Bolivia 2014 Crime and Safety Report
Travel Health and Safety; Transportation Security; Surveillance; Stolen items; Theft; Fraud; Kidnapping; Assault; Burglary; Financial Security; Floods; Carjacking; Riots/Civil Unrest; Earthquakes; Drug Trafficking
Western Hemisphere > Bolivia; Western Hemisphere > Bolivia > La Paz
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
Most major cities in Bolivia have Medium threat ratings for crime, while Santa Cruz remains High on the Department of State’s threat rating scale. The crime rate is one of the lowest in South America. Even Santa Cruz, by far the most criminally active in Bolivia, enjoys a level of security comparable to larger cities in the U.S. Tourists generally, if they observe reasonable precautions, can walk the streets in most areas of major cities without becoming a victim of crime. Crimes prevalent in Bolivia are those found in most developing countries: fraud, confidence scams, kidnappings, and pickpocketing, etc. Violent crimes, such as assault and robberies against foreigners, are statistically low but do occur. However, violent crimes can affect U.S. citizens and unwary tourists.
Street crime is common in the major cities, particularly in markets and commercial districts. Tourists and visitors routinely report pickpocketing, purse snatching, the slashing of pocketbooks and pants pockets, and the theft of jewelry and cell phones. In La Paz, the area near the San Francisco church, the markets on Sagarnaga Street and Sopocachi Street, and municipal bus stations/terminals are locations for such activity.
U.S. expatriates have been victimized by residential burglary. Thefts of unsecured bicycles, gardening tools, pets, and lawn furniture from garden areas are fairly common. Furthermore, thefts from inside the home by household staff, workmen, and other visitors are not uncommon.
Increasing numbers of U.S. citizens have fallen victim to fraud related to their credit/debit cards. “Skimming,” the theft of credit card information during an otherwise legitimate transaction, is more likely to occur in restaurants or bars, where the skimmer takes the victim’s card out of the owner’s view.
Overall Road Safety Situation
Road Safety and Road Conditions
The general disregard for traffic laws makes driving particularly dangerous with respect to accidents, injuries, and fatalities. Pedestrians pose a hazard to driving, with a general inattentiveness to traffic. Accidents involving pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycle/moped drivers are common.
Outside the major cities, road conditions are hazardous. Many roads are not paved, and the remainder are topped with gravel or dirt. Roads can be quite hazardous during the rainy season (December-March) when rock slides and road/bridge washouts are common. The mountainous areas pose even greater challenges to road travel with weather conditions varying from blizzards to heavy rain storms, and narrow, unpaved roads are frequently blocked by rock/mud slides. Many winding stretches of road travel through insufficiently lighted mountainous areas without the benefit of guard rails, traffic signs, and designated traffic lanes.
Travel along less-utilized routes is dangerous due to poor roads, reckless drivers, and poorly maintained buses/trucks. Added dangers are the lack of formal training for most drivers, lack of lights on vehicles, and drunk/overly tired drivers, including commercial bus drivers. Most roads are rarely patrolled by police and have many isolated stretches between villages. Consequently, traffic accidents and vehicle breakdowns are particularly hazardous.
The North Yungas road, which runs from La Paz northeast toward Coroico and Caranavi, has earned the dubious designation of “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” and has become a hub for thrill-seeking mountain cyclists. Accidents occur regularly along the road, usually involving buses and multiple fatalities. The better alternative, “Carretera Cotapata-Santa Barbara” (“Carretera nueva a Coroico”), should be used.
Many of the roads north of La Paz that pass through Guanay, Mapiri, Consata, Apolo, and Sorata are extremely dangerous due to landslides and narrow roadways traversing sheer cliffs. Compounding this, these roads are lightly traveled, and motorists involved in accidents or encountering mechanical problems often find themselves miles from the nearest village with little hope of assistance from infrequently passing motorists.
Many of the roads in Beni province have fast moving streams and rivers that cross roadways. Many rivers cross the stretch between La Paz and San Borja. Some of these crossings have nothing more than barges that are propelled by a pull rope and pulley system.
Prior to road travel ensure that your vehicle is in good operating condition, paying particular attention to the engine, tires, brakes, head and tail lights, spare tire and jack, horn, and oil/gas/brake/coolant fluid levels. The following items are recommended for extended road trips: cellular telephone with charger; an extra spare tire; portable gas can of gasoline with funnel; potable water and non-perishable food items; first aid kit; camping gear (sleeping bag, blanket, stove, etc); fire extinguisher; and an emergency tool kit with flashlight with additional batteries, battery operated radio, extra fan belt/drive belt, extra fuses, spark plugs, and light bulbs, duplicate ignition key, screwdriver (regular and Phillips head), socket wrench set, pliers, wire, electrical tape, jumper cables, compressed air tire inflator, flares/reflectors, and collapsible shovel.
Intra-departmental public transportation is poor, except along the more frequently traveled routes where roads have been upgraded and maintained (i.e. La Paz-Cochabamba, Cochabamba-Santa Cruz, and La Paz-Oruro). Bus service along these routes is generally safe, although accidents with fatalities occur periodically. Urban bus transportation is considered risky for foreigners, as frequent incidents of theft and robbery are reported. Similarly, taxis are generally poorly maintained and operated by drivers working part-time. Radio taxis are recommended in larger cities. RSO advice is to only use radio taxis from a reputable source.
Thefts from vehicles are a significant, pervasive problem. Unattended vehicles are broken into, and the computer modules, spare tires, stereos, headrests, and other items of value are often stolen. The head/tail lights are held in place by easily accessible screws. Install grilles around the lights or simply tap out the heads of the screws holding the lights in place. If your spare tire is mounted outside the vehicle, secure it with chain/padlock or similar device. If this is not possible, remove the spare tire and keep it at home; reinstall it only for extended trips outside the city. The vehicle’s operating computer and car sound systems are commonly stolen. A car alarm is strongly recommended. Also, if you purchase a car radio, look for a removable model. Keep your vehicle sterile, storing anything that would entice a thief out of plain view. Replace one lug nut on each wheel with a specially keyed bolt that locks or can only be removed with a special attachment to the tire iron. Emblems should be secured with rivets. These crimes are no longer exclusive to business and shopping districts; they occur in residential areas as well. Avoid parking your vehicle on the street. Park inside a residential compound, in a parking lot with an attendant, or at least within view of the location of your visit. If this is not possible, leave your car at home and take a taxi. Carjacking and vehicle theft remain the most common crimes in Santa Cruz. To avoid carjacking or theft from your vehicle while you are stopped at intersections, drive with your doors locked and windows rolled up.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
No international terrorist acts took place in Bolivia in 2013. The government does not provide safe havens for terrorists. Lax immigration controls, porous borders, the ease in which fake Bolivian travel documents can be obtained, and Bolivia’s geographic location could make it attractive for an international terrorist to transit Bolivia if necessary.
Student, labor union, and indigenous protests against government policies are a regular feature of political life. Demonstrations, road blocks, protests, and other forms of civil unrest are common, especially in La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba.
While disruptive, especially to transportation, violence is usually limited and localized. Protestors often block city streets and highways, and public transportation tends to be disrupted during these incidents. Protestors occasionally burn tires, throw Molotov cocktails, engage in destruction of property, and detonate dynamite, but fatalities have been rare. Such actions generally have been non-violent and directed against the government, and U.S. citizens are normally only affected indirectly by having to contend with traffic disturbances and transportation stoppages. It is against the law for foreigners to engage in political activity. Some communities have used protests and strikes to obtain promises of increased government spending on social benefits and infrastructure.
In June 2013, taxi driver unions blocked roads with large rocks throughout La Paz after negotiations over fare regulations failed with the municipal government. These protests resulted in the closure of U.S. Embassy operations for one day.
In September 2012, 5,000 rival state and cooperative miners marched on government offices in La Paz. The protest resulted in the death of one miner and left seven wounded after someone threw a stick of dynamite into a building. Arteries from El Alto to downtown were closed for the demonstration. Prior to the demonstration, highways connecting La Paz to other major cities were blocked for 16 days.
On October 17, 2012, over 8,000 demonstrators protested peacefully in front of the U.S. Embassy in response to the U.S. government’s refusal to deport former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, whom protestors and the current government hold responsible for deaths from an attempt by the military to break a blockade in 2003.
Smaller demonstrations are very frequent in La Paz. The demonstrations are generally directed against the Bolivian government. Some common areas for civil disturbances in La Paz: The Prado area; student plaza; main highway toll booth area in El Alto; Bridge of the Americas; Plaza San Francisco, Plaza Murillo, Plaza Bolivia (across from the Radisson Hotel), and Plaza Garita de Lima; Sopocachi (road blockages); and Obrajes (road blockages, marches).
Religious or Ethnic Violence
Some indigenous communities opposed to development have blocked the building of roads and other infrastructure.
Earthquakes are a concern. Data gathered by the San Calixto Observatory in La Paz shows there have been 13 reported incidents of seismic activity since January 1994; the last significant earthquake was in November 2011 when an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale hit San Ignacio de Moxos.
Travelers should be aware that low lying areas in Beni, Pando, Tarija, Potosi, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba experience annual flooding, especially during the rainy season (December-March).
In light of these environmental conditions, it is important that travelers and residents maintain an emergency supply of food and water and establish an emergency plan with their family members or fellow travelers.
Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones
There are no restricted travel areas/zones. However, due to occasional civil unrest and the popularity of roadblocks by protesting segments of the population, and destructive power of the rainy season on unimproved roads, travelers are advised to check on the road conditions and status before departing on overland trips.
U.S. citizens are encouraged to contact the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy prior to traveling to the Chapare and Yungas regions and should monitor local news and media before traveling there, particularly when transiting areas where coca leaf eradication efforts are ongoing.
Bolivia is a producer of coca leaf and a source and transit country for cocaine, which is shipped to markets in Latin America and Europe. The major agricultural areas of the coca leaf are within the Chapare and Yungas regions. Government coca eradication efforts can result in violent reactions by cocaleros.
Santa Cruz suffers from drug-related criminal activity. Although there is a concern about the growing presence of representatives from Colombian, Brazilian, and other narco-trafficking groups, Bolivia has not experienced narco-violence.
Penalties for possession of illegal drugs are very strict, and offenders receive lengthy prison sentences if convicted. Further aggravating this, those accused of drug offenses are often imprisoned two years or more before being tried and sentenced.
While kidnappings do occur, there were no reported kidnappings of U.S. citizens in 2013. Typical reports of “express kidnappings” involved a victim using an ATM (usually at night) and being forced into a nearby vehicle at knife or gunpoint. The victim is then driven to various ATMs to exhaust the maximum withdrawals. Sometimes, the victim is held for several days before being released. Other “express kidnappings” occurred when victims leave a club, bar, or restaurant late at night (usually alone) and hail a taxi. The taxi driver drives to a remote location with accomplices following behind the taxi. The victim is robbed or taken to various ATMs (as described above). The Bolivian Police (BP) have stated that there continues to be an increase in express kidnappings.
The Bolivian Police (BP) have limited resources, particularly outside major cities. In many cases, officers assigned to the smaller villages and towns do not have a vehicle to respond to traffic accidents or criminal activity. Even when such resources are available, response is extremely slow.
While you are traveling in Bolivia, you are subject to Bolivian laws even though you are a U.S. citizen. The U.S. government has no authority to intervene in Bolivian legal matters. Prison conditions are extremely primitive by U.S. standards.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
If you are arrested, under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and customary international law, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Outside of major cities, awareness of international protocols is uneven. U.S. citizens are advised to cooperate with the police if stopped or questioned.
If you feel that you are a victim of police corruption, bribery, or harassment, contact American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy for assistance (Note: U.S. citizens in the Santa Cruz or Cochabamba areas should contact the Consular Agents). The Consular Sections and Consular Agents maintain a list of attorneys in their respective areas.
Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime
U.S. citizen travelers and residents may contact the Consular section at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz for assistance in dealing with the BP. If involved in a traffic accident or victimized by crime, you may be required to accompany the investigating officer to the local police station to file a complaint or respond to questions. If a police report is required for an insurance claim, a nominal fee will be charged. The BP emergency telephone number is 110, but response time can be lengthy.
Various Police/Security Agencies
The Bolivian Police are divided into two major branches: the Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico (FELCN), which focuses on narco-trafficking and related crimes, and the Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Crimen (FELCC), which focuses on other crimes not associated with narco-trafficking. Smaller units exist with jurisdictions in more specialized areas, such as the traffic police, or local commands responsible for community policing duties, but major crimes come under investigation by one of the two major branches.
Medical care in large cities is adequate for most purposes but of varying quality. Medical facilities, even in La Paz, are not adequate to handle serious medical conditions.
The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens 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 medical evacuation. U.S. medical insurance plans seldom cover health costs incurred outside the U.S. unless supplemental coverage is purchased. Further, U.S. Medicare/Medicaid programs do not provide payment for medical services outside the U.S. 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.
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 at: http://www.travel.state.gov.
Contact Information for Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics
Clinica del Sur, 3539 Avenida Hernando Siles, Obrajes. Tel: (591) (2) 278-4001, 278-4002, 278-4003.
Arco Iris German Hospital, Av. 15 Abril, Barrio Grafico, Villa Fatima; Tel: (591) (2) 221-6021
Clinica Folianini, Avenida Irala 468; Tel: (591) (3)336-2211, 335-3075
Centro Medico Belga, Calle Antezana 0455 (between Calles Venezuela and Paccieri); Tel: (591) (4) 422-9407, 423-1403, 425-0928
CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
For vaccine and health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/bolivia.htm. CDC International Traveler’s hotline (U.S.): (800) 232-4636.
Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
One or two members of the group will create a distraction (i.e. an argument, a staged fight, a blocked passage on a sidewalk, or an unknown liquid thrown on the victim). When this occurs, other members of the team rob the victim. This modus operandi has also been very successful at the airports in La Paz and Santa Cruz.
In another typical street scam, the thief poses as a police officer (or tourist police or immigration official) and instructs the person to accompany him to the police station using a nearby taxi. Visitors should either demand that the U.S. Embassy be contacted and not enter the cab or tell the police officer to request a marked police vehicle to take them to the nearest police station. This ruse can result in injury and the complete loss of all personal effects.
Areas to be Avoided
Stay particularly alert for crime in the areas near the San Francisco church, black market, markets on Sagarnaga Street and Sopocachi Street, and municipal bus stations/terminals. Likewise, due to increased pickpocketing and mugging after dark, travelers are advised not to walk through the area known as the “Prado” after dark.
Outside the city, especially in the Yungas and Chapare regions, research should be done before traveling through to ensure there is no civil unrest.
Best Situational Awareness Practices
To lower your risk of non-violent crimes, leave valuables in a safe place or do not travel with them. Never carry more than you are willing to lose and never carry anything you consider priceless or irreplaceable. Maintain a low profile and dress casually, keeping valuables out of sight, and do not draw attention to yourself with your actions. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry or designer clothing. Take only the money you need with you and do not keep it all in one pocket. Carry a clutch purse or a neck purse instead of a shoulder bag. Carry a wallet in the front trouser pocket or front jacket pocket with a zipper. Never leave shopping bags or merchandise unattended.
Make use of hotel safes, when available. Maintain a copy of passport and credit card information and the telephone numbers to report a lost or stolen credit card. In the event of a robbery, the Embassy urges all travelers to comply with the demands of the aggressors while attempting to observe identifying characteristics of the perpetrators.
Pay for items in cash whenever possible and use credit cards at larger establishments, such as hotels. Only change money at banks or hotels, as street exchanges can lead to fraud or robbery. To avoid skimming, take the credit/debit card to the register yourself and never let the card out of your sight. Also, be sure to monitor your bank account or credit card statement frequently.
Be alert to possible surveillance. Note any individual who appears out of place along your routes to regularly scheduled activities, such as going from home to office. Avoid sitting outside at restaurants. Instead, try to find a seat in an area not clearly visible from the street. Increase your awareness of your belongings when in congested areas such as airports or bus stations. Stay alert to pickpockets when in crowds and when taking public transportation and be conscious of distractions created to target you. Teams of criminals frequent these areas, and one may attempt to distract a victim while an accomplice commits the theft.
Travel in groups when possible, avoid hailing taxis off the street or using unofficial taxis, and exercise caution in the early morning hours.
Santa Cruz travelers should maintain increased situational awareness. Maintain safe practices: traveling in groups and frequenting reputable establishments.
Vet hiring domestic employees to the greatest extent possible. This and the careful monitoring of visitors inside the house are necessary precautions. Ensure that domestic employees are trained not to volunteer information to strangers or to allow access of workers without prior authorization. Outdoor lawn and garden items should be brought indoors during the evening.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
U.S. Embassy, 2780 Avenida Arce, La Paz
Embassy Contact Numbers
Tel: (591) (2) 216-8000; After Hours: (591) (2) 216-8500
Regional Security Office: (591) (2) 216-8300; e-mail: LAPAZRSO@state.gov
Embassy website: http://bolivia.usembassy.gov/; consular email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Consular Agency in Santa Cruz, Radial Castilla S/N (in front of Santo Tomas School soccer field) between third anillo interno and third anillo externo; Tel: (591) (3) 351-3477; email: email@example.com. Hours: Monday 0900-1230 and 1400-1700, Tuesday-Friday 0900-1230.
Consular Agency in Cochabamba, Edificio “SAAL”,Avenida Pando No. 1122, Piso 1, Suites B and C; Tel: (591) (4) 411-6313; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday: 0830-1230; Wednesday: 1330-1730.
U.S. citizens are encouraged to register their travel to Bolivia with the Department of State through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at https://step.state.gov U.S. citizens with questions or concerns about their travel or who need assistance while in Bolivia can contact American Citizens Services.
OSAC Country Council Information
An OSAC Country Council will be started in 2014. The POC for La Paz OSAC is RSO Thomas Scanlon, (591 (2) 216-8300.