Traveler Security – How to Stay Safe While Out of Your Comfort Zone and Survive While Traveling
The enclosed recommendations are a result of my travel throughout the world on business for 20+ years. These observations are offered as a helpful supplement to other sources on the web dealing with personal security issues while traveling. My apologies to those who do not find these observations pertinent to their particular situation. Allow me to say that these suggestions are offered freely and without restriction so they may be passed around with no obligation. Very little of this information is original to me, and I apologize if anyone has written anything similar. Also, I am not a security professional and make no claims of expertise. This stuff works for me… each reader’s mileage may vary. Some of my ideas might actually get people in trouble with the authorities and/or cause physical harm. Please read this with an open mind and a critical eye. .
Lots of US Embassy staff, host country Federal Police and Army staff gave me input, horror stories and advice regarding personal safety issues while I was visiting and working in overseas markets… mainly, Latin America, but including trips to Western European and Pacific Rim countries.
I also have input from international and US expatriates living and working there. I know that many people have a lot of experience in many different countries, and may honestly laugh at all these ideas and issues presented here as stupid and alarmist. How you take it is your business… it is submitted in serious concern for the safety of all international travelers.
It was necessary for me to learn this stuff because I have lived and worked outside the US most of my life. I first traveled internationally in the 1960s and retired in 2005 to live in Argentina. I hope you can understand that the world in post 9-11 has really changed. Radicals of the right, the left and the lunatic religious extreme and NarcoTerrorists all celebrated when the twin towers went down. You should also be aware that even pre 9-11, international travel was seriously more dangerous than it was in the 1960s. Now, bad guys all over the world have become more encouraged by their perception that bad guys can get away with bad stuff… hence, have become more aggressive.
* TRY TO FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF with the area you plan to visit. There are various aggregates of news that allow one to program their search “bots” to look for keywords involving your area of interest. I use Yahoo News, DogPile News Search element and some others. I also look for the local news sources for the area in question on the web. Here are some questions you should consider when seeking information about your geographical area of interest.
* Are terrorist/organized criminal groups currently active in the area?
* Do they aggressively attack visiting foreigners? Or, is it more local-on-local crime?
* How active are they? How violent have they proven to be within the last 4 – 12 months?
* How sophisticated are they? Do they use military weapons and tactics?
* Are they predictable? Can you expect to be safer by staying out of known areas of operation?
* Will local citizens warn visiting foreigners? Do you have local contacts who can advise you?
Groups and individuals have demonstrated their willingness to employ terrorist/criminal tactics to further their agendas. While some threats have a regional focus, others have become international and affect multiple areas. Foreign visitors, military and diplomatic staff are seriously targeted in virtually every region of the world.
ALWAYS PLAY THE “WHAT IF… ?” SCENARIO GAME
Consider ways you might become a victim of a criminal/NarcoTerrorist attack. Several factors to keep in mind include:
Taxis: Try to never travel alone in a taxi. Try to never take a taxi off the street. Try to ALWAYS have a taxi company card on you and call or have someone call the cab for you. If not, a taxicab stand is the next best solution. Even US embassy marines have to take these precautions, and we know they’re in good shape… pretty tough in a fight. They are also excellent sources of good local information. Unfortunately, one of the thriving businesses in criminal/NarcoTerror Land is to pick up a rich guy (you) off the street in a taxi, and around the corner are two additional thugs with guns who escort you to a quiet place, strip the rich guy, take his luggage, etc.
If a Visa or debit card is found, they will escort you to an ATM and make you withdraw the daily limit before they strip you naked and leave you on the side of the road. Unless… if they are impressed with what they find among your effects, the thugs may decide it’s worth a try to sell you to the NarcoTerrorists (drug traffickers). They may ask for US$5,000 – US$15,000, knowing the NarcoTerrorists’ usual minimum demand for ransom is US$250k. Then, you may spend the next several years of your life chained to a tree in the jungle swatting mosquitoes and eating undercooked beans. If you or your taxi driver notices a suspicious vehicle or two in the vicinity, consider asking the taxi driver to take you to the nearest police station… or high traffic area.
If you must drive a car and your budget does not include an armored vehicle with “run-flat” tires preceded by a “chase” car and a following “blocker” van full of armed bodyguards, try to rent/select an 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance. A heavy-duty bumper is a good idea for running through barricades. If you see a police roadblock manned by only one or two officers and one (or NO) clearly official vehicle, consider running the roadblock or going around it. You may prefer to reverse out of the area quickly to a place where you can turn around and leave the area. If it is really a fake-cop scam (or, off-duty/retired cops pulling a scam), you should be OK. You may really need a heavy duty vehicle for this maneuver. If is a legitimate control point/official police roadblock and they catch you, humbly and VERY politely explain that you are sorry and will never do it again, but a friend of yours warned against false roadblocks by criminals/NarcoTerrorists. All around the world, official roadblocks usually have many, many clearly marked police vehicles and uniformed/heavily armed officers. Don’t forget that NarcoTerrorists have Police uniforms and equipment, too… but, usually not too many official vehicles.
If you happen to be driving down a street and one or more people run out in front of the car in an attempt to stop you, PLEASE DO NOT HESITATE to slam down the accelerator as if you are trying to hit them. They will get out of the way.
If you are in a known area for auto-related crime and someone rear-ends your vehicle as if on purpose, consider leaving the scene as rapidly as possible. This is a serious “What if… ?” scenario.
In many countries, police understand if you slow down but fail to stop at traffic lights and stop signs after dark because it is known to be too dangerous at night.
PLEASE BE AWARE that motorcycles and scooters are not always a good idea if you have to try to escape while someone is shooting at you. Car sheet metal isn’t much, but every little bit helps.
ATMs: Try to only go to an ATM in the daytime ANYWHERE in the world. Even in the US. Also, pay attention to who is in the area before, during and after getting your money. Situational awareness is difficult when you’re trying to get the pesky machine to work… so, consider not going to an ATM alone.
Buses: Until 1995, I always felt safe taking the bus. I would still take the Nuevo Laredo – Monterrey bus, but probably think twice about taking one in the Juarez or Sinaloa state areas. Why? The various Colombian and Mexican NarcoTerror groups stop buses full of people as bait to get the government forces to move into kill zones where IEDs take them out. I have seen the results first hand, and seeing where 40+ teenage army guys got brutally cut to pieces by home-made bombs will mess up your whole life.
If you happen to be one of the poor guys shivering naked on the side of the road with 20-30 others watching the NarcoTraficantes molest the women passengers, understand that you will spend the next SEVERAL YEARS of your life eating beans in the jungle. Poor folks get to go home…except for the young and pretty girls and teenage boys they want to draft for paramilitary service for the NarcoTraficantes .
The NarcoTraficantes are studying in the same Islamic extremist terror schools as Al-Qaida, and Colombian/Mexican NarcoTraficantes’ IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are really starting to show up a lot more… in recent cases, bait and blast techniques were used in the south of Mexico to kill lots of soldiers and Federal Police.
At an outdoor table at any restaurant, don’t leave your phone, camera, purse or any other valuables in plain sight or within reach of the walking public. Try to sit as far from vehicular/pedestrian traffic as possible. As always, play the “What if… ? Game” and remain alert to your surroundings. Jenna Bush’s purse was jacked in full daylight in Buenos Aires, surrounded by agents.
When leaving a high-end location, such as an electronics store, Armani, etc, an expensive restaurant or nice hotel, you may have just identified yourself as a potential high-end target. If you are carrying packages, and you put them into an automobile, please try to secure the items in the trunk or a lockable compartment and be aware that you will possibly be followed by thugs with evil intent to your next location. If you are in a Range Rover or Cadillac Esplanade, you should understand that you are in a rolling high-value target, with little or no secure storage. If you stop and leave the vehicle in any unsecured location after being seen exiting a high-end location, don’t be too surprised if you come back later to find the locks broken or the vehicle stolen.
A wallet is a liability, and I never carry one. I wear a slim, zippered pouch between my T-shirt and external shirt/sweater for credit cards, driving license and copies (NOT originals) of my passport, birth certificate, travel or residency documents. Sometimes, I prefer a photographer’s vest with lots of internal/external zippered or Velcro pockets. This vest can contain as much as a small suitcase… currently, about 4 kilos of stuff. Fanny packs are less secure, so I usually just put reading material, inexpensive sunglasses, gum, etc in them. Cameras/GPSs and other high-end items are secured in Velcro pockets in the vest or coat pocket. As a side note, I have copied and reduced in size all my important documents for daily carry and emailed these copies to several of my web-based email accounts so I can replace them at any time from any internet/print location.
The amount of cash I carry is as small as possible. I keep large denomination bills in a money clip in the bottom of one front pocket with a handkerchief crushed down on top of it. Another money clip contains the daily allotment of small bills is in another front pocket, so I don’t have to flash large bills for most purchases. It is also crammed down in the bottom of the front pocket with another handkerchief crammed on top of it. The bulk of my funds, original passport and other documents, valuables, etc are kept in a WalMart small combination safe that fits in my luggage, which I check in at the front office safe at the hotel when traveling. PLEASE NOTE that I do not agree with several recommendations that a “decoy wallet” stuffed with paper be carried to toss away so as to distract attackers. I prefer throwing my decoy stash of small denomination bills to scatter everywhere as a more time consuming distraction for a better chance of escape.
Luggage security: Most complaints regarding theft, damage or loss involves the contents of luggage. Savvy travelers will make a written inventory of items in their luggage and photograph it in case of loss. Carry important items like medication, eyeglasses, and expensive jewelry in your hand luggage, a traveler’s vest like photographers use to carry their small equipment items, etc. My vest holds up to 8 kilos of goodies. Photocopy the contents of your wallet and your passport. Carry a copy in your hand luggage and leave one at home as back up. Keep luggage under your control until you check in at your destination. Consider traveling with sturdy plain-looking luggage. Expensive looking luggage may be targeted for its perceived contents. External bag tags should not list your full home address and telephone number. I put my cell phone number, my phone number and email address on my tags. I do not put my name or any affiliations on bag tags. Consider defacing your beautiful luggage with big bands of tape all around the outside, laterally, with your phone numbers, email, etc in case of loss.
Consider durable luggage that is capable of being locked or secured and that will withstand being at the bottom of a pile of hundreds of other pieces of luggage without popping open. It is a good idea to add extra banding… $5 for a wide nylon strap with side snap locks at WalMart… or airport plastic wrap or duct tape to your luggage locks to prevent anyone from opening your luggage without detection. When flying, I do NOT lock my bags. I only use self-locking plastic tie-wraps. They work well for securing my luggage. All airport inspectors have replacements if they have to cut your ties to inspect your bags. You can buy these at any home improvement store for about a dollar. The reason for this is that smugglers have been known to slip drugs/weapons, etc into luggage only to retrieve it later and maybe with force. Passengers have unknowingly transported illegal substances/firearms that were slipped into their suitcase by baggage handlers only to be arrested later by authorities. What explanation you would give to prove your innocence to a foreign government of why you are carrying drugs or guns? If your luggage was properly sealed, you should see if it has been tampered with prior to opening it. Report any luggage tampering immediately to security before opening the case.
Luggage locks: If there is a combination lock on the bag, I put a piece of tape on the bag under the lock with the combo… usually, 0-0-0. This is because my bag was seriously harmed by customs forcing the bag open EVEN THOUGH IT WAS UNLOCKED. A sign of the times, no?
Airplane security: Beyond the obvious precautions, I would suggest trying to reserve a window seat as close to the middle of the cabin as possible. The rear and front of each cabin is where the bad guys congregate to watch over the victims. Consider what you can do to avoid being obvious about your business/military/nationality/religious affiliations.
Cruise Ship Security: Cruise ships are like a small city where passengers are encouraged to forget their troubles and relax once onboard ship. It is natural for passengers on vacation to let their guard down, especially when out to sea in a resort-like setting. Try to not let a false sense of security aboard a cruise ruin your vacation by becoming a crime victim. Before you ship out, consider taking some of these preventative steps:
After you enter your cabin, and while the door is still open, always check inside the bathroom or closest before sitting down inside. Don’t assume that your cabin is as secure as a hotel. Many people have keys to your cabin and your cabin door may be left standing open for hours while the cleaning crews or cabin steward services the room. Cabin doors locks are sometimes horribly outdated and are not re-keyed as frequently as hotel rooms. Obviously, don’t leave valuable items lying around. It is a good idea to have inventoried your luggage and photographed expensive items at home, and even emailed the info to your web email account for easy retrieval anywhere before you packed them at home in case of loss. Since most ship passengers are set up on a charge account system, be sure to use the ship safe deposit box for storage of valuable items, papers, credit cards or extra cash. Use all locks on the cabin door including the night latch. Consider carrying a hardware store door stop in your luggage and deploying it for extra security while in the cabin. Some are available with alarms from web suppliers. Don’t open your cabin door to strangers. Whatever the person wants can be expressed from the other side of the closed and locked door. Be sure to teach children about this important procedure.
Just like in a hotel, protect your cabin key and cabin number. Dishonest crew or passengers will look for the opportunity to snatch a loose key or one that is left unattended. When in port, be sure to leave your key with the registration desk before disembarking.
Remember the phony hairspray/deodorant can safe if small items need to be secured and no safe is available. Once on board and out to sea, don’t assume that you are totally safe from criminal acts. While there is little danger of an outside predator robbing or attacking you on a cruise ship, crimes can just as easily be committed by crew members or by fellow passengers. Many cruise lines hire transient and seasonal employees at low wages. Because of this, turnover is high and cruise lines struggle to keep a ship fully staffed. While most crew members are hardworking and honest people, you cannot assume that the ship has properly screened that nice cabin attendant, waiter or below deck crew.. Consider a Family Security Plan: If you bring your children aboard, be sure to establish family rules in advance. Set curfews and restrictions…just like at home. Teenagers especially should be told never to accompany crew members into non-public areas nor should crew members be allowed inside your cabin. Being at sea can cause a false sense of security. Even though the crime incident rate per thousand is relatively low, there can still be predators on board. Ship nightclubs, casinos, swimming pools and jacuzzis are favorite spots for those looking for a victim.
You also need to keep your guard up with intoxicated passengers. Food and liquor consumption peaks on board ships and cause bring out the worst in some people not used to it. Just because passengers are dressed up, doesn’t mean they will act appropriately or not be overly aggressive. It is not unheard of for a ship passenger to slip a drug into your drink and take advantage of you just like on shore. There are pickpockets, purse thieves, and cabin burglars on board waiting for you to let your guard down or become careless. There are also scam artists who seek and prey on rich vacationers if given the chance.
Your family security plan for children might include bed checks, curfews, restrictions, and special meeting places. Beware of which children they hang out with, just like at home. Your children can be exposed to other children who use drugs or like to get into mischief, just like at home. Try to limit your child to ship sponsored activities in public areas. You should make contact with your children periodically even if they are supervised. Giving them the run of the ship while you are otherwise engaged is not a good idea. Always have a backup plan and identify a ship crew member as a contact person in case your child fails to show up or you get separated at a port. Make certain that the kids understand there is nothing you can do to retrieve a kid from the police if they are caught in a foreign country with contraband.
You are not in Kansas anymore. Although you boarded a ship in a US port doesn’t mean that you are protected by the US justice system. Most ships are registered in non-US countries and travel in territorial waters where US laws might not apply. The cruise industry does not report crime data consistently, if at all, to the FBI or have a database of ships with the most crime problems. Shipboard crimes sometimes fall into a “no man’s land” of law enforcement. A crime can occur between two people of different nationalities, on a ship from a third country, and in the territorial waters of a fourth country. The governing law is the International Maritime Law and is not as well developed as US law. Reporting a crime on board a cruise ship doesn’t mean anything will be done or that the crime will ever be investigated. The FBI is the only US law enforcement agency that can investigate a major crime but only if it occurs in International waters, otherwise crimes are reported to the jurisdiction of the closest foreign country and to the embassies of the parties involved. Prosecution of crime, in many cases, will be left in the hands of the local port authority where no one can predict the outcome.
Be aware that if you or your family member gets into trouble on board a ship or in a port, you may be held accountable to the laws of a foreign country. The thing to do is to stay alert, be cautious, and stay safe while at sea. For details on the safety record of your cruise ship or how your ship will handle problems such are lost luggage or crime acts, contact the cruise line directly and ask for written disclosure of their policies and regulations. You can also contact the Cruise Lines International Association in New York City who represents the twenty five largest cruise lines for more information.
Location: Local terrorists may target locations frequented by foreigners or foreign military personnel such as certain hotels, apartment buildings, public transportation centers, and nightclubs. Avoid possible target locations. They often use the employees of foreigner frequented establishments, taxi drivers, airport staff (especially banking/money changing establishment personnel) and adult entertainment workers as associates or sources of information about possible lucrative targets.
Opportunity: Terrorists and criminals look for “soft targets”… so, learn to avoid appearing so. It is difficult to over stress the need to maintain vigilance, practice good personal safety, and to alert the proper authorities of suspicious behavior. If you find yourself unable to avoid being outdoors at night, try to walk down the middle of the street (not always possible). Be especially watchful if passing a large van or a vehicle with people in it, courtyards and deep doorways near your path. Walk purposefully with strong, determined strides… shoulders back, head erect, head and eyes constantly moving. Use windows/mirrors near the street to check your surroundings. Under no circumstances allow anyone to engage you in conversation at this time. Criminals will try to slow you down while their helpers get into position to assault you. Keep moving, speak into your cell phone as if carrying on a conversation… preferably in a language you think the possible attackers don’t know. To attack you, terrorists generally must perceive you, your association, or your location as a target. Put serious thought on the subject of how to avoid appearing to be an easy target.
Be alert for how criminals/NarcoTerrorists prepare and conduct attacks through predictable steps. Through vigilance, you might be able to recognize preparations for an attack before it is executed. Be alert to unusual behavior that may indicate intelligence gathering, surveillance, collecting materials for attack, dry runs, and rehearsals. For example:
* Taking photos or videos of potential targets
* Writing notes or sketching details about a possible target
* Showing abnormal attention to details of routine activities and security measures
* Using false identification
* Paying cash for items normally bought on credit
* Purchasing large quantities of items that could be used as part of an attack (e.g., chemicals or cell phones)
* If you see something unusual, report it immediately to security officials for further investigation. Make a note of the individual’s description and activities, the time of day, and equipment being used.
Terrorist/criminal attacks at the Spanish/English/Japanese rail systems, Mexican border towns, Bali, Indonesia, Luxor, Egypt, London, England, and other tourist locations signal an increased threat to foreign travelers. While visiting a new location, it is natural to tour local sites of interest. While sightseeing, you should keep good anti-crime/anti-terrorism practices in mind.
* Research any known potential threats in the area. If the threat is elevated, take extra precautions or postpone your activities.
* Plan activities and a route that includes safe locations. Keep thinking, “What if…”
* Ask a friend or coworker to join you – small groups are usually safer than individuals.
* If sightseeing with others, pre-designate a location to meet at if separated during an emergency. Make sure someone knows your itinerary (acquaintances, business contacts, hotel staff?) and what time you may be returning.
BLEND IN TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS
* Conceal your national/business/religious affiliation and try to blend in with other tourists. USA red white and blue t-shirts, soccer/baseball logo clothing and religious jewelry are overly conspicuous in many instances.
* Observe and conform to local culture. Activities such as public displays of affection, drinking alcohol, or wearing shorts or skirts may be inappropriate.
* Do not bring undue attention to yourself. Avoid loud or boisterous behavior. Walking the streets at night in an inebriated state in very dangerous in many locations.