This seems to be the week to comment on U.S. State Department travel warnings. The report I filed on Pakistan earlier this week was not only legitimately serious, but well-justified, particularly in terms of its legitimate negative impact on Americans traveling and working in Pakistan. I also concurred fully with the Department's content of their travel warning.
Conversely, as regards the travel warning that the State Department issued a couple of weeks ago on Colombia, the words "unnecessary" and "unjustified" come to mind. I also don't concur with the Department's content in their travel advisory. It was not particularly helpful to travelers or residents. In fact, there was no need to even release the warning, considering that the incidents cited were few and anecdotal. Much of the information also lacked detail and specificity.
Let's first take a look at the travel warning that the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office released on July 22, 2011: "Colombia's security has improved significantly, but still poses terrorist risks....In many areas of Colombia, the security situation can change very quickly. In general, the more remote the area, the greater the potential threat to your safety," read the update. In Bogotá, indiscriminate attacks targeting government buildings, embassies, public transport and areas frequented by foreigners do still occur. The Foreign Office noted that "kidnapping remains a serious problem. Whilst levels of kidnappings have fallen off dramatically since peaking in 2000, Colombia continues to have a high rate of kidnapping for ransom." The report warns that backpackers and those working for foreign organizations are at particularly high risk. The statement also mentions several areas of Bogotá where British nationals have been victims of violent robberies, such as La Candelaria, where nine Brits were robbed in 2010." Even the UK travel warning lacked the emergence of a justifiable, worrisome and dangerous trend (greater than in the past) that might warrant release of an updated alert.
Ironically, State also updated its own travel warning on the same date as the Foreign Office did, replacing its November 10, 2010 travel warning. See the complete text: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5531.html. I would suggest that you read it in its entirety.
COMMENT: State's July 22 travel warning referred to " two car bomb attacks in 2010 as well as the June 2011 satchel bomb in Bogotá " (the latter of which resulted in no fatalities or injuries). Why make reference to the 2010 car bomb attacks when they preceded the previous November 10, 2010 travel warning?
The Department's updated travel warning also stated that "it had no specific and credible threats against Americans, but strongly encouraged [Americans] to exercise caution and remain vigilant." What does that mean...exactly?
In its statement, the Department acknowledged that kidnapping rates have gone down; however, they warned that "no one is immune from kidnapping on the basis of occupation, nationality, or other factors. Kidnapping remains a serious threat..." According to the report, two American citizens were kidnapped in Colombia since August 2010, but the report did not indicate specifically where in Colombia the kidnappings occurred or, more importantly, what security vulnerabilities led to the kidnappings being successfully executed. Not very helpful. The warning goes on to state that while the U.S. government makes the recovery of kidnapped Americans a priority, it will not negotiate with illegal armed groups. This is nothing new; in fact, this has been U.S. policy for over 41 years, when kidnapped USAID public safety advisor Dan Mitrione was murdered in Montevideo in 1970, by Tupamaro rebels because the U.S. and Uruguayan governments refused to release upwards of a 150 of their confederates from prison in exchange for Mitrione.
On August 11, 2011, the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá issued the following travel warning: See http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/18246-us-embassy-issues-violent-crime-warning-for-bogota.html. Why didn't the Department and the Embassy disseminate a joint warning, considering that the Embassy in Bogotá has the most current, detailed and corroborated information? Fortunately, the embassy's travel warning was far more detailed that was the Department's. On the other hand, the Embassy statement did not indicate the circumstances under which an Embassy employee was stabbed by three Colombians. Was he out late at night between the hours of 2300-0300 which the embassy recommends against, or was he stabbed during the day? Again, details are fleeting.
All in all, as a former Regional Security Officer (RSO) at a number of Foreign Service Posts and being a former Associate Director of Security for Latin America where I was tasked with reviewing the performance of all RSOs in the region, I see no value in the Department's issuing its July 22 travel warning for Colombia. Admittedly, the statement does indicate that two Americans were kidnapped after August 2010, but does not clarify whether the kidnappings occurred PRIOR to July 22.
To receive updates from the U.S. Embassy and the Department of State about travel warnings in Colombia, register at https://travelregistration.
Readers are reminded that virtually everything I know about staying safe abroad is contained in my book, STAYING SAFE ABROAD: TRAVELING, WORKING AND LIVING IN A POST-9/11 WORLD, which can be ordered directly from my website: http://www.sbrisksolutions.com.