Updated Aug 27, 2022
To hear some expats and locals, there’s no danger whatsoever for foreigners in Colombia. Others describe Armageddon and make you wonder why they’re here. Ignore both types. The truth is somewhere in between. Here we’ll explore the topic and offer easy to implement personal safety measures you can take.
Disclaimer: This guide isn’t meant to sensationalize crime or to provoke fear. Anyone can be at the wrong place at the wrong time and no amount of preparation can change that. However, people who fall victim to criminals are much more likely to be those who do not heed the common sense precautions outlined here. Be an optimist, not an idiot!
For most Colombians, life is hard: salaries aren’t enough for a comfortable living. Many turn to side businesses to supplement their income or the whole family works, but a few look for the “easy” money and turn to crime. Like anywhere else in the world, some rejoice in the violence, not just the booty of a life of crime. While a lot of violent crime is internal, that is, part of an illegal’s business’ war with rivals and the police, some of it targets businesses and individuals: extorsion, carjacking and robbery.
For foreigners and locals alike, a worrisome sight is two young men on a motorcycle. In almost all robberies with victims the video is the same: A high cylinder motorcycle rolls in close to the target(s), the guy at the back hops off and whips out a firearm and points it at them. gets the loot and then hops back on the motorcycle and they take off, zipping around traffic. Only takes seconds. The MO for this type of crime is in and out fast, therefore targets are always on or close to the street.
The chances that you become a victim of crime increases according to the location. According to a 2020 study by the DANE (Colombia’s statistics bureau), here is a ranking of the major Colombian regional capitals in terms of the percentage of the people who reported being victims of a crime (any crime)…
- Pasto 18.7%
- Bogotá 12.2%
- Ibagué 11%
- Villavicencio 10.3%
- Cúcuta 9.6%
- Cali 8.5%
- Manizales 7.5%
- Montería 5.4%
- Medellín 5.2%
- Pereira 5.1%
- Bucaramanga 5.1%
- Barranquilla 4.9%
- Cartagena 4.3%
One of the biggest surprises from this list is that Barranquilla and Cartagena are at the bottom. This could signal that a lot of crime isn’t reported. When you look at a ranking from just a year later , but this time using the perception of insecurity as the measure, Cartagena winds up near the top, and Barranquilla moves to the middle of the pack…
- Bogotá 77.8%
- Cúcuta 73.5%
- Cartagena 72.2%
- Pasto 71.6%
- Cali 68.4%
- Bucaramanga 64.6%
- Villavicencio 49.2%
- Barranquilla 41.9%
- Ibagué 36.9%
- Medellín 31.1%
- Montería 29.3%
- Pereira 19.1%
- Manizales 13.3%
Within a given city, crime rates can vary wildly from one barrio to the next. For example, according to a 2021* study, the 5 most dangerous “comunas” of Medellín were, in order: La Candelaria, Castilla, El Poblado, Laureles, Belén and Guayabal. The middle 3 are where most of the expat community lives, so it’s not a stretch to say that the wealth of an area is a magnet for criminals.
* Yes, we know the pandemic resulted in increased crime levels. When we have new data, we'll be sure to update our figures!
There are some very basic things you can do to avoid being a victim of crime, whether it be in Colombia, Costa Rica, Brazil or any one of a 100 other countries. Colombians have a saying, “no dar papaya”, which just means don’t make yourself a target. Here are some standard tips to not make yourself a target…
General Good Habits
- Don’t put your phone or wallet in your back pockets – duh!
- Don’t carry a lot of cash and especially don’t flash wads of cash. If you have to, hide cash and cards in a thin fanny pack which you can tuck inside your pants/skirt/kilt.
- Avoid going out alone at night. You’ll notice that Colombians generally frequent bars and discos in groups.
- Book taxis / shared ride services via an app or via phone, or use taxis in acopios (taxi stands). Avoid hailing taxis on the street as your risks increase exponentially.
- Don’t use your phone on the street. Thieves on motorcycles have been known to yank phones out of peoples’ hands.
- Avoid carrying your laptop in a computer bag, best to put it in a regular backpack. Leaving it at the hotel or hostel isn’t always the safest solution as many travelers have found out.
- Avoid poor neighborhoods unless accompanied by someone who lives there
- Try to dress like locals. Maybe ditch the shorts and sandals! Chances are, you can blend in as Colombians are very diverse (blond hair is much less common, however). Eschew jewelry and watches.
- Avoid using handbags if possible, as they’re easy pickings.
- Be very mindful when and where you withdraw cash (see Handling Money section below)
- Always carry a bit of cash rather than none in case you’re robbed. Thieves have occasionally murdered victims who had nothing worth stealing.
The above is what we recommend and all are easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Below are some tips we’ve seen from expats that aren’t without merit, but may complicate your life a bit…up to you to decide whether to add them to your safety routine.
- Carry a cheap old phone like a flip phone that you won’t miss or that thieves won’t care for.
- Walk in the opposite direction of vehicular traffic so thieves on motorcycles won’t attack you from behind.
- Don’t be predictable. Take different routes and leave at different times, in case you’re being “cased” by thieves.
Cash is a huge magnet for thieves. Here’s a few basic recommendations that are easy to incorporate in your visit here or in your everyday routine living here…
- When using an ATM, use one that’s inside a mall and as far away from the street as possible. Remember, thieves look for a quick escape. Avoid using ATMs that are open to the street or an outdoor pedestrian area, even if it’s a cabin with a door. An ATM inside a bank that fronts a street or pedestrian mall isn’t much better because thieves often have someone watching, sometimes even working for the bank.
- After withdrawing money in a mall, don’t immediately leave the mall. Go for lunch, do some shopping, take your time, in case an accomplice signaled someone outside that you’re exiting.
What to do if you’re Robbed
Take the following tips seriously as they may save your life!
- Do not resist or engage in conversation (trying to dissuade or scare them). Thieves will not hesitate to kill you.
- Do not attempt to run away. They’ll have no qualms shooting you in the back!
- As they’re in a hurry to get your valuables and get away, Hand them over and it’ll be over in less than a minute and you’ll likely still be alive. Your valuables aren’t worth much to you dead!
- Report the incident to the local police, there could be a CAI station (police box) nearby. Even if they don’t catch the thieves, you’re helping the community by filing a report and increased vigilance in the area could result.
Other Common Larceny Methods
Thieves either working alone or in teams will steal items right under your nose, from your backpack or pockets, without you realizing what happened until after they’ve disappeared. This is more common in crowds, be it on the streets or standing on public transit. One scheme involves distracting you while an accomplice does the dirty deed behind your back.
This involves snatching something off you on the run, such as a purse or phone. This can happen on the street, in a pedestrian concourse or mall (near an exit).
An increasing number of tourists and expats are falling victim to criminals who seduce foreigners in bars or via dating apps. Their favorite weapon is to use “date rape” drugs like escopalamina (scopolamine) which they’ll usually drop in your drink, after which you will pretty much do anything asked of you including giving them everything in your bank account.
The scheme usually involves an attractive woman meeting with you. Once she has drugged you, she’ll lead you away and meet with her accomplices, likely driving away with you so they can work on you more discreetly. Some time later you’ll come back to your senses and not remember what happened. Note that a scopolamine dose that’s too strong could have serious health consequences and even kill you.
Tips on avoiding being victimized this way…
- Don’t go out carousing alone. Bring a wing man or go in a group, same as Colombians do.
- Never lose sight of your beverage!!
- If an attractive woman sidles up to you at the bar, be alert as this isn’t normal behavior for Colombian women except for prostitutes or someone looking to do what was just described above!
- Avoid using Tinder as criminals are known to prefer this app to do their dirty deeds.
- Avoid prepagos (prostitutes) as this is another mode criminals use to find suckers!
- Don’t bring dates to your home or apartment until you really know them. If you must, rent a hotel room with good security (where anybody entering will be challenged, for instance).
- Don’t get wasted as your judgment will likely go out the window!
- Don’t let your hormones take over your brain!
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