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Is it Safe to Volunteer in Latin America?

Volunteer in Latin America

Guerrillas in Colombia. Chikungunya in the Caribbean. Drug cartels in Mexico. Subway bombings in Chile. Police shootings in Brazil. Sometimes it seems like the news out of Latin America is nothing but doom, gloom, and violence -- so much so that it might bring some well-intentioned types to question whether the region is actually safe for foreign volunteers.

So what’s the reality? Is it safe to volunteer in Latin America? Well, it’s more complicated than yes or no, and depends on a number of different factors.

If you listened to the US State Department travel advisories all the time, you'd probably never leave home.

While some Latin American cities are caught amidst gang warfare and drug violence, others are safer than plenty of US cities. No matter where you go, there’s an inherent risk in spending time in a new country or city, but not everywhere is as scary as your local government or movies or your mom wants you to think it is.

The truth is, you can volunteer almost anywhere in the world and do it safely. I've been living in Colombia for several years now, and can confidently say Latin America is certainly no exception. It’s true you may have to be more careful in some places than others, but don’t rule anywhere out until you get as much information as possible -- starting with this little article.

Where are the Danger Zones?

If you listened to the US State Department travel advisories all the time, you’d probably never leave home. Though the warnings can seem a bit over-anxious at times, they're there for a reason -- even if they do read like they were written by a paranoid hypochondriac.

In the interest of public information, let’s take a look at the Latin American countries with warnings and see if the reality is really as scary as embassy officials think.

1. Colombia

Colombia
The warning

Colombia’s official status on the US State Department's site as a conflict zone mandates the cautious tone, though it’s not like the entire country is filled with land mines.

The report acknowledges that the FARC and the ELN, the country’s two primary guerrilla groups, maintain a presence in some parts of the country and engage in armed conflict with state security forces, while armed criminal groups hold power in rural areas and small towns.

However, it also highlights the fact that safety conditions have improved significantly in areas that attract tourists and business travelers, especially the wealthy sectors of major cities, though it also advises citizens to avoid traveling between major urban areas by land.

The reality:

Generally, this information is fairly accurate. While it would be short-sighted to dismiss the fact that there is still an armed conflict in many parts of the country that result in loss of lives on both sides and among the civilian population, anyone within the country can tell visitors which areas to avoid -- if you end up in a conflict zone, basically, it’s your own fault for not listening.

The country’s major guerrilla groups have announced that they no longer target foreign nationals for kidnapping, and seem to generally be sticking to it. Through overland travel used to be extremely dangerous, especially at night, the routes between most regions are safe now, with the possible exception of night travel in the southern provinces of Putumayo and Nariño.

Petty crime is still a major issue, especially in large cities, and the largest danger most visitors will likely face is that of a stolen phone. (Tip: bring a cheap one you're OK losing, rather than your beloved iPhone).

2. El Salvador

El Salvador
The warning:

As of November 21, 2014, the State Department's warning for El Salvador described crime and violence levels as “critically high,” highlighting extortion, mugging, highway assault, home invasion, and car theft as some of the most common forms of crime.

Passport theft is a major risk, with 366 US citizens reporting stolen passports since January 2010. The warning also emphasizes the danger of extortion, saying US citizens in El Salvador for extended periods are “at higher risk” of extortion demands.

Like the other nations of the Northern Triangle area (Guatemala and Honduras), El Salvador is home to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, powerful gangs known collectively as maras that count thousands of members (some of whom reside in the U.S. as well) and engage in a number of criminal activities.

The reality:

Since the U.S. government deported thousands of gang members from the Los Angeles area in the late 1980s, the influence of gangs like the maras has grown exponentially in El Salvador and neighboring countries. These groups are a very real threat, to foreigners and locals alike, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

However, like most organized criminal groups involved in the drug trade, these organizations care primarily about protecting their territory and routes -- as long as you’re not volunteering with an organization that aims to directly disrupt drug trafficking routes, you should be able to avoid direct interaction with the gangs.

However, other risks like extortion attempts or theft still exist, so be aware of who you talk to and what you do in public spaces. Again, your volunteer program provider should brief you on safety tips in more depth.

3. Honduras

Honduras
The warning:

Like El Salvador, the risk level in neighboring Honduras is described as “critically high.” The small Central American nation has had the world’s highest murder rate since 2010, and the city of San Pedro Sula had a staggering homicide rate of 171 in 2014.

There is less overall crime in the tourist-frequented areas of Roatán and Utila and the Copán Mayan ruins, but even those areas see a fair share of thefts, break-ins and violent crime.

The report also points out that some members of Honduras’ National Police themselves engage in criminal activity, meaning that police may delay in responding to a crime scene or bury an investigation, contributing to a high level of impunity. Like El Salvador, Honduras is home to rival gangs, whose fierce conflicts and wars for control of trafficking routes have led to a spike in violence in major cities like Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba.

The reality:

If you’re in one of the heavily touristy parts of Honduras, you’ll be more insulated from the majority of crime and violence affecting the country.

If you’re volunteering in a major city, however, you’ll be confronting the same dangers that Hondurans deal with in their everyday lives.

It's certainly possible to safely live and volunteer in Honduras, but it’s worth talking to your host organization (and to use one in the first place!) to find out more about their safety precautions and regulations and any suggestions they have for minimizing risk in a fairly volatile country.

4. Mexico

Oaxaca Mexico
The warning:

The most recent travel warning for Mexico, updated on December 24, 2014, warns of “threats to safety and security posed by organized criminal groups in the country.”

However, the report acknowledges that millions of US citizens travel to or work in Mexico every year, the vast majority of them safely, and adds that “there is no evidence that organized criminal groups have targeted US visitors or residents based on their nationality.”

Most drug-related crime and violence in the country is concentrated in the border region and along trafficking routes, rather than in popular tourist destinations and resorts further south. The warning does also caution about the risks of kidnapping (particularly in gambling establishments and strip clubs) and carjacking along the border -- but as long as you stay out of these seedier locations, you’re likely to be fine.

The reality:

Mexico has been experiencing an extremely violent period over the last two years, and strong demonstrations have rocked the country since the disappearance of 43 students in September 2014.

As the warning says, though, the vast majority of violence is concentrated along strategic trafficking routes and directed toward Mexican citizens or Central American migrants passing through the country. As a foreigner, you’re less likely to be in the spaces that see high levels of violence, but you may still have to contend with petty crime like anywhere else, especially in larger cities.

5. Venezuela

Venezuela
The warning:

This year, the Venezuelan capital of Caracas was named the world’s second most violent city, with an estimated homicide rate of 134 per 100,000 residents (the national rate was 79, still quite high).

The State Department warns of violent crime, as well as the elevated risk of kidnapping, estimating that as much as 80 percent of kidnappings in the country may go unreported. Many kidnappings are done with the goal of extortion, and foreigners are often seen as a particularly lucrative source of dollars.

The reality:

Though Venezuela isn’t the crime-ridden hellscape the US government may want us to think, there’s no debating those numbers. Violent crime has risen sharply in the country in recent years, and there are increasing tales of robberies gone awry and ending in the death of victims.

Given the contentious relationship between the United States and Venezuela, US citizens may be seen as higher-profile targets, and it might be wise to avoid mentioning your citizenship in some spaces, though most individual Venezuelans could care less about where you’re from.

Again, volunteering in Venezuela with a program provider will help you understand the actual details better and how to stay safe.

Ways to Minimize Your Risk

Like anywhere else in the world, safety in Latin American countries is all about minimizing your risk. This may mean taking taxis at night instead of walking, using a cheap phone when you’re out to protect your smartphone, or avoiding certain parts of a city or region if you’ve been warned away from them.

Don’t forget that your best resource is local input -- your host family, friends, and neighbors have lived there for their entire lives, and they know better than anyone what and where may put you at risk.

Like anywhere else in the world, safety in Latin American countries is all about minimizing your risk.

It’s easy to feel invincible if you’re used to walking home safely at 2 a.m., and you may feel that your host mom is just being overprotective (and maybe she is), but it’s always better to err on the side of caution, especially in a new city where you may not speak the language perfectly.

Your safety doesn’t depend only on where you walk, though -- it also relates to your living situation and work environment. Some neighborhoods, housing options, and volunteer placements come with a lower risk level than others, and it’s helpful to consider this before you arrive.

Where You Live

Stay with a host family

Ideally, your safest options while volunteering in Latin America would be:

  • Living with roommates or a host family
  • Living in an apartment building with a doorman, code, or other multi-step entry

With housing, try to avoid:

  • Living alone
  • Living in a house with street-level door entrance

Where You Work

The places you go and people you interact with through your volunteer placement will also affect your safety. Though most organizations do everything possible to minimize the risk for volunteers -- particularly foreigners -- there is a certain level of risk that comes with some kinds of work.

To stay safe, look for:

  • Volunteering in a school or other secure location
  • Volunteering with a large and well-known organization
  • Keeping a set schedule and routine that involves interacting with other people

If at all possible, avoid:

  • Human rights accompaniment
  • Journalism or documentary work (especially in Central America)
  • Volunteering on a part-time or freelance basis; doing most of your work independently

What Types of Risk Should You Prepare For?

We already discussed a few country-specific risks you may face, but lets look in a little more detail at the types of risks you're likely to encounter:

Robbery/theft

This is almost certainly the biggest risk you’ll face while volunteering in Latin America, and it’s one that you’d confront in any other region of the world. Large cities are famous for their deft pickpockets and thieves that inflict a number of schemes on unsuspecting victims (I promise you there isn’t actually any mustard on your shirt, and you should never let someone pick up your bicycle “to see if it’s heavy”).

Because locals are robbed just about as often as foreigners in most places, your risk level has less to do with your appearance (though thieves may assume that, as a foreigner, you are carrying more money or expensive devices) than it is about how much you appear to be an easy target.

In most of these places, the violence is heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods and areas, rather than dispersed throughout the city.

As you would anywhere, do what you can to minimize your vulnerability -- don’t take out devices in crowded or sketchy places, don’t keep wallets or other valuables in outer pockets where you can’t see them, never leave your bag unattended in a public place (that includes hanging on the back of your chair -- in your lap is safest), and so on.

Violence

Nicaragua

Whenever the annual list of the world’s most violent cities is released, Latin America always has the dubious honor of dominating the rankings.

While this has something to do with the exclusion of many cities in the Middle East and those in active conflict zones (you don’t seriously expect me to believe that Santa Marta is more dangerous than Aleppo, do you?), the sad truth is that plenty of cities throughout Central and South America suffer from a tragically high homicide rate, often driven by gang violence and the drug trade.

However, even in most of these places, the violence is heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods and areas (like in American cities with similar trends), rather than dispersed throughout the city. Locals will be able to tell you where those places are so you can do everything possible to avoid them.

Unless you have a compelling reason to be in Rio’s militarized favelas after dark, you shouldn’t be there. Of course, the people who live in these communities unfortunately don’t have the option to leave, but there’s no reason to make yourself a martyr and put yourself in danger if there isn’t a good reason for it.

If you do happen to be volunteering in a conflict zone or area that sees a lot of violence, follow all directions that your host organization gives you and never assume that you know better.

Illness/disease

With the spread of the chikungunya virus throughout the Caribbean throughout 2014 and the presence of dengue, malaria, and other diseases in many tropical regions, it’s important to remember that the greatest threat to your health and safety could come from a bunch of tiny bacteria, rather than other humans.

Though many such diseases are contained in relatively small areas, they still pose a significant risk -- mosquitos don’t distinguish between locals and foreigners when they’re looking for someone’s blood to suck!

A few weeks before you leave, take a look at the CDC recommendations for the country you’re headed to, and be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor or a travel clinic before you go to get any necessary vaccines or medication.

If you’re in a tropical location that’s home to potentially poisonous animals, like the Amazon or some parts of the Caribbean coast, try to brush up on your zoology as well so you know which snakes to avoid befriending.

Be Aware of Your Behavior

As much as I’m staunchly against victim-blaming in all forms, it’s an unfortunate truth of life with humans that there are some behaviors that simply make you seem like more of a target. If you appear visibly foreign, you are going to attract much more attention -- some of it good, some of it not-so-good -- and therefore stand out more as a potential target for robbery.

Costa Rica

This will depend greatly on your appearance and unfortunately has a pretty strong machista element to it -- if you’re a 6’4” man with giant biceps, you’re unlikely to face many challenges; if you’re a small blonde woman, you may be seen as weaker and easier to overpower (even if you have crazy-good-secret ninja skills).

Though there’s not much you can do to change your physical appearance (unless you want to take advantage of the plentiful and high-quality plastic surgery options available in Colombia, Brazil or Argentina), trying to blend in as much as possible can be a good idea.

Look at how locals dress and try to mimic it as much as you are willing or able to, minimize clothing with university or fraternity logos and avoid speaking English loudly in places where it will draw lots of attention. You can’t make yourself six inches shorter, true, but you can at least try not to have “gringo” stamped across your forehead for the world to see.

On the other hand, appearing visibly foreign can also protect you in some places, particularly in the context of accompaniment. Many people are all too aware of the strict extradition laws and punishment that will come crashing down on anyone that harms a foreigner.

In fact, plenty of governments are far more responsive to crimes committed against foreign nationals than against their own citizens. While this is really messed up, it’s a reality that can help protect you in some spaces -- though it’s still not an invincibility shield, so don’t count on people’s fear of extradition to protect you everywhere.

Enough Already! Should I Sign Up for This Volunteer Program or Not?

Though it sounds like there are a lot of scary boogeymen out there, most parts of Latin America are no more dangerous than anywhere else in the world (lookin' at you, New York). If your volunteer host organization is a reputable and conscientious one, they will be extremely careful about where they send volunteers and ensure that there are plenty of precautions in place to keep you safe.

Plenty of governments are far more responsive to crimes committed against foreign nationals than against their own citizens.

In addition, listening to the advice of locals and trusting your instincts will do more than anything else to protect you and ensure you have a positive and healthy experience. Like going anywhere else, if you’re mindful about where you go and don’t do anything stupid, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

Photo Credits: Natasha Krol, Ingrid Chang, Andrew Hall, Alfonzo Gonzalez, Jessie Beck, Danielle Slowik, and Haley Tucker.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.