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Worldworx Travel> Safety> Americas> Guatemala

Safety Travel Safety: Americas: Guatemala

Guatemala: Republic of Guatemala
Capital: Guatemala
Population: 13,314,079
Currency: quetzal (GTQ), US dollar (USD), others allowed
Languages: Spanish 60%, Amerindian languages 40% (more than 20 Amerindian languages, including Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna, and Xinca)
Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs
Borders: Belize 266 km, El Salvador 203 km, Honduras 256 km, Mexico 962 km

COUNTRY DESCRIPTION ^
Guatemala has a developing economy, characterized by wide income disparities. Hotels and other tourist facilities in areas frequented by visitors from the United States are generally good. A peace accord, signed in 1996, ended a 36-year armed conflict. Violent crime, however, is a serious and growing concern due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and a dysfunctional judicial system.

SECURITY AND SAFETY ^
Violent criminal activity has been a problem in all parts of Guatemala for years, including numerous murders, rapes, and armed assaults against foreigners. The police force is young, inexperienced, and under-funded, and the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient. Criminals, armed with an impressive array of weapons, know that there is little chance they will be caught and punished.

Large demonstrations occasionally occur throughout Guatemala, often with little or no notice, and they can cause serious traffic disruptions. Although most demonstrations are peaceful, they can turn violent, and travelers should avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. The use of roadblocks and/or blocking of public facilities, including the international airport, has increased and demonstrators may prevent tourists caught behind the blockades from leaving.

The following recommendations will help residents and visitors alike to increase their safety:

Avoid gatherings of agitated people. Guatemalan citizen frustration with crime and a lack of appropriate judicial remedies has led to violent incidents of vigilantism, including lynchings, especially in more isolated, rural areas. Attempting to intervene may put you at risk of attacks from mobs.

Avoid close contact with children, including taking photographs, especially in rural areas. Such contact can be viewed with deep alarm and may provoke panic and violence. Rumors of foreigners stealing children to sell surface periodically and can provoke a violent response towards strangers. Foreign tourists have been attacked by mobs and one has been killed.

Keep informed of possible demonstrations by following the local news and consulting hotel personnel and tour guides. Avoid areas where demonstrations are occurring.

Strong currents, riptides, and undertow along Guatemala 's Pacific Coast beaches pose a serious threat to even the strongest swimmers. Signs warning of treacherous surf are rare and confined mostly to private beaches owned by hotels. Lifeguards are rarely present on beaches.

Tourists planning to climb Pacaya and Agua volcanoes during Guatemala 's rainy season (May through October) should plan their climb for the morning hours, when it is less likely that thunderstorms will occur. Climbers should monitor the weather situation and return to the base of the volcano as quickly as safely possible if thunderstorms gather. A Canadian tourist was recently killed by lightening while climbing Pacaya. In addition, armed robbers have targeted tourists while they were climbing these popular destinations. Climbing in groups reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of assault.

More information about tourist security is available from the Tourist Protection Office of INGUAT (the Guatemalan Tourist Board) at 7a Avenida 1-17, Zona 4 Centro C�vico, Ciudad de Guatemala; telephone (502) 331-1333 to 1347, extensions 241 and 243; fax (502) 331-8893; e-mail at asistur@inguat.gob.gt or info@inguat.gob.gt. Tourist groups may request security assistance from INGUAT, Attention: Coordinator of the National Tourist Assistance Program. The request should be submitted by mail, fax or e-mail and should arrive at INGUAT at least three business days in advance of the proposed travel, giving the itinerary, names of travelers, and model and color of vehicle in which they will be traveling.

CRIME ^
The number of violent crimes reported by U.S. citizens and other foreigners has increased in recent years. Incidents include, but are not limited to, assault, theft, armed robbery, carjacking, rape, kidnapping, and murder. Criminals generally operate in groups of four or more and are considerably confrontational and violent. Gangs are a growing concern in Guatemala City as well as in rural Guatemala. Gang members are often well armed with sophisticated weaponry and they sometimes use massive amounts of force. Emboldened armed robbers have attacked vehicles on main roads in broad daylight. Travel on rural roads always increases the risk of a criminal roadblock or ambush. Widespread narcotics and alien smuggling activities can make remote areas especially dangerous. Though there is no evidence that Americans are particularly targeted, criminals look for every opportunity to attack, so all travelers should remain constantly vigilant.

Rather than traveling alone, use a reputable tour organization. Stay in groups; travel in a caravan consisting of two or more vehicles; and, stay on the main roads. Ensure that someone not traveling with you is aware of your itinerary. Resist the temptation to stay in budget hotels, which are generally more susceptible to crime. Travel after dark anywhere in Guatemala is extremely dangerous. Stay in the main tourist destinations. Do not explore back roads or isolated paths near tourist sites. Pay close attention to your surroundings, especially when walking or when driving in Guatemala City. Refrain from displaying expensive-looking jewelry, large amounts of money, or other valuable items. Finally, if confronted by criminals, resistance may provoke a more violent response.

Additional information:

Pickpockets and purse-snatchers are active in all major cities and tourist sites, especially the central market and other parts of Zone 1 in Guatemala City and the city of Antigua. In a common scenario, an accomplice distracts the victim, while an assailant slashes or simply steals a bag or backpack while the victim�s attention is diverted.

We do not allow U.S. government employees to stay in hotels in Zone 1 in Guatemala City and urge private travelers to avoid staying in this area.

Carjackings and highway robberies have become increasingly violent. At least four tourists were killed in highway robbery attempts in 2002 and at least three killed and one wounded in 2003. Many of the robbery attempts have occurred in daylight hours on main highways.

Avoid low-priced intra- and inter-city buses (recycled U.S. school buses); they are a haven for criminals and susceptible to accidents. The use of modern inter-city buses somewhat improves security and safety. There have been, however, several attacks on travelers on first-class buses on highway CA-2 near the border areas with both Mexico and El Salvador and on highways CA-1 and CA-9 near the El Salvador border. Be cautious with personal items such as backpacks and fanny packs while riding buses, as they are a favorite target of thieves.

Do not hail taxis on the street in Guatemala City. Use dispatched taxis or taxis from major hotels instead.

Exercise particular caution in the following areas:

The main road to Lake Atitlan via the Pan-American Highway (CA-1) and Solola is safer than the alternatives, though recent attacks have made caravaning highly recommended. Violent attacks have been consistently reported on secondary roads near the lake.

There have been armed attacks on roads from Guatemala City to the Peten. Visitors to the Mayan ruins at Tikal are urged to fly to nearby Flores and then travel by bus or tour van to the site.

Violent attacks have occurred in the Mayan ruins in the Peten, including in the Cerro Cahui Conservation Park, Yaxha, the road to and inside Tikal Park, and in the Tikal ruins. Tourist police (POLITUR) patrols inside the park have significantly reduced the violent crime incidents inside the park, but travelers should nevertheless remain in groups and on the principal trails leading to the Central Plaza and the Temple IV complex, and avoid remote areas of the park, such as the Mundo Perdido and Temple VI areas.

Foreign residents of Guatemala have special concerns. At least 14 American citizen residents and five American citizen tourists have been murdered since December 1999, and none of the cases has been solved. There has been a recent rise in �express� kidnappings, primarily in Guatemala City, in which a relatively small ransom that can be quickly gathered is demanded. U.S. citizens have been kidnapped in recent years. At least one incident of a random kidnapping, in which the victim was grabbed off the street in an affluent neighborhood of the city, occurred in December 2003 and resulted in a physical and sexual assault.

Although the U.S. Embassy cannot substitute for a deficient Guatemalan police or judicial system, we can help and urge U.S. citizens who are victims of crime to contact the Consular Section of the Embassy for advice and assistance. The Embassy/Consulate staff can, for example, help you find appropriate medical care, to contact family members or friends and explain how funds could be transferred. Consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed. For a listing of recent serious crime incidents involving foreigners, consult the U.S. Embassy's website, http://usembassy.state.gov/guatemala/.

CRIMINAL PENALTIES ^
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 Guatemalan laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, or arrested and imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Guatemala are strict, and convicted offenders can expect lengthy jail sentences and heavy fines. Those arrested on drug charges, even for simple possession of very small amounts, can expect to spend several months in jail before their case is decided.

Under the Protect Act of 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.

MEDICAL FACILITIES ^
A full range of medical care is available in Guatemala City, but medical care outside the city is limited. Guatemala 's public hospitals frequently experience serious shortages of basic medicines and equipment. Care in private hospitals is generally adequate for most common illnesses and injuries.

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS ^
Guatemala is a geologically active country. Visitors should be aware of the possibility of earthquakes at any time and the need for contingency plans. There are also four active volcanoes. Volcanic activity, such as that of Fuego Volcano near Antigua in January 2003, has on occasion forced evacuations of nearby villages; the January-February 2000 activity of Pacaya Volcano near Guatemala City also briefly closed Guatemala City's international airport. Both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Guatemala are also vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms from June through November. Mudslides and flooding during the May to November rainy season often kill dozens of people and close roads. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at http://www.fema.gov/.

TRAFFIC SAFETY AND ROAD CONDITIONS ^
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 Guatemala is provided for general reference only, and it may not be accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

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

Driving in Guatemala requires one's full attention, and safe drivers must take extraordinary efforts to drive defensively to avoid dangerous situations.

Because of lax law enforcement, traffic rules are generally ignored. Many drivers do not use their turn signals to alert other drivers. Instead, a common custom is for a driver or passenger to stick a hand out the window and wave it to indicate that they will be taking an unspecified action. Speed limits, lane markings and stop signs are frequently ignored. Passing blindly on winding and/or steep mountain roads, poorly designed surfaces, and unmarked hazards present additional risks to motorists.

Common public transportation is by low-priced buses, which serve every town in the country. Criminal activity and frequent fatal accidents, however, make the low-priced inter-city buses particularly dangerous. Modern inter-city buses offer some security from highway violence, but armed attacks are increasing, showing that all buses are vulnerable. (See additional information in the CRIME section.)

Although city streets are lit, secondary and rural roads have little to no illumination. The Inter-American Highway (CA-1) and the road from Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast (CA-9) are especially dangerous due to heavy traffic, including large trucks and trailers. There are no roadside assistance clubs and no emergency transit services. Police patrol the major roadways and may assist travelers, but the patrols are sporadic and may be suspended due to budget restraints. For roadside assistance, travelers may call the police by dialing 120 or the fire department by dialing 122 or 123. Cellular telephone service covers most areas frequented by tourists.

Valid U.S. driver's licenses and international driving permits are accepted in Guatemala. Guatemala 's road safety authorities are the Department of Transit and the Joint Operations Center of the National Police. Drivers use the right-hand side of the road in Guatemala, and speed limits are posted depending on the condition of the road. Speed limits are different in rural and urban areas, but are rarely enforced. Drivers often drive at the absolute maximum speed possible for the particular vehicle at the time. Turning right on red is not permitted unless otherwise posted, and drivers must yield when entering a traffic circle. Seat belts must be worn in Guatemala, but there are no laws regarding the use of child safety seats. It is against the law for drivers to operate cellular phones while driving.

People found driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs are arrested and may serve jail time. In an accident resulting in injury or death, every driver involved is taken into custody and the vehicle(s) impounded until a judge determines responsibility in a re-enactment of the accident.

For additional information about road travel in Guatemala, please see the �General Information� section on the Embassy home page at http://usembassy.state.gov/guatemala.

For specific information concerning Guatemalan driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax, and mandatory insurance, please contact the Guatemala National Tourist Organization offices via the Internet at http://www.inguat.gob.gt or via e-mail at asistur@inguat.gob.gt or info@inguat.gob.gt.

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT ^
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the government of Guatemala 's civil aviation authority as Category 2 - not in compliance with international aviation safety standards for the oversight of Guatemala 's air carrier operations. Consultations to correct the deficiencies are ongoing. Air carriers under oversight by Category 2 aviation authorities are subject to heightened FAA surveillance when flying to the United States and may not add additional flights, new service, or larger capacity aircraft. Guatemala 's main international carrier Aviateca, part of the regional TACA group of airlines, currently operates one of TACA�s flights from Guatemala City to the U.S. ( Miami ). For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at telephone 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet web site at http://www.faa.gov/avr/iasa/index.cfm.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. In addition, the DOD does not permit its personnel to use air carriers from Category 2 countries for official business except for flights originating from or terminating in the United States. Local exceptions may apply. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact the DOD at telephone (618) 229-4801.

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Please also refer to the separate Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

July 8, 2004

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