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Country Reports

Colombia Country Report

Overview

INTRODUCTION

Travelers to this troubled Latin American country (population 47.2 million) should take some precautions due to high crime rates, various armed groups, frequent social unrest, and the presence of tropical diseases.

ARMED GROUPS

Security conditions are precarious in various regions of the country due to the presence of armed groups, including leftist guerilla groups, drug traffickers and paramilitaries, organized crime groups (BACRIM), and local gangs (pandillas).

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) had historically been the largest guerilla group in the country and were responsible for numerous attacks and kidnappings over the past five decades. More than 260,000 people have died since the beginning of the group's Marxist insurrection in 1964, while seven million people have been displaced. A peace agreement was implemented in late 2016. In late June 2017, the group declared, with the confirmation of United Nations monitors, that it had disarmed. However, several hundred FARC dissidents remain active in the country and have carried out small-scale attacks, particularly in Guaviare department.

Additionally, the second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN (National Liberation Army), entered into the initial stages of peace talks with the government in early 2017. However, no ceasefire has been implemented and ELN militants continue to carry out regular attacks, notably targeting oil pipelines, infrastructure, and security forces. The group is active in various areas of the country, such as the departments of Boyacá, Norte de Santander, Arauca, La Guajira, Cesar, Bolívar, Casanare, Santander, Chocó, Cauca, Nariño, and Putumayo. The ELN also carried out a rare attack in Bogotá in February 2017, targeting a group of police officers (one killed).

Paramilitary crime organizations (BACRIM) have replaced leftist guerrillas as the most serious armed threat. There are currently some 15 paramilitary groups operating in 22 of Colombia's 32 departments. These groups are involved in a variety of illicit activities, including drug-trafficking, smuggling, illegal mining, extortion, and assassinations. These BACRIM groups - such as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), a.k.a. Los Urabeños - have begun expanding into territories vacated by the FARC (including the port city of Tumaco), leading to a rise in violence, including assassinations of local landowners and community leaders. The government has pledged to increase the presence of security forces in these areas, but the deployment has been slow.

Due to the presence of these numerous armed groups, some Western governments advise against travel to various regions of the country (particularly rural zones), with the notable exceptions of the northern Caribbean regions and central areas (including Bogotá).

On a related note, landmines left over from the country's 50 years of armed conflict remain an issue in 670 of the country's 1100 municipalities (particularly rural areas); some 11,500 associated deaths have been reported since 1990.

CRIME

Homicide rates, though still high - 12,252 murders in 2016 according to official figures, the lowest rate in over four decades - have fallen considerably in recent years. However, rates of violent crime (druggings, muggings, express kidnappings) remain high throughout the country, particularly in the capital Bogotá (home to 1300 gangs), Medellín, Cali, and Buenaventura.

Foreigners may be targeted by street gangs due to their perceived wealth. The most common types of crime include, but are not limited to, muggings, assaults, cell phone theft, credit card fraud, burglaries, vehicle break-ins, and carjackings. Criminals are quick to resort to violence and commonly use knives and/or firearms; 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 - both men and women - is through the use of a variety of drugs. The most common used has been scopolamine, which can render a victim unconscious for 24+ hours and in large doses can cause brain damage and death. Unofficial estimates put the number of annual scopolamine incidents in Colombia at approximately 50,000. It is often administered by liquid or powder into foods and beverages. Many incidents occur in nightclubs and bars.

Despite a decrease in frequency over the past few years, Colombia retains the unfortunate designation of having one of the highest rates of kidnapping in the world. While politically-motivated kidnappings have become relatively rare, financially-motivated kidnappings carried out by criminal groups continue. While Colombians are the primary victims, foreigners can also be targeted, especially those working for (or perceived to be working for) oil, mining, and related companies. Most kidnappings now fall into the category of "express" ("paseo millionario"), in which victims are robbed of their belongings and/or 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. If you are abducted, obey all orders from your captor and do your best to keep the situation as calm as possible.

For security reasons, roads should not be considered safe in rural areas at night in much of the country.

SOCIOPOLITICAL RISKS

Political demonstrations and strikes occur regularly throughout the country. Rallies can be confrontational and occasionally turn violent as protestors may use Molotov cocktails and homemade improvised explosive devices, called "papas explosivas" (pamphlet bombs), against the police. Police often respond with tear gas.

Striking workers and civic groups often erect roadblocks as a bargaining tactic. This can lead to significant transportation disruptions as well as shortages of food and other necessities in the event of long-term mobilizations, such as a month-long strike by campesinos (rural workers) held in 2013 and a similar campesino movement held in mid-2016.

Electoral campaign periods often see a surge in political violence, particularly in rural areas, as well as a rise in the frequency and size of demonstrations. Legislative elections will take place on March 11, 2018, followed by presidential elections on May 22, 2018. 

TRANSPORTATION

Security conditions on highways and other roadways vary considerably by area due to the presence of criminal groups. The US Embassy prohibits employees from traveling by road outside cities after nightfall (including main highways linking Bogotá with Bucaramanga and Ibague), as well as all travel on municipal or long-distance buses.

Do not flag down taxis on the street; taxis should be called 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. Travelers should note that while Uber has been banned in Colombia, the application is still active. Uber users could be fined and attacks against Uber vehicles by taxi drivers have occurred.

Traffic in Bogotá is exceptionally congested, creating opportunities for criminals to rob vehicles. Drivers and passengers should always be aware of their surroundings and keep doors locked, windows rolled up, and all valuables out of plain sight.

Due to poor security conditions on some roads and the presence of armed groups in many rural areas, it is highly advisable to use air travel for all long-distance trips.

Roads, including main highways, are regularly rendered impassable by flooding and landslides (see NATURAL RISKS section).

NATURAL RISKS

Torrential rains and subsequent floods and landslides are common, often leading to casualties and blocked roads. This is especially true during the rainy seasons, which typically occur in April-May and October-November.

Weeks of torrential rain in the first half of 2017, the worst seen in the country in the past six years, resulted in major destruction in large areas of the country, notably the April 1 landslide that devastated Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo department, resulting in some 300 deaths. Flooding and landslides washed away or blocked many roads and bridges and resulted in regular power and water outages. 

From June until the end of November, the northern Caribbean coast is regularly affected by tropical storms. While direct hits by hurricanes and tropical storms are relatively rare, storm systems can bring torrential rain, wind, and associated flooding and material damage to the country.

Wildfires are common, particularly during periods of drought and high temperatures.

Colombia is located in an active seismic and volcanic zone. Volcanic activity in Colombia is monitored by Ingeominas, the Colombian geological service. 

LEGAL

Photographing military or government sites is prohibited.

Drivers involved in traffic accidents must stay at the scene until the arrival of the police (see TRANSPORTATION section).

OTHER

Land border crossings with neighboring Venezuela are partially closed. Currently, only pedestrians are allowed to cross, and only at five places: the Simon Bolívar Bridge and the La Unión Bridge (connecting the Colombian department of Norte de Santander and Venezuelan state of Táchira), the Jose Antonio Paez Bridge (connecting Arauca and Apure), the Paraguachon crossing (La Guajira and Zulia), and the Puerto Carreño crossing (connecting Vichada, Colombia, with the Venezuelan states of Apure and Amazonas). These border crossings will be open daily, from 05:00 to 20:00 (local time).

Additionally, national borders are often closed on election days.

HEALTH

The quality of medical care, which is satisfactory in major cities, varies outside of urban areas.  All travelers should take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance prior to departure.

Tap water is safe to drink in Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali. Outside these cities, it is advisable to drink bottled water and avoid drinks with ice cubes.

A number of mosquito-borne diseases are present in low-elevation areas.

  • More than 100,000 cases of dengue fever were reported in 2016, including 200 deaths.
  • The country suffered from a major chikungunya epidemic in 2015 (350,000 cases; 54 deaths), but case rates have since fallen significantly, to less than 20,000 in 2016.
  • The Colombian government officially declared the end of the Zika virus epidemic in late July 2016 following a sharp fall in transmission rates. New cases continue to be reported. While the virus is usually relatively benign, links between the Zika virus and severe birth defects as well as the potentially fatal neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) have been established. The disease is also sexually transmittable.  
  • Malaria has also made a resurgence in the west of the country. Tens of thousands of cases of malaria were reported in 2016, the majority in the departments of Chocó, Nariño, and Antioquia. The outbreak has been attributed in large part to illegal mining practices, which leave open pits where stagnant water collects, creating fertile mosquito breeding grounds.
  • Yellow fever may strike areas below 2300 m (7550 ft); there is no risk in Barranquilla, Cali, Cartagena, Medellín, San Andrès, Providencia, or Bogotá.

Travelers should note that Bogotá is located at 2640 meters (8660 feet) above sea level and it may therefore take some time to adjust to the high altitude. However, the mosquito that transmits Zika, chikungunya, and dengue fever is not present at this elevation.

Finally, some cities, in particular Medellín, regularly suffer from high levels of air pollution, which could be hazardous to certain groups - e.g. children, seniors, pregnant women, and people suffering from asthma and other respiratory issues.

Climate

Temperatures in Colombia, located along to the equator, remain steady throughout the year. The dry and rainy seasons vary by region but generally rain is most common in April and May and again in October and November. Colombia's climate is tropical and humid along the Caribbean coast and in the Amazonian regions yet arid in the Guajira desert. All zones located above an elevation of 3000 meter have a generally cold climate.

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +57 Police: 112 Fire Dept.: 112 Medical Emergencies: 123

Electricity

Voltage: 110 V ~ 60 Hz

Outlets:

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