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Safety Travel Safety: Americas: Colombia

Colombia: Republic of Colombia
Capital: Bogota
Population: 41,008,227
Currency: Colombian peso (COP)
Languages: Spanish
Religions: Roman Catholic 90%
Borders: Brazil 1,643 km, Ecuador 590 km, Panama 225 km, Peru 1,496 km (est.), Venezuela 2,050 km

Colombia is a medium-income country with a diverse economy. Travelers to the capital city of Bogota may require some time to adjust to the altitude (8,600 feet), which can affect blood pressure, digestion, and energy level. Persons with medical conditions related to the circulatory or respiratory system should ask their physician if travel to Bogota or other high-altitude locations is advisable. Tourist facilities vary in quality, according to price and location.

Although rates of common crime and violence by narcotics traffickers and terrorist groups have decreased, travel to Colombia still can involve considerable risk. 

The Secretary of State has designated three Colombian groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. These groups have carried out bombings and other attacks in and around major urban areas, including against civilian targets. A bombing at an exclusive social club in Bogot� on February 7, 2003, left 36 dead and 160 injured. On November 15, 2003, the FARC conducted grenade attacks against restaurants in an upscale entertainment area in Bogot�; the attack left one person dead and injured 73, including four U.S. citizens. Terrorist groups have also targeted critical infrastructure (water, oil, gas, electricity), public recreational areas, and modes of transportation. 

Due to considerable effort on the part of the Colombian government to improve security throughout the country, homicide numbers declined by 20 percent from 2002 to 2003, to a countrywide figure of about 23,000. However, in comparison, this figure still exceeded U.S. homicide levels by 40 percent, in a country with one-seventh our population. While narcotics and guerrilla-related violence account for part of this violence, common criminals are responsible for an estimated 75 percent of the reported murders. Additionally, the Government of Colombia reports a 50 percent decline in the number of kidnappings in the past four years. However, Colombia continues to have one of the highest rates of kidnapping for ransom in the world, with 1827 kidnappings in the 12 months prior to April 2004. 

These crimes affect all parts of the country. American kidnap or murder victims have included journalists, missionaries, scientists, human rights workers and businesspeople, as well as persons on tourism or family visits, and even small children. No one can be considered immune. In 1999, the FARC murdered three U.S. citizens whom it had kidnapped. On February 13, 2003, a plane carrying five crewmembers (four U.S. citizen-U.S. Government defense contractors and one Colombian citizen) crashed in a remote of section of Colombia. Two crewmembers (the Colombian and one of the U.S. citizens) were killed by the FARC and the remaining crewmembers were taken hostage. The FARC continues to hold captive the three missing U.S. citizens. In the past four years, 30 more American citizens were reported kidnapped. Although the U.S. Government places the highest priority on the safe recovery of American hostages, and the Colombian Government has had some success with its hostage-recovery teams, rescue capabilities are nevertheless limited. Colombian law requires that private persons coordinate efforts to free kidnapped individuals with the Director of the Colombian Office of Anti-Kidnapping (Ministerio de Defensa/Programa Para la Defensa de la Libertad Personal). 

In-country travel by U.S. Embassy employees, both official and private, to high-threat areas, is subject to strict limitations and reviewed case by case. U.S. Embassy employees are allowed to travel by air. Bus transportation is off-limits to U.S. Embassy personnel. On occasion U.S. Embassy personnel have been prohibited from frequenting the Zona Rosa or Parque 93, Bogot�'s principal entertainment districts, due to the possibility that they could become the targets of crime and/or violence. 

The U.S. Embassy must approve in advance the official travel to Colombia of all U.S. Government personnel. Such travel is approved only for essential business. Private travel by U.S. military personnel to Colombia requires advance approval by the U.S. Embassy. Non-military employees of the U.S. Government do not need Embassy approval for private travel, but such employees are urged to avoid non-essential travel to Colombia.

Petty crime is prevalent in cities, especially in the vicinity of hotels and airports. Theft of hand luggage and travel documents at airports is common, particularly at El Dorado International Airport in Bogota. Violence occurs frequently in bars and nightclubs. Taking illegal taxis, which are sometimes characterized by a driver and a companion and irregular markings, is dangerous. Travelers should not get into a taxi that already has one or more passengers. Travel by bus is risky. Attempts at extortion and kidnappings on rural buses are not unusual. In general, and with limited exceptions, travel by road outside the major cities is dangerous because of the kidnapping threat and activity by organized criminal groups. In no case should Americans travel by rural road at night. 

Criminals sometimes use the drug "scopolamine" to incapacitate tourists in order to rob them. The drug is administered in drinks (in bars), through cigarettes and gum (in taxis), and in powder form (tourists are approached by someone asking directions, with the drug concealed in a piece of paper, and the perpetrator blows the powder into the victim's face). The drug renders the person disoriented and can cause prolonged unconsciousness and serious medical problems. 

Another common scam is an approach to an obvious tourist by an alleged "policeman," who says he wants to "check" the foreigner's money for counterfeit U.S. dollars. The person gives the criminal money, receives a receipt, and the "policeman" disappears.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Colombian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Colombia are strict, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. U.S. citizens arrested in Colombia for drug-related offenses may experience several months' detention in jail before their cases are processed. Prison conditions are sub-standard. Under the PROTECT Act of April 2003, it is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, to engage in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18, whether or not the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident alien intended to engage in such illicit sexual conduct prior to going abroad. For purposes of the PROTECT Act, illicit sexual conduct includes any commercial sex act in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18. The law defines a commercial sex act as any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by a person under the age of 18. 

Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998, it is a crime to use the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transmit information about a minor under the age of 16 for criminal sexual purposes that include, among other things, the production of child pornography. This same law makes it a crime to use any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transport obscene materials to minors under the age of 16.

Medical care is adequate in major cities but varies in quality elsewhere. American citizen deaths resulting from elective, aesthetic surgery (e.g., liposuction) has been reported to the U.S. Embassy.

Travelers to the capital city of Bogota may require some time to adjust to the altitude (8,600 feet), which can affect blood pressure, digestion, and energy level. Persons with medical conditions related to the circulatory or respiratory system should ask their physician if travel to Bogota or other high-altitude locations is advisable. 

For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, please consult the World Health Organization's website at Further health information for travelers is available at

On occasion, the Government of Colombia has declared a modified state of emergency. During these times, American citizens may find their movements or civil liberties restricted due to curfews, registration requirements, or other security-related measures. American citizens are advised to be alert to changes in the emergency status.

Colombia is an earthquake-prone country. U.S. citizens in Colombia may refer to information on dealing with natural disasters on the U.S. Embassy's web site at General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Colombia is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance. 

Safety of Public Transportation: Poor 
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor 
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor 
Availability of Roadside/Ambulance Assistance: Poor 

Traffic laws are sporadically followed and rarely enforced, a chaotic and dangerous reality for travelers in the major cities. Colombian authorities estimate that a traffic accident occurs every ten minutes; urban pedestrians constitute the largest category of traffic-related casualties. Public transportation is not a safe alternative; buses and, to a lesser extent, taxis are frequent targets for criminals. 

Although limited laws exist in Colombia to protect the safety of travelers on the roads, they are rarely enforced. Seat belts are mandatory for the two front-seat passengers in a vehicle. Car seats are not mandatory for children, but a child under ten years old may not be seated in the front seat. Urban speed limits range from 28 to 37 mph (45 to 60 kph); rural speed limits are usually 50 mph (80 kph), unless otherwise indicated. If an accident occurs, the involved parties must remain at the scene until the authorities arrive; leaving the scene of the accident constitutes an admission of guilt. 

Although road security has improved in some areas, such as around the capital, Bogot�, for security reasons the Embassy strongly recommends against most rural road travel by American citizens in Colombia. The Government of Colombia has instituted special programs to promote road travel during holidays, but outside of these periods, the strong 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 frequently establish roadblocks in order to rob and/or kidnap travelers. The geographic scope of government or guerrilla control is subject to change, sometimes without notice. Any inter-city travel by American citizens should be done by airplane. 

For additional information about road travel in Colombia, see the U.S. Embassy home page at 

For specific information concerning Colombian driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax and mandatory insurance, contact the Colombian Vice-Ministry of Tourism at the following address and/or phone numbers: Viceministerio de Turismo, Calle 28 No. 13a-15, Piso 17, Santa Fe de Bogota, COLOMBIA; 011-57-1-283-9927 or 011-57-1-283-9558.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Colombia's Civil Aviation Authority as Category 1 - in compliance with international aviation safety standards for oversight of Colombia's air carrier operations. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet website at

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign air carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at (618) 229-4801.

Please also refer to the separate Travel Warning for Colombia and to the Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

October 13, 2004 | Travel Warning

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