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Travel Warning & Consular Information Sheet

Travel Warning & Consular Information Sheet for Gautemala

Guatemala - Consular Information Sheet
July 13, 2001

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.

ENTRY AND EXIT REQUIREMENTS: A valid U.S. passport is required to enter and depart Guatemala, even though many people, including some U.S.-based airline employees, mistakenly believe otherwise. U.S. citizens returning to the United States from Guatemala are not allowed to board their flights without a valid U.S. passport. Therefore, U.S. citizens are strongly advised to obtain a U.S. passport before departing the United States. Certificates of Naturalization, birth certificates, driver's licenses, and photocopies are not considered acceptable alternative travel documents. While in Guatemala, U.S. citizens should carry their passports, or photocopies of their passports, with them at all times. Minors (under 18) traveling with a valid U.S. passport need no special permission from their parents to enter or leave Guatemala. U.S. citizens do not need a visa for a stay of 90 days or less (that period can be extended upon application). An exit tax must be paid when departing Guatemala.

U.S. citizens whose passports are lost or stolen in Guatemala must obtain a new passport at the U.S. Embassy and present it, together with a police report of the loss or theft, to Guatemalan Immigration, Sub-director for Migratory Control, to obtain permission to depart Guatemala. Guatemalan Immigration is located at 4 Calle 4-37, Zone 9. Their office hours are weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; telephone 360-8578, 360-8544, 360-8580 or 360-8540. No fee is charged for this service.

For further information regarding entry, exit and customs requirements, travelers should contact the Guatemalan Embassy at 2220 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20008; telephone (202) 745-4952, extension 102; fax (202) 745-1908; e-mail at embaguat@sysnet.net; Internet web site - http://www.mdngt.org/agremilusa/embassy.html; or the Guatemalan consulate in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, or San Francisco.

SAFETY AND SECURITY: While violent criminal activity has been a problem in Guatemala for years, there has been a substantial increase in criminal violence in 2001, including numerous murders, rapes, and armed assaults against foreigners. The police force is young, inexperienced, and under-funded, and the judicial system is weak, overcrowded, and inefficient. Criminals, armed with an impressive array of weapons, know that there is little chance they will be caught and punished for their crimes. 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 puts one at risk of attacks from mobs.

Avoid close contact with children, including taking their photographs, in rural areas with predominantly indigenous populations. Such contact can be viewed with deep alarm, and may provoke panic and violence. Foreign tourists have been attacked and killed by mobs, including a Japanese tourist in the village of Todos Santos in 2000.

Keep informed of possible demonstrations by following the local news and consulting hotel personnel and tour guides. Large demonstrations occasionally occur throughout Guatemala, where they can cause serious traffic disruptions. Fortunately, they are usually announced in advance. While most demonstrations are peaceful, some have turned violent, and travelers should avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place.

Take care along Guatemala's Pacific Coast beaches, where strong currents, riptides, and undertow 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. See the paragraph on Disaster Preparedness for information on natural risks to Americans.

More information about tourist security is available from the Tourist Protection Office of INGUAT (the Guatemalan Tourist Board) at 4 Calle 4-37, Zone 9; telephone (502) 331-1333, extensions 241 and 243; fax (502) 331-8893; e-mail at pronasit@infovia.com.gt. Tourist groups may request security assistance from INGUAT, attention: Mr. Jose Antonio Parada, 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: In recent years, the number of violent crimes reported by U.S. citizens has increased. Since 2001, there has also been a shift in patterns of crime. Well-armed gangs that use massive force routinely shoot up banks and armored cars, with concomitant casualties. Relatively secure areas, such as the main road to Lake Atitlan and the Mayan ruins at Tikal, that in the past were relatively secure are now less safe. Since late 2000, there have been several armed assaults, robberies and rapes of foreigners at the Cerro Cahui and Tikal Parks. Emboldened armed robbers have attacked vehicles on main roads in broad daylight. Travel on rural roads always presents the risk of a criminal roadblock or ambush around the next bend. Widespread narcotics and alien smuggling activities can make remote areas especially dangerous.

General Advice:

Rather than traveling alone, use a reputable tour organization. Stay in groups; travel in a caravan consisting of two or more vehicles, and stick to the main roads. Resist the temptation to stay in budget hotels, which are clearly 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 the capital, Guatemala City. Refrain from displaying expensive-looking jewelry, large amounts of money, or other valuable items. Finally, do not resist an armed assailant.

Specific advice:

- Climb the Pacaya and Agua volcanoes near Guatemala City only in groups; even so, some groups have been assaulted. Tourists have been targeted by armed robbers while climbing these popular destinations.

- Watch out for pickpockets and purse-snatchers in all major cities and tourist sites, especially the central market and other parts of Zone 1 in Guatemala City. In 2001, criminals have sprayed mustard on their victim's clothes and then attempted to rob them as they "helped" clean up the mess.

- Hotel security is an important concern. The U.S. Embassy does not allow Peace Corps volunteers to stay in hotels in Zone 1 and urges private travelers to avoid lodging in this area.

- Be alert for carjackers. Expensive sport utility vehicles have been targets on open roads, while Japanese sedans and pickups appear to be more at risk in the cities.

Public Transportation:

- Avoid low-priced inter-city buses (recycled U.S. school buses known as "chicken buses"), which are a haven for criminals and susceptible to accidents. Use modern inter-city buses instead.

- Do not hail taxis on the street, but use dispatched taxis or taxis from major hotels.

- Try to avoid local buses in Guatemala City. They are overcrowded and harbor criminals.

Exercise caution on the following roads:

- The main road to Lake Atitlan via the Pan-American Highway (CA-1) and Solola is safer than the alternatives, though periodic episodes of armed attacks have made caravaning highly recommended. Violent attacks have been reported consistently on secondary roads near the lake. There have been several attacks on travelers along CA-1 near the border with El Salvador as well as along the CA-9 (Pacific) road to El Salvador.

- The newly paved road from the capital to the Peten has been the site of armed attacks. Therefore, visitors to the Mayan ruins at Tikal are advised to fly to nearby Flores and then travel by bus or tour van to the site.

Mayan Ruins: Take care in the Mayan ruins and other tourist destinations of Peten. Several violent attacks - shootings, rape, armed robbery - have occurred, including in the Cerro Cahui Conservation Park, Yaxha, the road to and inside Tikal Park, and even in the Tikal ruins themselves. No portion of the Tikal ruins is completely safe, but most criminal activity has taken place in isolated areas away from the "Plaza Mayor." Under no circumstances should tourists visit outlying sections of the ruins, such as Temple VI, where even relatively large groups accompanied by security guards have been the victims of armed assaults.

- Do not travel overland in the rest of Peten Department. It is dangerous and not recommended.

- Stay away from remote areas of the South Coast of Guatemala, which can be dangerous because of alien and narcotics smuggling activities and piracy.

- Finally, exercise caution in the Rio Dulce area of eastern Guatemala. Widespread illegal activities, such as narcotics trafficking, have increased insecurity in this remote area.

Foreign residents of Guatemala have special concerns. Several American citizen residents have been murdered since December 1999 and none of the cases have been solved. One American citizen was kidnapped in 2001. In addition, angry mobs have attacked places of business run by Americans, resulting in injuries and loss of life.

While Americans often experience frustration with Guatemalan investigative capabilities, the U.S. Embassy cannot substitute for a deficient Guatemalan judicial system. Nevertheless, U.S. citizens who are victims of crime are encouraged to contact the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy for advice and assistance. For a listing of recent crime incidents involving foreigners, consult the U.S. Embassy's website, http://usembassy.state.gov/guatemala/.

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. Citizens applying for replacement passports will be asked to present proof of citizenship and identity. Photographic proof of identity is especially important for young children because of the high incidence of fraud involving children. Passport replacement can be facilitated if the traveler has a photocopy of the passport's data page. American 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;

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 have experienced serious shortages of basic medicines and equipment. Care in private hospitals is generally adequate for most common illnesses and injuries.

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. 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 via the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page or 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 Guatemala is provided for general reference only, and it may not be totally 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 in order to avoid dangerous situations.

Because of an almost complete lack of 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. Winding and/or steep mountain roads, poorly designed surfaces, and unmarked hazards present additional risks to motorists.

Common public transportation is by bus, which serves every town in the country. Criminal activity and frequent fatal accidents, however, make these "chicken buses" particularly dangerous. Modern inter-city buses offer some security from highway violence, but armed attacks on them show that all buses are vulnerable.

While city streets are lit, secondary and rural roads have little to no illumination. The Inter-American Highway and the road from Guatemala City to the Atlantic Ocean are especially dangerous due to heavy traffic, including large trucks and trailers. There are no roadside assistance clubs and no emergency transit service. Police patrol the major roadways and may assist travelers. 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 usually 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 until a judge determines responsibility in a re-enactment of the accident.

For additional information about road travel in Guatemala, please see the U.S. Embassy home page at http://usembassy.state.gov/guatemala/. For additional general information about road safety, including links to foreign government sites, please see the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, home page at http://travel.state.gov/road_safety.html. For specific information concerning Guatemalan driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax, and mandatory insurance, please contact the Guatemalan National Tourist Organization offices via the Internet at http://www.inguat.net.

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. While consultations to correct the deficiencies are ongoing, Guatemalan air carriers currently flying to the United States will be subject to heightened FAA surveillance. No additional flights or new service to the U.S. by Guatemala's air carriers will be permitted unless they arrange to have the flights conducted by an air carrier from a country meeting international safety standards. 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.

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.

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, arrested or 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.

SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES: Non-Guatemalan citizens who marry in Guatemala are required to provide proof of identity and civil status (indicating whether they are single or divorced). Prior notice of the marriage must be given in the Diario Official (Guatemala's Official Record) and any large circulation daily newspaper for fifteen days. The marriage must take place within six months of the publication of the notice.

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS: Guatemala is a geologically active country. Therefore, visitors should be aware of the possibility of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the need for contingency measures. Occasional eruptions, such as those in January-February 2000 of Pacaya Volcano near Guatemala City, have forced evacuations of nearby villages and briefly closed Guatemala City's international airport. The major earthquakes in El Salvador in early 2001 caused damage, injuries, and deaths in Guatemala, albeit to a much lesser extent than her neighbor to the east. Both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Guatemala are 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/.

CHILDREN'S ISSUES: Current information on Guatemalan adoption procedures and the immigrant visa application process is available from the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy. Prospective adoptive parents are urged to check with the Consular Section to be sure that their child's adoption is complete before traveling to Guatemala to apply for their child's immigrant visa. Adoptive parents are also urged to carry with them complete adoption paperwork when traveling with their adopted child to, from and within Guatemala. For more information on international adoption of children and international parental child abduction, please refer to the Department of State's 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 Guatemala are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City and obtain updated information on travel and security in Guatemala. You may now informally register with the American Citizen Services Section via e-mail to amcitsguatemala@state.gov. Your registry information should include your complete name, date and place of birth, U.S. passport number, itinerary, contact information in both the United States and Guatemala. You may wish to attach a scanned copy of your U.S. passport and/or e-mail it to your own address or to someone in the United States. This will enable you to easily retrieve a copy of your passport to facilitate a replacement.

The latest security information is available from the Embassy, including its website (see below). The Consular Section is open for citizens services, including registration, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon and 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. weekdays, excluding U.S. and Guatemalan holidays. The U.S. Embassy is located at Avenida La Reforma 7-01, Zone 10; telephone (502) 331-1541 during business hours (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), or (502) 331-8904 for emergencies during non-business hours; fax (502) 331-0564; Internet web site - http://usembassy.state.gov/guatemala/.

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This replaces the Consular Information Sheet dated January 29, 2001, to update sections on Country Description, Entry and Exit Requirements, Safety and Security, Crime, Medical Insurance, Traffic Safety and Road Conditions, Special Circumstances, Disaster Preparedness, and Registration/Embassy Location.



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