Dec 15, 2009

Re-reading why Guatemala is a dangerous place, even Antigua

Re-reading why Guatemala is a dangerous place. This includes the US State Department warnings posted here:

CRIME: Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. In 2008, approximately 40 murders a week were reported in Guatemala City alone. While the vast majority of murders do not involve foreigners, the sheer volume of activity means that local officials, who are inexperienced and underpaid, are unable to cope with the problem. Rule of law is lacking as the judicial system is weak, overworked, and inefficient. Well-armed criminals know there is little chance they will be caught or punished.

The number of violent crimes reported by U.S. citizens and other foreigners has remained high and incidents have included, but are not limited to, assault, theft, armed robbery, carjacking, rape, kidnapping, and murder. To decrease the likelihood of becoming a victim, do not display items of value, such as laptops, ipods, cameras, and jewelry. The Embassy discourages carrying large sums of money. Do not resist if you are being robbed. Victims have been killed when they resisted attack. Assailants are often armed with guns and do not hesitate to use them.

Gangs are a growing concern in Guatemala City and rural Guatemala. Gang members are often well armed with sophisticated weaponry and they sometimes use massive amounts of force. Emboldened armed robbers have attacked vehicles on main roads in broad daylight. Travel on rural roads increases the risk of being stopped by a criminal roadblock or ambush. Widespread narcotics and alien smuggling activities make remote areas especially dangerous. Though there is no evidence that Americans are particularly targeted, criminals look for every opportunity to attack, so all travelers should remain constantly vigilant.

U.S. Embassy personnel observe heightened security precautions in Guatemala City and throughout the country. Rather than traveling alone, use a reputable tour organization. Stay in groups, travel in a caravan consisting of two or more vehicles, and stay on the main roads. Ensure that someone not traveling with you is aware of your itinerary. Avoid hotels that do not have adequate security. Travel after dark anywhere in Guatemala is extremely dangerous. It is preferable to stay in the main tourist destinations. Pay close attention to your surroundings, especially when walking or driving in Guatemala City.

A number of travelers have experienced carjackings and armed robberies after just having arrived on international flights, most frequently in the evening. In the most common scenario, tourists or business travelers who land at the airport after dark are held up by armed men as their vehicle departs the airport, but similar incidents have occurred at other times of the day. Private vehicles, taxis and shuttle buses have all been targeted. Typically, the assailants steal money, passports, and luggage, and in some but not all cases, the assailants steal the vehicle as well. Recently, many of these attacks have taken place far from the airport, just as travelers were arriving at their homes, or in less busy areas of the city. Victims who did not resist the attackers were not physically injured. The Embassy discourages its own employees from arriving on evening flights. Coordinate arrival times with those picking up passengers, minimize time spent standing outside in the airport passenger pick-up area, and do not walk out of the airport with valuables in plain sight. Laptops are frequently targeted, so carry them inconspicuously in a backpack or other carry-on luggage. In some cases, assailants have been wearing full or partial police uniforms and have used vehicles that resemble police vehicles, indicating that some elements of the police might be involved. Armed robberies have occurred within minutes of a tourist’s vehicle having been stopped by the police.

Avoid low-priced intra- and inter-city public buses (recycled U.S. school buses). They are often attacked by armed robbers and are poorly maintained and dangerously driven. More than 200 bus drivers and passengers were killed in 2008 in robberies staged by holdup gangs that target public transportation, both urban and inter-city. Do not hail taxis on the street in Guatemala City. For shorter trips, the safest option is to take radio-dispatched or hotel taxis.

The use of modern inter-city buses somewhat improves security and safety; however, several travelers have been attacked on first-class buses on highway CA-2 near the border areas with both Mexico and El Salvador, and on highways CA-1 and CA-9 near the border with El Salvador and in the highlands between Quetzaltenango and Sololá. Be cautious with personal items such as backpacks, fanny packs, and passports while riding buses, as tourists’ possessions are a favorite target of thieves.
Since December 1999, 41 American citizens have been murdered in Guatemala, including eight in 2008. A suspect was convicted in only one case.

Recently, there have been numerous reports of violent criminal activity along Guatemala’s main highways, including the Carretera El Salvador (Inter-American Highway). There has also been an increase in alcohol-related traffic accidents on the Carretera after daylight hours. Embassy employees have been directed not to use this road at night. There has also been a series of violent highway robberies along National Route #14 between Antigua and Escuintla, along Route #4 on the south side and west shores of Lake Atitlan between San Lucas Toliman and Chacala, and along Route #11 on the east shore between San Lucas Toliman and CA-1. Several tourists of various nationalities have been targeted along these routes in brazen daylight robberies. In some cases tourist vans have been pulled over and passengers kidnapped, resulting in physical injury or sexual assault. One of these incidents occurred on CA-2 in Santa Rosa while the van was traveling from the El Salvador border to Antigua. Another incident occurred on CA-1 in Totonicapan as a private bus traveled from the Mexican border to Panajachel.

Multiple boaters in the Rio Dulce area of the Department of Izabal have been victimized in violent armed attacks while on their boats. In 2008, a man was killed with a machete and a woman injured in the attack after refusing to relinquish their possessions. Indigenous activists have taken foreign tourists hostage in the Rio Dulce and Livingston area. Although all hostages have been released unharmed, tensions between indigenous activists and authorities remain.

There have been “express” kidnappings in recent years, primarily in Guatemala City, in which kidnappers demand a relatively small ransom that they believe can be quickly gathered. U.S. citizens, including young children, have been kidnapped in recent years. Some kidnapping gangs are known to kill their victims whether or not the ransom is paid.

Violent robberies are becoming more common in all areas of the country. Persons carrying laptop computers and expensive cell phones are often targets. Areas that offer wi-fi computer services have been targeted; several individuals have been killed and their laptops taken upon departure from these establishments after they were seen using their computers in public. Avoid carrying laptop cases or anything that resembles one, even if they do not contain laptops.

Pickpockets and purse-snatchers are active in all major cities and tourist sites, especially the central market and other parts of Zone 1 in Guatemala City and Antigua. For security reasons, the Embassy does not allow U.S. government employees to stay in hotels in Zone 1 and urges private travelers to avoid staying in this area. In a common scenario, an accomplice distracts the victim, while an assailant slashes or simply steals a bag or backpack while the victim’s attention is diverted.

Carjacking and theft of items from occupied vehicles are becoming more common. Often the assailants are on motorcycles and pull up alongside a car stopped at a traffic light. The passenger on the motorcycle is armed and the assailants are able to flee the scene quickly. In some cases, the vehicle occupants were visibly using their cell phones or other handheld devices. Avoid using electronic devices in traffic or leaving purses on seats in plain sight.
As in other countries, criminals also use a number of scams to steal money and possessions from tourists in Guatemala. In one popular scam, robbers place a nail in a parked vehicle’s tire.

The vehicle is then followed by the robbers who pose as “good Samaritans” when the tire becomes flat and the victims pull to the side of the road. While “help” is being rendered, the contents of the car are stolen, often without the knowledge of the victims. However, in some cases, the robbers have threatened the tourists with weapons. Parking areas in and around the Guatemala City International Airport are particularly prone to this crime. In another scam, victims are approached in a hotel, restaurant or other public place by an individual claiming that there is some sort of problem with his or the would-be victim’s automobile in the parking lot. On the way to investigate the “problem,” usually in a remote or concealed area near the parking lot, the robber pulls a gun on the victim and demands cash, credit cards and other valuables.

A third popular scam involves various attempts to acquire a victim’s ATM card and PIN number. Some sophisticated criminals have even placed electronic boxes outside ATM kiosks to record the PIN numbers of unsuspecting victims who believe they must enter their PIN numbers to gain entry to the ATM foyer. After recording PIN numbers, robbers then steal the owner’s ATM card to complete their crimes. There have been a number of incidents in which foreigners have been robbed immediately after making a large withdrawal from local banks. While complicity by bank employees is strongly suspected in these crimes, so far the police have made no arrests. There are dozens of techniques scammers can use to rob victims of money and possessions. While most people mean no harm, always be cautious when strangers approach you for any reason or make unusual requests.

Parents adopting children in Guatemala have also been victimized in public places and at their hotels by police (or individuals dressed as police) who have threatened to arrest foster mothers and turn adoptive children over to orphanages, but released them in exchange for significant payments, often approaching $1,000. Such threats have no basis in Guatemalan law, and should be immediately reported to the Embassy.
The main road to Lake Atitlan via the Inter-American Highway (CA-1) and Sololá is safer than the alternatives, though attacks in recent years have made traveling in a caravan highly recommended. Robbery, rape and assault have been frequently reported on secondary roads near the lake, with the highest number of incidents occurring on the RN-11 (Las Trampas road) parallel to the east side of the lake. Robbers have used mountain roads advantageously to stop buses, vans and cars in a variety of ways.

Armed attacks have occurred on roads from Guatemala City to the Petén. Visitors to the Mayan ruins at Tikal are urged to fly to nearby Flores and then travel by bus or tour van to the site.

Violent attacks have occurred in the Mayan ruins in the Petén, including in the Cerro Cahui Conservation Park, Yaxha, the road to and inside Tikal Park, and in the Tikal ruins, particularly during early morning sunrise tours of the ruins. Tourist police (POLITUR) patrols inside the park have significantly reduced the incidence of violent crime inside the park, but travelers should nevertheless remain in groups, stay on the principal trails leading to the Central Plaza and the Temple IV complex, and avoid remote areas of the park.

Security escorts for tourist groups and security information are available from the Tourist Assistance Office (ASISTUR) of INGUAT (the Guatemalan Tourism Institute) at 7a Avenida 1-17, Zona 4, Centro Cívico, Guatemala City. INGUAT’s ASISTUR division has 24-hour/seven days per week direct telephone numbers for tourist assistance and emergencies. These are (502) 2421-2810 and (502) 5578-9836. The fax is (502) 2421-2891. ASISTUR also maintains regional offices in all major tourist destinations in Guatemala, and the regional delegates provide rapid and appropriate assistance to crime and accident victims.

INGUAT may be reached by its toll-free number within the United States at 1-888-464-8281. You may also simply dial 1500 in Guatemala to reach INGUAT Tourist Assistance, orcontact INGUAT by email. Travelers may also wish tovisit INGUAT’s web site. Tourist groups are advised to request security escorts from INGUAT. There have been no incidents of armed robbery of groups escorted through the Tourist Protection 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. Requests should be directed to the attention of the Coordinator of the National Tourist Assistance Program, and should provide the itinerary, names of travelers, and model and color of the vehicle in which they will be traveling. Travelers should be aware that INGUAT might not be able to accommodate all requests.

In many countries around the world, counterfeit and pirated goods are widely available. Transactions involving such products may be illegal under local law. In addition, bringing them back to the United States may result in forfeitures and/or fines. TheComputer Crime and Intellectual Property Division in the U.S. Department of Justicehas more information on this serious problem.

To Read More from the US State Department and also about Antigua's Crime Problem =>

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