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Travel Warning & Consular Information Sheet for Colombia

Colombia - Consular Information Sheet
APRIL 18, 2001

TRAVEL WARNING (Issued APRIL 17, 2001): The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to Colombia. Violence by narcotraffickers, guerrillas, illegal self-defense (paramilitary) groups and other criminal elements continues to affect all parts of the country, both urban and rural. Citizens of the United States and other countries continue to be the victims of threats, kidnappings, domestic airline hijackings and murders. Threats targeting American citizens are expected to continue and possibly increase in response to U.S. support for Colombian drug eradication programs. Colombian groups have been known to operate in the border areas of neighboring countries, creating similar dangers for travelers in those areas. U.S. citizens of all age groups and occupations, both tourists and residents, have been victimized. Bombings have occurred throughout Colombia, including in urban areas, and some foreign interests have been among the targets.

More than 3,000 people are kidnapped each year throughout Colombia, and there is a greater risk of being kidnapped in Colombia than in any other country in the world. In the past 20 years, nearly 120 American citizens have been kidnapped in both individual incidents and large group hostage situations. At least 14 American kidnapping victims have been murdered. Most kidnappings of U.S. citizens in Colombia have been committed by guerrilla groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), which were both designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the Secretary of State in October 1997. Since it is U.S. policy not to pay ransom or make other concessions to terrorists, the U.S. Government's ability to assist kidnapped U.S. citizens is limited.

COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: 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 adversely affect blood pressure, digestion and energy level. Tourist facilities vary in quality, according to price and location.

ENTRY/EXIT REQUIREMENTS: A valid U.S. passport is required to enter and depart Colombia. Tourists must also provide evidence of return or onward travel. U.S. citizens do not need a visa for a tourist stay of 60 days or less. Stiff fines are imposed if passports are not stamped on arrival and if stays exceeding 60 days are not authorized by the Colombian Immigration Agency (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, Jefatura de Extranjeria, "DAS Extranjeria"). U.S. citizens whose passports are lost or stolen in Colombia must obtain a new passport and present it, together with a police report of the loss or theft, to the main immigration office in Bogota to obtain permission to depart. An exit tax must be paid at the airport when departing Colombia. For further information regarding entry and customs requirements, travelers should contact the Colombian Embassy at 2118 Leroy Place, N.W., Washington, DC 20008; telephone (202) 387-8338; Internet website - http://www.colombiaemb.org; or the Colombian consulate in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco or San Juan.

ADDITIONAL REQUIREMENTS FOR MINORS: In an effort to prevent international child abduction, many governments, including Colombia's, have initiated procedures at entry/exit points. These often include requiring documentary evidence of relationship and permission for the child's travel from the parent(s) or legal guardian not present. Having such documentation on hand, even if not required, may facilitate entry/departure.

Colombia's specific procedures mandate that minors (under 18), regardless of nationality, who are traveling alone, with one parent or with a third party must present a copy of their birth certificate and written authorization from the absent parent(s) or legal guardian, specifically granting permission to travel alone, with one parent or with a third party. When a parent is deceased, a notarized copy of the death certificate is required in lieu of the written authorization. If documents are prepared in the United States, the authorization and the birth certificate must be translated into Spanish, notarized, and authenticated by the Colombian Embassy or a Colombian consulate within the United States. If documents are prepared in Colombia, only notarization by a Colombian notary is required. A permission letter prepared outside of Colombia is valid for 90 days. A permission letter prepared in Colombia is valid for 60 days.

SAFETY AND SECURITY: The security situation in Colombia is volatile. Violence by narcotraffickers, paramilitary groups, guerrilla and terrorist organizations, and other criminal elements is widespread and increasing. Travel by road outside the major cities is especially dangerous because of guerrilla activity in rural areas.

Some terrorist groups have targeted foreigners, multinational companies and other foreign interests, and this pattern is expected to continue in the future. Random bombings have occurred in and around major urban areas. Public facilities and modes of transportation may also be targeted.

Kidnapping for ransom occurs more often in Colombia than in any other country in the world, and affects all parts of the country. Since 1980, the Embassy in Bogota has learned of more than 120 U.S. citizens kidnapped in Colombia and adjacent border areas. Although the majority were released, 14 were murdered, one died from malnutrition during captivity, and the whereabouts of several others remain unknown. U.S. citizens of all age groups and occupations have been kidnapped, and kidnappings have occurred in all major regions of Colombia. Because of widespread guerrilla activity and U.S. policy that opposes concessions to terrorists, including payment of ransom in kidnapping cases, the U.S. Government can provide only limited assistance in these cases. Under Colombian law, those who fail to coordinate their efforts to resolve kidnapping cases with the Office of the Anti-Kidnapping Director (Ministerio de Defensa/Programa Para la Defensa de la Libertad Personal) could face criminal prosecution.

The Secretary of State has designated both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Both organizations have kidnapped foreigners, including U.S. citizens. Three U.S. citizens kidnapped by the FARC were murdered in March 1999, and three other U.S. citizens kidnapped by the FARC have been missing since January 1993. All U.S. citizens in Colombia, either residing there or visiting, should consider themselves potential targets.

All in-country travel by U.S. Embassy employees, both official and private, to all destinations, is subject to strict limitations and reviewed case by case. Bus transportation is off-limits to U.S. Embassy personnel. U.S. Embassy personnel are advised to use caution if remaining after midnight in the Zona Rosa or Parque 93, Bogota's principal nightclub/entertainment districts, due to the possibility that they could become the targets of crime and/or violence.

The official travel of all U.S. Government personnel to Colombia must be approved in advance by the U.S. Embassy. 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.

CRIME: Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Based on Colombian government statistics, Colombia's 1999 per capita murder rate of 77.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants was more than thirteen times higher than that of the United States. Murders in Colombia increased from 24,358 in 1999 to 26,250 in 2000. While narcotics and guerrilla-related violence account for part of this, common criminals are responsible for an estimated 75 percent of the reported murders. Visitors are urged to exercise a high degree of caution.

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 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. Getting into a taxi that already has one or more passengers is not advisable. Travel by bus is risky. Attempts at extortion and kidnappings on rural buses are not unusual.

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). 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.

The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. U.S. citizens may refer to the Department of State's pamphlet, A Safe Trip Abroad for ways to promote a more trouble-free journey. This publication and others, such as Tips for Travelers to Central and South America, are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402; via the Internet at http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs; or via the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at http://travel.state.gov.


MEDICAL FACILITIES: Medical care is adequate in major cities but varies in quality elsewhere. A growing number of American citizen deaths resulting from elective, aesthetic surgery (e.g., liposuction) have been reported to the U.S. Embassy.

MEDICAL INSURANCE: The Department of State strongly urges Americans to consult with their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to confirm whether their policy applies overseas and whether it will cover emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation. U.S. medical insurance plans seldom cover health costs incurred outside the United States unless supplemental coverage is purchased. Further, U.S. Medicare and Medicaid programs do not provide payment for medical services outside the United States. However, many travel agents and private companies offer insurance plans that will cover health care expenses incurred overseas including emergency services such as medical evacuations.

When making a decision regarding health insurance, Americans should consider that many foreign doctors and hospitals require payment in cash prior to providing service and that a medical evacuation to the U.S. may cost well in excess of $50,000. Uninsured travelers who require medical care overseas often face extreme difficulties, whereas travelers who have purchased overseas medical insurance have, when a medical emergency occurs, found it life-saving. When consulting with your insurer prior to your trip, ascertain whether payment will be made to the overseas healthcare provider or whether you will be reimbursed later for expenses you incur. Some insurance policies also include coverage for psychiatric treatment and for disposition of remains in the event of death.

Useful information on medical emergencies abroad, including overseas insurance programs, is provided in the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs brochure, Medical Information for Americans Traveling Abroad, available on the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at http://travel.state.gov/medical.html, or by autofax: (202) 647-3000.

OTHER HEALTH INFORMATION: Information on vaccinations and other health precautions may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747); fax: 1-888-CDC-FAXX (1-888-232-3299); or via CDC's Internet site at http://www.cdc.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 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

Basic infrastructure is deteriorating in most major cities in Colombia. The numerous construction projects initiated to improve this situation only contribute to the congestion. 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.

For security reasons, the Embassy strongly recommends against any rural road travel by American citizens in Colombia. As previously noted in the "Safety and Security" section, the strong presence of guerrilla and paramilitary groups and common criminals in rural areas makes travel on these roads extremely dangerous. Guerrilla groups frequently establish roadblocks in order to rob and/or kidnap travelers. This practice is the main reason why the Embassy considers rural road travel during any time of year to be a serious threat to the safety of American citizens in Colombia. 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 http://usembassy.state.gov/bogota.

For additional general information about road safety, including links to foreign government sites, see the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at http://travel.state.gov/road_safety.html. 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.

AVIATION SAFETY OVERSIGHT: 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 http://www.faa.gov/avr/iasa.

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.

CUSTOMS REGULATIONS: Colombian law prohibits tourists and business travelers from bringing firearms into Colombia. The penalty for illegal importation and/or possession of firearms is three to ten years in prison. It is advisable to contact the Embassy of Colombia in Washington or one of Colombia's consulates in the United States for specific information regarding customs requirements.

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 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 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.

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS: 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 http://usembassy.state.gov/bogota/wwwhacsc.html. 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/.

CHILDREN'S ISSUES: For information on international adoption of children and international parental child abduction, please refer to our Internet site at http://travel.state.gov/children's_issues.html or telephone (202) 736-7000.

REGISTRATION/EMBASSY LOCATION: U.S. citizens living in or visiting Colombia are encouraged to register and obtain updated information on travel and security in Colombia either at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota or via the Embassy's website (see website address below). The Consular Section is open for citizens services, including registration, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon, Monday through Thursday, excluding U.S. and Colombian holidays. The U.S. Embassy is located at Avenida El Dorado and Carrera 50; telephone (011-57-1) 315-0811 during business hours (8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), or 315-2109/2110 for emergencies during non-business hours; fax (011-57-1) 315-2196/2197; Internet website - http://usembassy.state.gov/bogota. The Consular Agency in Barranquilla, which provides some limited consular services, is located at Calle 77B, No. 57-141, Piso 5, Centro Empresarial Las Americas, Barranquilla, Atlantico, Colombia; telephone (011-57-5) 353-2001; fax (011-57-5) 353-5216; e-mail: conagent@metrotel.net.co.

This replaces the Consular Information Sheet dated February 29, 2000, to add or update sections on Safety and Security, Crime, Medical Facilities, Traffic Safety and Road Conditions, and Disaster Preparedness.

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