Kidnapping in Colombia: What Travelers Need to Know

Jacqui de Klerk separates the fact from fiction on kidnapping risks in Colombia, and everything you need to know to stay safe.

La Candelabra Street in Bogota Photo © iStock/holgs

Colombia is quickly becoming one of South America's best destinations. The violent crime and chaos that kept visitors away in the past has been drastically reduced over the last decade. Particular progress has been made combatting that worst of traveling nightmares – kidnapping.

Here are a few things you need to know about kidnapping risk in Colombia.

Kidnapping in Colombia

For decades the citizens of Colombia were caught in the middle of conflict between left-wing guerrilla groups, far-right paramilitaries and drug cartels. Kidnapping was increasingly used as a terror tactic and ransoms provided a source of finance, along with cocaine production. Though Colombia is fighting the war on drugs, the cocaine trade still continues. Over 360 tonnes have been seized so far in 2017, including 12 tons in November found in banana plantations near the Colombia-Panama border. Due to increased drug seizures, the incidence of the crime has fallen, at least in the major cities.

Will I Get Kidnapped in Colombia?

No, you won’t get kidnapped. The historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, together with increased security forces in cities and along major roads, have led to a significant decrease in kidnappings. In fact, kidnappings have fallen a whopping 92% since 2000.  

Although there is an agreement with the FARC, there are other groups that continue to pose a risk in certain areas of the country.

Departments, excluding their respective capital cities, which should be avoided according to the several governments, include Nariño (except Ipiales border crossing), Putumayo, Arauca, Cauca (except the road between San Agustin ruins in Huila and Popayán), Caquetá, Guaviare, Guainía, Vichada, Huila, Norte de Santander, Santander, Chocó (except the whale-watching towns of Nuquí, Bahía Solano, and Capurganá).

It is also recommended to avoid rural areas in northern Antioquia, southern Cordoba, southern Valle de Cauca, and southern Bolivar. With the exception of Villavicencio and Caño Cristales, the department of Meta should be completely avoided.

The Venezuelan government has temporarily closed its land borders with Colombia due to security concerns and the smuggling of contraband. Check with authorities for the latest security updates before traveling near the border.

Taking buses and public transport in Colombia is safe, and there is a very, very slim chance of being kidnapped.

However, try to always travel long distances in the day and with a reputable bus company, such as Marsol, Berlinas, Expreso Brasilia, or Rapido Ochoa. These companies always travel on main routes, only stopping to pick up passengers at official bus stations.

Express Kidnappings: Paseo Millonario/Secuestro Express

The so-called paseo millonario (millionaire’s ride) happens when criminals working with taxi drivers take a passenger to various ATMs and force the victim to withdraw money from their account.

The abduction doesn’t last long (24-48 hours) and victims are released unharmed. The targets are usually middle-to-wealthy Colombians, as well as foreign tourists for their perceived wealth.

Although this type of crime doesn’t happen often, it is important to be aware that criminals are opportunists and by avoiding vulnerable situations, this will not happen to you.

Never flag a taxi from the street, especially in dodgy, or tourist areas in big cities, or if you are alone; nor enter an already occupied taxi. Rather call a taxi from a restaurant, bar or hotel or use Uber, Tappsi or Easy Taxi.

Leave bank cards, passport, and valuable jewelry locked up in the hotel safe and only carry a copy of your passport and enough money for the day/night.

Alternatively, bring a credit card with a low limit.

  • The best defence is a low profile. Be careful about displaying your money or valuables and don't give out information about where you're staying
  • The ATMs themselves are sometimes targeted, so it's best if you can go with friends or another group. Try to avoid making withdrawals at night and don't take out huge sums of cash at once
  • Make sure you don't use illegal taxis and never get in a cab if it's already occupied
  • A powerful drug called scopolamine, locally known as burandanga or borrachero, is sometimes used to render victims helpless. Colorless and odorless, borrachero can be sprinkled into drinks, food or even cigarettes. If you haven't bought it yourself, don't touch it
  • Express kidnappings are often opportunistic and as such are unpredictable. Attacks often begin frantically and violently, so as to ensure cooperation as quickly as possible
  • Be quick to hand over anything of value. Any attempt to fight or escape will only make them more violent and demanding. It's not worth risking your life over a few hundred dollars
  • A low-limit credit card for traveling is a good idea and can also save you suffering at the hands of card skimmers and credit fraudsters. A separate bank account you can top up as needed while traveling is also a good idea. Better yet is to avoid carrying your cards if possible; leave them locked up in your hotel and carry only as much cash you need for the day.

Places to Avoid in Colombia

The danger is greatest in the far south and northeast of the country where rebels and drug cartels hide out in the remote mountains and thick jungle. For visitors this makes things pretty easy: most of the major cities and tourism draw cards lie outside the danger zones. The key is to avoid traveling too far off the beaten path and to stay out of rural areas. Luckily this doesn't apply to the gorgeous Zona Cafetera, where Colombia's coffee production is centred.

Traveling Safely Through Colombia

Traveling by night isn't a good idea. Night buses might be a convenient way to combine sleep and travel times but they are more often targeted for robberies and kidnapping. It's also best to stick to the big national bus companies like Expreso Palmira, Bolivariano, Berlinas, Expreso Brasilia, Copetran and Rapido Ochoa. They tend to take more direct routes and are less likely to stop for roadside passengers along the way, which can be risky. Domestic flights are relatively cheap in Colombia, with some airlines offering great promotional deals to rival bus prices. It's worth checking online before you buy a bus ticket.

Hire cars are sometimes targeted in robberies and abductions, especially on tough rural roads where a slow moving car is an easy target. If you do want to drive yourself make sure you stick to the major highways and don't stop unless you're in a populated area. Try to keep the petrol tank topped up so you're not forced to stop in danger zones.

Carjacking can be an issue in the cities so remember to keep your doors locked at all times. Be wary at intersections, especially at night, and don't hang around if you think you're in danger.

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9 Comments

  • Tomi Pontynen said

    I have been living in Ecuador and travelled lot there, but now I have decided to experiment living in Colombia, Medellin. I am not very concerned of safety issues there, as I have a good local friend assisting me in all matters.

    But I have a question. I know it is possible to get sequestro expressed there,

    Am I in special danger, as I do not have any working credit card, just a debit card and I only fill there money for to take cash from ATM s inside big markets, so all other time my moneys are on an account only to be reached by internet bank.

    Do the kidnappers get mad and harm me, when they can't get a penny out in ATM? Only they can get my little cash money-

    Reply

  • jose said

    safe in Palmira/Cali??
    From Texas USA
    73 yrs

    Reply

  • Derek said

    We are wondering if kidnapping are more likely to happen in arbin and raule jungel like Glen h kidnapping in 2001 in middaying caloumbea

    Djm

    Reply

  • Jimmy said

    Attempted robbery assaulted with knife In forearm. $10000 USD surgery. Ring and pinky finger thumb still won't extend. Police and hospital in bogota treat foreigners like shit. Waited 12 hours in wheelchair to put stitches. Left to USA in 4 hours got the hell out of Colombia. 3x there, robbed, drugged, assaulted.

    Reply

  • sam said

    hey jimmy can i contact you to talk about your experience in colombia?
    my e-mail is sambokser/at/hotmail dot com

    Reply

  • Gary said

    I am a birder, looking to photograph bird's in there habitat. I came here for 3 months see if it was possible. NO IT IS VERY DANGEROUS.
    Unless you are with a big group you will be robbed.
    One of the, if not the most dangerous places I have ever been to for a birder.

    Reply

  • Anthony said

    Hello, Gary. Where in Colombia were you? I’m planning a trip to Santa Marta to visit with a friend. Debating whether to go or not.

    Reply

  • Gary said

    Anthony, I am in the coffee region. Beautiful country. Great birding, but way too dangerous for a photographer imo. I was going to go to Santa Marta. But decided to spend my time here and go home. I'll head to the Yucatan next. Great birding and safe. Here, no way would I bring in gear unless I could hire a policeman to go with me every where.

    Reply

  • Jerry said

    Going to Florencia in southern Columbia area for a wedding. Many folks down there know some Gringos are going to wedding. Are we a for sure target?

    Reply

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