Updated: Feb 16
Over the past decade kidnapping for ransom and hostage taking have become a booming multi-million dollar business. As I have previously stated 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. 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.
Kidnapping for Profit
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.
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 have been using throughout South America for years 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, read my article on "Child Kidnapping & Child Recovery" for more information on this.
Kidnapping for Sex Trafficking
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 tourist’s 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.
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