seat.

In case of a vehicle accident, the law requires that the vehicles remain in place and all parties remain at the scene until the police arrive and complete their preliminary investigation. In addition, traffic accidents can be staged by criminals and may attract a crowd that could turn hostile. Drivers who feel threatened and leave the scene should immediately contact their insurance company and the police. In an accident involving an injury, the police will require a sobriety or blood-alcohol test, and the driver may be taken to the police station. 

Drivers and passengers should always be aware of their surroundings, lock doors, roll up windows, and keep valuables/packages out of sight. Criminals, sometime masquerading as vendors, may reach into cars at intersections to steal items and may tear off car parts (side mirrors, antennas, windshield wipers). Belongings should always be placed in the vehicle’s locked trunk. Due to the possibility of being caught in a traffic jam, gasoline tanks should always be kept above half full. Car keys should be separated from house keys. Vehicles should be parked in designated parking lots and garages with valuables out of sight.

Public Transportation Conditions 

Taxis are available, but passengers need to exercise caution. Do not flag down taxis on the street or accept rides from strangers. Taxis should be arranged via phone or web app or taken from a taxi stand. Airports, hotels, and some restaurants/shopping centers have taxi stands or will call taxis for customers. When a taxi is called, the passenger will be given the number of the taxi and a two digit code, usually the last two digits of the passenger’s phone, to give the driver. Smart phone applications (EasyTaxi, Tappsi) are popular and provide the passenger with information to verify the taxi that is sent. 

Major accidents involving inter-city buses are common, sometimes resulting in death and serious injury. Embassy official Americans and their families may not use inter- or intra-city bus transportation.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Rafael Nuñez International Airport (CTG), in the center of Crespo, a neighborhood in northern Cartagena approximately 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) northeast of the tourist district and approximately 6 miles (10 kilometers) northwest of the city center, serves various passenger and cargo airlines. Security measures are on par with ICAO standards.
Ernesto Cortissoz International Airport (BAQ) is about 7 miles (12 kilometers) from the center of Barranquilla, serving various passenger and cargo airlines. Security measures are on par with ICAO standards.
El Dorado International Airport (BOG) is in Bogota approximately 9.3 miles (15 kilometers) west of the city center. It is the largest airport in Colombia and a major hub for various passenger and cargo airlines. Security measures are on par with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. 
Jose Maria Cordova International Airport (MDE) is in Rionegro, approximately one hour (barring traffic) east of Medellin. It is the second largest airport in Colombia and serves various passenger and cargo airlines. Security measures are on par with ICAO standards.
Alfonso Bonilla Aragon International Airport (CLO) is in Palmira, 12 miles (19 kilometers) east of Cali. It is Colombia’s third largest airport and serves various passenger and cargo airlines. Security measures are on par with ICAO standards.
El Eden International Airport (AXM) is in La Tebaida about 20 minutes southwest from Armenia. It serves various passenger and cargo airlines. Security measures are on par with ICAO standards.
Matacaña International Airport (PEI) is in Pereira. It serves several passenger and cargo airlines. Security measures are on par with ICAO standards.

Terrorism Threat

Post Terrorism Rating: High

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

Colombia is in the midst of a decades-long conflict, pitting the government against two leftist terrorist organizations (the FARC and ELN) and organized crime groups (BACRIMs) that evolved from demobilized right-wing paramilitary organizations. The FARC, ELN, and BACRIM are well-organized criminal enterprises that regularly carry out kidnappings, extortion, assassinations, bombings, and other terroristic activities throughout Colombia. Throughout the conflict, over 225,000 Colombians have lost their lives, and six million have been forcibly displaced. 

In 2015, terrorist activity decreased due in large part to a unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC. The FARC’s self-declared unilateral ceasefire that started on July 20 remained in place through the end of the year. In the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC, the two sides have reached tentative, partial agreements on land reform, political participation, drug trafficking, and victims’ rights (including transitional justice); no overall bilateral peace agreement/ceasefire had been concluded by the end of 2015. 

The government continues exploratory talks with the ELN, although formal peace negotiations had not started by the end of 2015. Meanwhile, the military has intensified strikes against the ELN, especially in response to an October 26, 2015, ELN attack on a military patrol escorting election workers and ballots that resulted in the death of 11 soldiers and one police officer and the kidnapping of two soldiers (who were released several weeks later). 

The military and police have also intensified operations against major organized crime groups around the country.

U.S.-Colombian counter-terrorism cooperation remained strong. In terms of military pressure, the government continued military operations against FARC insurgents, although it gradually reduced military actions over the course of the year, including certain periods when it suspended aerial bombardments against FARC targets. 

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Post Political Violence Rating: Medium

Civil Unrest

In 2015, there were numerous demonstrations with most occurring in Bogotá. Universities have active leftist student organizations that frequently stage protests, sometimes with an anti-American message. Protests center on social and economic reforms and are usually led by unions or student groups. Protestors will often march on major roads, disrupting  traffic. These protests can turn violent, and protestors may use Molotov cocktails and homemade improvised explosive devices, called “papas explosivas” (pamphlet bombs), against the police. The police often respond with tear gas. 

Specific to Cartagena in 2015, demonstrations were typically peaceful and directed at the local government to address public concerns with major utilities, transit systems, and wages. Demonstrators often block traffic on major roads to gain attention, but usually the police are able to clear the roads within a matter of hours. There were no demonstrations identified in Cartagena in 2015 with an anti-American message.

Religious/Ethnic Violence 

Ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by the armed conflict. 

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Natural disasters include earthquakes and volcanic activity. Many parts of Colombia are suffering from severe drought conditions, and large scale fires are common. In other areas, heavy rainfall causes landslides that block roads, damage infrastructure, and can leave travelers stranded for 24+ hours. 

Good emergency preparation includes 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. 

Stockpiling supplies is useful for any situation in which municipal services (power, water) are temporarily interrupted. 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.  Have important documents (current passport for each family member, driver’s license, credit cards, checkbooks, country of residence identification papers, vaccinations records, inventory of household effects for insurance purposes, and sufficient cash for family expenses for a reasonable amount of time) centrally located in the event of an evacuation. 

Critical Infrastructure Concerns 

The government continues to advance its ambitious Fourth Generation (4G) program, a US$17 billion effort to modernize the country’s outdated primary road infrastructure. The aging primary road network means that travel between large cities can take up to three days. 

The FARC and the ELN have also been known to attack oil pipelines, power stations, and roads with explosives.

Economic Espionage/Intellectual Property Thefts 

Colombia’s institutional Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) framework was established in April 2010 that created the National Intellectual Property Administrative System. While the government has made progress on IPR in recent years, key challenges remain. Persistently high levels of contraband and piracy as well as shortcomings in enforcement and market access continue to plague the country's IPR efforts. The National Customs and Tax Directorate (DIAN) estimates the annual amount of counterfeit and pirated imports at US$200 million and illegal trade at US$7 billion. Internet access has been growing steadily and with it internet-based piracy. The Business Software Alliance reported in 2014 that annual software piracy losses reached US$400 million and noted that 52 percent of software installed and commercialized in Colombia in 2013 was illegal. On enforcement, in 2014, more than 2,800 formal complaints were reported to the National Police, but only 94 (or three percent) ended in convictions. Cases where merchandise is valued under US$12,000, the majority of cases, cannot be prosecuted. 

According to the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce (SIC), trade secret theft is a minor problem, and charges are typically mentioned tangentially and are accompanied by other unfair competition charges (deception, confusion, clientele diversion, intentional disruption of normal operations). Only one case has been tried involving trade secret theft, in 2011. 

Personnel-Background Concerns 

Colombia’s anti-discrimination law specifically prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, or social status. Gender, sexual orientation and ethnically motivated crimes, including homicide have been reported. The Attorney General’s Office and NGOs report some attacks, including homicides, in which prejudice regarding race, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity was a factor.

Drug-related Crimes 

Approximately 75 percent of the U.S. citizen prisoners in Colombia are incarcerated for narcotics-related offenses.

Kidnapping Threat

Although government efforts have dramatically reduced the number of kidnappings over the last 10 years, the threat of kidnapping remains a concern. Between 2002-2015, official statistics report that the number of kidnappings dropped more than 90 percent. The police and army have effective anti-kidnapping/anti-extortion units called GAULAs around the country. Kidnappings can be spontaneous, and criminals/insurgents have kidnapped persons at roadblocks on the outskirts of major cities. Foreigners are potential targets for kidnappers due to their perceived wealth. Americans may also be targeted because of their potential political significance for terrorist groups. 

However, most kidnappings now fall into the category of “express” or “paseo millionario,” in which victims are robbed of their belongings and taken to ATMs until they can no longer withdraw cash. Victims are often abducted after hailing taxis on the street. Express kidnappings may last up to 48 hours. 

Anyone who has been the victim of kidnapping/extortion or knows of a victim should immediately call the police at 165.

Police Response

The Colombian National Police (CNP) is a professional organization recognized around the world for its success. However, the force is often overworked and occasionally lacks resources to deter crime. Response to alarms or emergency calls to disrupt burglaries or crimes in progress can be 15+ minutes. Police patrol on foot and in vehicles and are posted at Centros de Atencion Inmediata (CAI), which are police substations manned by several officers. Police and military personnel are also posted at important facilities and along major routes. The Embassy’s American Citizen Services (ACS) section has documented some poor responses by CNP to crimes against private U.S. citizens, specifically failure to facilitate filing of police reports.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

The CNP is a professional force; however, corruption does exist. For example, an officer may 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 the Embassy’s American Citizen Services section. The police have a complaint line, called Tranparencia Institucional, at 166.  

Crime Victim Assistance

The 911 emergency services number is 123. 

The loss/theft of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the Embassy in Bogotá. If you are a victim of a crime, in addition reporting it to the local police, you should contact the Embassy. For American Citizen Services (ACS) assistance, call (1) 275-2000 or email ACSBogota@state.gov from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. In the event of emergency, ACS can verify a U.S. citizen’s previous passport issuance and issue emergency passports on the same day in the vast majority of cases.

The police can be contacted at the following numbers:

General Emergencies: 123
Anti-kidnapping / Anti-Extortion (GAULA): 165
Complaints about the police: 166
Women’s issues: 155
Road Safety and Transit: #767
Antiterrorism: 018000-919621
 
Medical Emergencies

Medical care is adequate in major cities but varies in quality elsewhere. Public hospitals are well below U.S. standards. Ambulance service is frequently delayed due to traffic, and travelers should consider alternative options in a medical emergency.

Nationwide emergency services (24 hours) tel: 123

Contact Information for Recommended Hospitals/Clinics

Barranquilla
Clinica del Caribe, (24 hours) Tel: (5) 356-4861
Clinica Portoazul, (24 hours) Tel: (5) 367-2600, (5) 367-2700
Clinica La Asuncion (24 hours) Tel: (5) 368-1148
Bogotá
Santa Fe Hospital (24 hours) Tel: (57) (1) 603-0303
Clinica de Country, Emergency Room Tel: 343-6600 Ext. 1105
Prevention and Medical Emergencies, Tel: 310-7087
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
Medihelp Services Colombia, Tel: (5) 656-9400, (5) 656-9403
Hospital Naval de Cartagena (24 hours), Tel: (5) 665-1073, (5) 665-5360, (5) 665-5364
Hospital Bocagrande (24 hours), Tel: (5) 650-2800 Ext. 100, 113
Medellin
City Ambulance Service, (4) 123
Clinica las Americas (24 hours), Tel: (4) 342-1010 Ext. 1170

Air Ambulance Services

Europ Assistance
Global Response Center
+1-877-710-4082 or +1-240-330-1523
Email: logistics@eausa.com (Logistics Platform) or ops@eausa.com (Operations Platform)
International SOS Assistance, Inc. (ISOS)
Philadelphia Assistance Center
3600 Horizon Blvd., Suite 300
Trevose, PA 19053
+1-800-523-6586 or +1-215-942-8226
Fax: +1-215-354-2338
Email: phlopsmed@internationalsos.com 
REVA
1745 NW 51st Pl, Hanger 73, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33309
POC:  Brian Weisz, bweisz@flyreva.com, 954-730-9300 Ext. 201
24-hour response center: +1-800-752-4195 or +1-954-730-9300
Email: operations@flyreva.com 
Web: flyreva.com 

Recommended Insurance Posture

It is important to confirm that your medical insurance provides coverage, including treatment of complications from elective procedures or medical evacuation if necessary, in Colombia. It is recommended to purchase additional travel medical insurance, especially if your medical insurance does not provide coverage in Colombia or requires you to pay for foreign medical care out-of-pocket and seek reimbursed later. Uninsured travelers without financial resources may be relegated to seeking treatment in public hospitals where the standard of care is below U.S. standards.  

If you plan to drive in Colombia you are required to have local insurance.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance 

For additional information on vaccines and health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/colombia?s_cid=ncezid-dgmq-travel-single-001.

OSAC Country Council Information 

For information on the Country Councils in Colombia, please contact the RSO or the OSAC Bogotá Country Council: Patricia Parra, Deputy Executive Director, Council of American Enterprises (CEA), Tel: (57)(1) 610-6500 

Also,
AmCham Medellín: Carlos Alfonso Quijano Llano, Tel: (57)(4) 268-7491
AmCham Cartagena: Diana De Lequerica, Tel: (57)(5) 655-7724
AmCham Barranquilla: Vicky Ibáñez, Tel: (57)(5) 360-6710
AmCham Cali: Ana Lucia Jaramillo, Tel: (57)(2) 485-5913

To reach the OSAC Western Hemisphere team, please email OSACWHA@state.gov.

U.S. Embassy Branch Office Location and Contact Information 

Branch Office Hours of Operation

Calle 24 Bis No. 48-50 (main entrance, working hours only)
or 
Carrera 45 No. 24B-27 (back entrance, 24 hrs)
Bogotá, D.C. Colombia

Mon-Fri, 0800-1700 (closed on American and Colombian holidays)

Branch Office Contact Numbers

Switchboard: (57) (1) 275-2000 during working hours. 
Regional Security Office (RSO): (57) (1) 275-2903/2458 
Consular American Citizen Services (ACS): (57)(1) 275-2000 or ACSBogota@state.gov
Marine Security Guard at Post 1: (57) (1) 275-2701
The RSO Duty Agent, in emergencies, can be contacted 7 days a week, 24-hours a day

Nearby Posts

Embassy Bogota: www.botoga.usembassy.gov

Branch Office Guidance 

American visitors should register with the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at https://step.state.gov/step and should check the Embassy Bogotá website routinely for messages regarding travel or security issues.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Scams 

Criminals carry out a variety of street scams in order to rob people. 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 the victim an “official receipt” for their “counterfeit” money and instruct the victim to proceed to a 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. 

Gambling games on the street are also used by criminals to set up victims.   

Situational Awareness Best Practices 

Following strict personal security practices is a necessity for Americans visiting and working in Colombia. The U.S. Embassy recommends that U.S. citizens adhere to the following to minimize being victimized:
Avoid going into bars or nightclubs alone, 
Never leave food or drinks unattended,
Do not accept food or drinks from strangers, and
Do not leave bars, restaurants, or nightclubs with strangers.

Americans should practice good personal security and especially maintain a low profile. Travelers should carry few items of value that display obvious signs of wealth. You should not wear flashy/expensive jewelry, carry large purses/bulky wallets, or use ATMs in the open (on the street). You should only carry items with you that are needed, and wallets and identification should be carried in a front pant pocket. Using a cell phone on the street makes you an easy target. 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 surrender your belongings.   

You should avoid traveling alone, especially at night. 
  
In public, never leave personal items unattended or a purse/bag hanging on the back of a chair. Cell phones left on tables are an easy target for criminals. 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 away from the street.

Vary your routine and be unpredictable in your movements, vary your routes from home to the office and your departure/arrival times. Be alert to possible surveillance. Note and avoid any individual who appears out of place along your routes. 

To avoid becoming a victim of scopolamine, never accept food/beverages offered by strangers or new acquaintances, and never leave food/beverages unattended. Victims of scopolamine or other drugs should seek immediate medical attention at one of the hospitals listed above.