by Orlando Wilson – International Defense Strategies LLC
Kidnapping Over the past decade kidnapping for ransom and hostage taking have become a booming multi-million-dollar business. These days you do not need to be a high roller to be kidnapped or involved in a hostage situation, it can happen to anyone. If you are an international traveler you need to be especially aware of the threat from kidnapping even if you’re not going to one of the worlds kidnapping hotspots like Haiti, Mexico, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Nigeria, Columbia or the Philippines. The fact you are a foreigner can make you a target especially in poor countries, where the contents of the luggage, watch and jewelry of most travelers from the U.S. or Western Europe will at least match, if not far exceed the average monthly earnings of most citizens.
It is very difficult to get accurate figures on kidnapping rates as a lot of incidents are not reported to the authorities or media, also governments keen to attract tourists and investors try to keep official crime rates favorable. You should do your research and a threat assessment on all locations you’ll be visiting and identify what the main threat is. If you identify a kidnapping threat look for patterns in how the kidnappers operate and work out procedures to avoid them.
These days it makes sense for everyone to understand how to behave if they are involved in a kidnapping or hostage situation. The main threat to most people in developed countries is being caught up in a small scale crime that’s gone wrong like a bank robbery that turns into a hostage situations, or being held hostage in their workplace due to the actions of a disgruntled or mentally ill employee. In the emerging markets targeted and express kidnappings for financial gain or favors may be your main threat.
There are five main reasons for kidnapping and the mindsets of criminals vary greatly from area to area and culture to culture, there is no profile that fits all kidnappers and all kidnapping situations tend to be unique. I tell my clients that their main concern if they are kidnapped or caught in a hostage situation is to just stay alive to be released or to escape.
Kidnapping for financial gain
When we talk about kidnapping most people immediately think of kidnapping for ransom, which is a very lucrative business in some countries. If someone is kidnapped for ransom or favors you need to remember that the person is a valuable commodity to be bargained for, they will be kept alive as long as the kidnappers believe that they are of value. The negotiation for this type of kidnapping is a business negotiation; you’re buying back an asset.
There are cases where people are kidnapped for favors not money. For example a son or daughter of an influential person would be kidnapped and released after the parents have done the criminals a favor. There was one incident in South America several years ago where a left wing terrorist group kidnapped a young woman, and for her release requested that her father shoot and kill one of his business associates, the father refused and his daughter was killed. This would be an extremely difficult situation to deal with as the terms were very rigid.
If the kidnappers are professionals there is a good chance that a hostage would be released when the ransom demands are met, it would be a bad business practice not to, as it would deter payments for future hostages. On the other side of the coin if the ransom demands are not met, it would be a good business practice to execute the hostage, to encourage future payments. The professionalism of kidnappers varies greatly from those that are highly skilled to Neanderthals; all, however, are capable of extreme violence.
Express kidnapping is a crime which has boomed over the last decade with incidents taking place globally, from Caracas to Vladivostok. Express kidnapping can be classed as a more comprehensive version of mugging. There have been cases in London where victims have been snatched from the street and kept in captivity for several days until their bank accounts have been emptied via ATM machines, online money transfers or checks etc.
One classic example of an express kidnapping that I know of happened to a businessman visiting a Central American country. When he arrived at the airport he went to the taxi rank and got a taxi to take him to his hotel, about 10 minutes into the drive the taxi pulled over and in jumped two men with guns. The victim was handcuffed, threatened and robbed to start with. He was driven to numerous ATM machines until he could not take out any more money on his bank cards. As he was being driven around one of the kidnappers was making phone calls trying to sell him to other groups, luckily for him no one wanted to buy him. The criminals had his passport and took his picture on a cell phone, then told him if he reported anything to the police they would find out, as they worked with the police, then they would come and kill him. The man went to his Embassy and they told him he was lucky, everything he lost could be replaced and not to report the incident to the police.
The chances are that the fact this man was a foreigner could have saved him from being sold on and into a ransom situation. These were not sophisticated criminals who had the skills and resources to be able to handle a high profile kidnapping. As I have stated before criminals don’t want attention and the kidnapping of foreigners usually brings attention from the international media and the Embassy of the victim, which means embarrassment for the government and pressure on local law enforcement to do something.
Express kidnappings are safer and more convenient for criminals, who do not need to be highly skilled and connected to pull them off. In a typical kidnapping the criminals will usually go to a wealthy area and look for a suitable target, someone who looks like they have some money and then snatch them. Once they have the victim they’ll be robbed, taken to ATM’s, sexually assaulted etc. If the victim has a cell phone the criminals may use it to contact their family for a ransom, the amounts requested in express kidnappings tend to be low. This is where locals make better targets than visitors; In say, Venezuela it would be easier and quicker for a resident businessman in Caracas to get and deliver a thirty-thousand-dollar ransom to kidnappers than it would be for the family of a kidnapped student who may live in Helsinki.
The main problems with express kidnappings are that the kidnappers are generally not what could be classed as high end criminals. This means they tend to be more violent and unpredictable than groups that target higher profile victims for large ransoms. As always, if ransoms are paid in express kidnappings there is no guarantee the victim will be released, especially if they can identify the criminals or have been sexually assaulted.
One tactic that criminals are using throughout South America is to contact the families of people who they have just stolen cell phones from or they know to be in places like cinemas etc. where cell phones are usually turned off. The criminals then claim to have kidnapped the owner of the cell phone or the person in the cinema and demand a ransom of a few thousand dollars, that the family needs to pay within a couple of hours. Now consider how you would react if you received a phone call from someone claiming to have kidnapped a close family member and telling you to drop off two thousand dollars at a location in two hours or they’ll be killed. You would want to contact your family member but if they don’t have or are not answering their cell phone, what are you going to do? In the U.S. or Western Europe you might want to call the police, but you might not want to call the police in a 3rd world country, anyway, what are they going to do in two hours? So, are you going to pay two thousand dollars or possibly have a family member killed?
Another take on this same tactic is being used by criminals in Latin American prisons, they make cold calls on cell phones to people and claim to have kidnapped their wife, daughter or son etc. The criminals request the ransom to be paid within an hour in the form of cell phone credits, which can be done over the phone or online with bank cards. Again think about what you would do if you could not confirm if you’re relative was free or kidnapped? These criminals are in prison, they have nothing better to do but make calls, if they can get one or two people a week to pay, and they are making a good living.
Kidnapping for Publicity
The groups or individuals who can fall into this category can be anything from animal rights or environmental protesters to hard core terrorists. As you can expect there would be a big difference between having to deal with Green Peace and Al-Quada Iraq.
If you are caught up in a situation involving an environmental group protesting oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico who have taken over a local government building there is a very good chance you would be released after a few hours when the media has turned up and the police have arrested them all, their cause would have been satisfactorily publicized. Violence is generally not in the nature of their cause and would not do them any good but always remember they are still are very capable of it.
On the other hand, if you’re a westerner taken hostage by Islamic extremists, you better hope that security forces get to you pretty quickly. There have been numerous examples of westerners being kidnapped and publicly executed, you can count on these people to be professional, focused, prepared to kill and die for their cause. For example look at the case of the Nord-Ost theater siege in Moscow, October 2002, all of the forty Chechen terrorists expected to die for their cause. The leaders of this group were all experienced combat veterans, who were well-prepared and armed for the task. If you are caught up in this type of incident you have big problems and should be constantly looking for the opportunity to escape.
Crimes gone wrong
The one of the most common cause for hostage situations in developed countries is where crimes go wrong and end up turning into hostage situations. For example, the police respond to a bank robber in progress and get to the bank before the robbers can escape. The robbers could then possibly hold out in the bank and try to negotiate for a car etc. so they can escape or negotiate with the police for favorable terms of surrender.
It is unlikely in this type of situation that the hostage takers will be trained and professionals, this does not make them any less dangerous; they may be more dangerous, due to panic, lack of discipline and any drugs they may be under the influence of. These days you can expect criminals to be well armed and if they are looking at lengthy prison sentences be prepared to resort to extreme violence. In this situations are going to have to rely on the police to negotiate with the criminals, but as always, you should be looking for ways to escape when safely possible.
Mental illness & domestic disputes
People suffering from mental illnesses or involved in domestic disputes account for the majority of hostage situations, especially in the U.S and Western Europe. With mental illness the most common situation tends to be that of disgruntled or sacked employee returning to a business to confront former bosses and escalating the situation into a standoff with police. If a corporation suspects a former employee may be mentally unstable it’s their responsibility to take the necessary precautions to protect their other staff members.
The reasons for domestic disputes and crimes of passion are endless but can also end up developing in to hostage situations; for example, what are you going to do if one of you employee’s ex-boyfriends turns up at your office and threatens to shoot himself and wants everyone to watch? These days if you own a business this is the type of thing you need to have procedures for dealing with, for liability reasons if nothing else.
Both of these situations are extremely dangerous due to the mental state of the hostage taker, who needs to be dealt with very carefully. As with crimes gone wrong, try to escape and leave these situations to the police negotiators.
Another type of domestic kidnapping is where an estranged parent will take a child they do not have legal custody for. These situations can become very complicated if the child is taken to or is in another country, as the local laws usually take precedence. The Hague Child Abduction Convention is the international law that tends to be used for child custody disputes but how this is interpreted at local levels is another thing. A single parent may have custody of their child in U.S. or Western Europe, but if their ex-partner is a citizen of a Middle Eastern country and manages to get the child there, the local courts will most probably give them custody.
I have been asked quite a few times if I could go to various countries to recover children who have been taken by estranged parents. I am happy to provide advice and highlight the fact that if the parent I am talking too has legal custody in U.S. this might not apply in the country the child is in. Also, if the child was snatched back, those doing so would have committed the crime of kidnapping, which in most places has a lengthy prison term attached. Combine the risk of being arrest and the child being harmed during the snatch, things are better left to embassy staff and trusted local attorneys.
I am asked regularly about this threat, usually by parents who have a daughter going on holiday overseas. I cannot recall any incidents of where a tourists has been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Incidents of female tourist’s being kidnapped, raped and killed, sure, that happens; this crime is about sex and control, sex trafficking is about business.
The human traffickers that kidnap girls for the sex industry tend to target those from poor and developing countries, where the police and government response if one of their citizens disappears will be minimal, if any. The traffickers usually lure the girls from their native countries with adverts for decent jobs in Western Europe or the Middle East. When the girls arrive at meeting points where they believe they’ll be taken to their final destination they are kidnapped. The kidnappers take the girls passports, travel papers and traffic them to illegal brothels where they are usually drugged and forced to work as prostitutes.
If the families of these girls report them missing to their countries law enforcement there is not much they can do, the girls left home at their own will, they are young and maybe they don’t want to call their families, there is no evidence to launch an investigation. This scenario is a lot different than a tourist being snatched off the street to be used in the sex trade. Professional criminals are not stupid and do not want unnecessary attention from law enforcement, it’s bad for business. So why take the risk to kidnap a tourist when you can promise a girl a job and she’ll turn up at your door.
If you are caught in a kidnapping or hostage situation the most dangerous time will be is the first ten to fifteen minutes as the kidnappers will be very nervous and will have to let everyone know they are in control. If you’re being kidnapped you can expect to get hurt, pain makes people comply. In a group kidnapping or hostage taking it would be a good professional practice for the criminals to identify any group leaders or potential trouble-makers and execute them in front of the other hostages, as would give them the clear message of who was in control. There is also a high risk to those who have health problems such as high blood pressure or heart conditions; you need to keep calm, I have heard numerous stories of people dying from heart attacks and suffering strokes whilst being kidnapped.
Once it is clear that the kidnapping has been successful and you cannot safely escape you do not want to offer any resistance, just do as you are told. You can now expect to be blind-folded, bound and searched for cellular phones, identification, weapons and valuables. If you have a weapon, you should have a good excuse ready for having it. It is possible to conceal weapons and escape equipment from a searcher, which we’ll talk about in a later chapter. You should not carry any security, police, military ID cards or related items as these will draw attention to you and could lead to you being made an example of. I have told clients who are going to the Middle East to join a couple of Muslim associations and carry the association membership cards and literature with them, hopefully if they are kidnapped this will lead to more favorable treatment. This tactic can be applied in most places, pretend to have sympathies with the local bad guys, it’s all about you staying alive!
When you are being moved try to establish which direction you’re being taken. When you are living or visiting an area you should identify all prominent geographical features and objects, then if your kidnapped the incline of the terrain, speed your travelling or any noises such as rivers or trains etc. could give an indication to your location, When you can start to get the descriptions of the kidnappers; if they are masked, remember things like any jewelry they may be wearing, descriptions of their hands, like scars, or nail lengths, what they smell like, anything which could help identify them. Never look at the kidnappers faces as this can be taken as sign of over confidence on your part and overt attempt of you trying to identify them.
If the kidnappers are professional after the violence of the abduction, they will remain silent and assign one of their group members to speak to you when absolutely necessary, if at all. Now you can expect to be kept bound in isolation, which for a lot of people is more psychologically difficult to deal with than physical violence.
You never want to appear to be a threat to your kidnappers and should comply with what they want you to do. This may be the opposite advice you would expect when you’re in a life threatening situation but suffering from broken ribs or a fractured skull will severely limit your ability to successfully escape. Think about it, who are the kidnappers going to put more security on, someone who is putting up a fight or someone who is having a nervous breakdown, you need to preserve your energy, look after your health to able to survive or escape.
If you don’t cause any problems for the kidnappers they should start to relax, this is when you should try creating personal relationships with them without overstepping any boundaries and always being aware of Stockholm Syndrome.
Hostage negotiations should be left to a professional but, who actually qualifies as a professional negotiator is another matter. Every police department will have qualified negotiators, who will be experienced police personnel who have done a one or two week negotiation course for dealing with crimes gone wrong, mental illness and domestic hostage situations, not kidnapping for ransom. I personally, would want someone with more than two weeks’ training for dealing with psychos and failed Romeos, negotiating with professional kidnappers for my release.
Most federal and government agencies will have highly qualified negotiators, the trouble is when dealing with professional kidnappers they most probably have ex-military and law enforcement people working with them who have been trained by these government agencies and will know their procedures and tactics. Also, the official stance of most governments is that they will not negotiate with criminals, terrorists and pay ransoms.
If you or an associate is kidnapped, it will be up to the authorities of that country to negotiate your release; your own government will have no legal authority within that country. If it is a high profile case your government may someone to assist a co-operative local police, that’s about all you can expect, forget about Special Forces rescue teams, that’s Hollywood. The attitude of most Embassy staff will be that if you had paid attention to the government warnings and stayed away from the country, you would not have been kidnapped in the first place! In countries where kidnapping is common, your case will most likely go to the bottom of the pile.
On the commercial market, there are negotiators for hire. If you need to hire one make sure they have real world experience and understand that how things are done in different countries and cultures can vary greatly from the U.S. and Western Europe. Anyone can be given or make a certificate stating that they are a certified negotiator and the standards of negotiators you can expect to encounter range from excellent to being in league with the kidnappers. As with hiring any security staff you need to make sure they can be trusted and will work in your interests.
If you or an associate does not have the money or don’t want to hire an outsider, it could be up to you to deal with the negotiations, here are some very basic guidelines.
• Confirm, confirm, confirm! You need to confirm that the victim has actually been kidnapped and not just decided to go away without telling anyone and has no communications. A lot of situations that are initially believed to be kidnappings turn out to be false alarms or hoaxes.
• You will need to determine who has kidnapped the victim, criminals, terrorists and for what reason. A kidnap for ransom case will be dealt with a lot differently than a case of a child being taken by an estranged parent.
• Where safe to do so you will need to investigate the victim’s movements to try and determine when and where they were kidnapped. You will want to try finding any witnesses to the kidnapping that may be able to give you any information about the kidnappers.
• If the kidnapping was in public, the police may have been informed, so try to get copies of their incident reports, chances are you will not get any help from local police. If you get any leads, you should inform the local authorities, as long as you believe they are trustworthy and not working with the kidnappers.
• If there are no leads or it’s too dangerous to investigate you will have to wait to be contacted by the kidnappers. How this will happen will vary greatly but you will want to try to record or document all communications with the kidnappers, as this will help law enforcement with any possible follow up investigations, especially if the hostage turns up dead. Always cover your ass!
• When you communicate with the kidnappers, be firm but polite; remember, this is a business negotiation, you are buying an asset.
• If a ransom has been requested and you intend to pay, you will have to buy time, while it is put together and also try to bring the fee down to something which is realistic. In my experience I have seen ransoms drop from $3,000,000 to $30,000. Make the kidnappers’ demands seem unreasonable, but also indicate that you will do what you can to meet them, but make no promises.
• Whether you pay a ransom or not will depend on what your threat assessment indicates about the kidnappers; do they have a history of releasing hostages after a ransom payment or not.
• You will need to establish whether the hostage is still alive before you go any further, if you are dealing with professional kidnappers they will already have a system for this, usually this takes the form of personal questions and answers. You should try to speak to the hostage but if you’re dealing with professionals this will not happen, so don’t push it.
• If the kidnappers offer a voice recording or video tell them that you want the hostage referring to a recent incident or saying something you requested them to say. This will insure the recording was not made before the hostage was killed. These days forget photos with a recent newspapers, bodies can and have been frozen and brought out for photos.
• If you receive any of the hostage’s body parts, you may have problems as this is an indication they may kill the hostage. How you deal with this situation will have to depend on the feeling you get from the kidnappers, but be sure to confirm the hostage is alive at regular intervals.
• If you believe that the kidnappers can be trusted and you can come up with the ransom money, you will have to make arrangements for picking up, securing and the ransom drop off. This phase can be extremely problematic.
• The kidnappers will already have a plan for the ransom drop off; if you have time you will need to study the plan in-depth and prepare for all eventualities. The ransom drop off will need to be treated as a high risk operation as you need to consider that it could be a set up to kidnap or hit you.
• After the ransom is paid, hopefully, the hostage will be released. If they are not, there is little that you can do about it. If they are released, your follow up action will depend on where you are and the attitude of the authorities.
Hopefully you can see from these very basic guidelines that dealing with kidnappings for ransom can be extremely complicated and is something that cannot be covered in a manual. When you were reading through these guidelines I doubt you were thinking about the emotional state of the victim’s families; how would you feel if a close family member was kidnapped and you had to come up with and drop off a ransom?
The first guideline is to confirm that the kidnapping is an actual kidnapping not a misunderstanding or a hoax. I have been approached by several men who have been lead to believe that their girlfriends, who they have usually met online, have been kidnapped, usually by an ex-gangster boyfriend. On one case I investigated the girl friend was known to the local police as a prostitute, and had even got the boyfriend, who was madly in love with her, to send her money to buy a house that did not exist. She had then told this poor guy that she had been kidnapped and needed fifty thousand dollars to be released, he was trying to get the funds together when he called me. She’d never been kidnapped; it was just a scam to get more money from the guy. Needless to say, the wedding was off and I hope he stopped trying to meet Russian girlfriends online.
Kidnap and ransom services are not cheap and the actual tasks involved are not glamorous. If most investigators or security companies are ever contacted to deal with a suspected kidnapping there is going to be thing one thing on their minds, big money! I consulted for one client who was quoted an exorbitant amount to retain the services of a security company who had apparently rescued an associate of his from a potential Russian mafia threat in Central Asia. This client had received reports that a close friend of his had been kidnapped and the first company he approached were straight away talking about rescue and extraction operations and had the client very scared for their friend’s safety. We started by getting local assets to confirm if the kidnapping had actually taken place, what we found was an amateur scheme to try an extort money from our client by a third party, no kidnapping.
After talking with this client about his associates potential Russian mafia threat we strongly expect what was in reality a couple of strong words exchange with some thug was turned into a big pay day for the first security company he approached. By playing on this person’s fears they blew the incident out of proportion, good business for them and gave him something exiting to talk about at his dinner parties. In reality, if a serious Russian mafia group had wanted him dead he would not have made it out of the country he was in or be living care free and giving dinner parties!
Another thing you may need to do is investigate what happened, but only when it is clearly safe to do so. I have been contacted numerous times by “investigators” who wanted our assistance in going into locations to investigate kidnappings. On nearly all these occasions the investigators never spoke the local language, did not know the culture and would not have blended in with the environments, but wanted to go to the areas where the kidnappings took place and try to resolve things. I always turn down such requests unless my associates and I are given full control, as we do not want to get involved in potential fiascos that could lead to someone’s death.
These investigators motives are clearly to make money but they do not comprehend what they are getting into. All they would be doing by going to the kidnapping locations and asking questions would be pressuring the kidnappers. Who in return could kill the hostage because they had become too much of a risk or just kidnap and make the investigator disappear as a warning anyone else who may want to be a hero. I know of one incident on a Caribbean island where a hostage was being told real time by his kidnappers what his family was telling the police about his kidnapping, the kidnappers were working with the police. There is a big difference between Hollywood and the real world!
If you have to deal with a kidnap and ransom situation you must remain aware that you’re personal security takes priority, especially when picking up, moving and dropping off cash or valuable assets. I know of one incident in the Caribbean where a woman had twenty thousand dollars sent to her through her bank so she could pay a ransom for a family member. She picked up the money from her bank and was robbed at gun point before she could make it to her car, now she needed to find another twenty thousand dollars for the ransom. Do you think the kidnappers would care that she had been robbed, not really, they want their ransom money, and chances are they were in on the robbery, but they’ll still wanted the ransom? There is a saying “if they pay once, they’ll pay again”.
In a lot of high risk countries kidnapping groups will look to employ people who work in banks and can tell them who has cash in their bank accounts to pay ransoms, I know of one case where a hostage was told by his kidnappers how much money he had in his several bank accounts and what they wanted, he paid. A friend of this person called me a few months after the kidnapping asking my advice as this man’s secretary had been kidnapped and the kidnappers had approached him to pay the ransom for her. I told him to tell his friend to tell the kidnappers that if they wanted to kill her it was up to them; he would find another secretary. Remember, the kidnappers will see it as you paid once, so you’ll pay again, in my opinion it has to stop somewhere.
Orlando Wilson – International Defense Strategies LLC