Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

The Kidnapping Business

By Rachel Briggs. Source: Guild of Security Controllers Newsletter

The following article appeared in the November edition of the Guild of Security Controllers Newsletter.

It is the first article in a series of four looking at different elements of kidnapping: the trends, how companies can reduce their risks, what companies should do when a kidnapping happens and what companies should do once a case is resolved.

Copies of the report The Kidnapping Business by Rachel Briggs can be ordered using the order form on this site. For more information about the report, see 'Publications' and more articles in this section below.

The Kidnapping Business by Rachel Briggs

Kidnapping rarely seems to have been out of the headlines this year. Real life hostages, such as Tim Selby, have competed for column inches with Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, the stars of 'Proof of Life', the first feature film to portray the 'kidnapping business'. The film portrays the case of an American oil worker kidnapped by a guerrilla group in a fictional South American country, and highlights the risks that corporate employees can face across this region. But kidnapping is not, as has often been thought, a Latin American problem; it is also happening in parts of Africa, South East Asia and the former Soviet Union.

This article will outline current global kidnapping trends – from where it happens and to whom, to who does it and why. Kidnapping is a rational crime that can be mapped and understood, and all is certainly not lost for companies operating, or looking to expand, overseas. Later articles will go on to explain how and why companies should minimise their risks, and what they can do if things do, unfortunately, go wrong.

The Kidnapping Business

Kidnapping is defined as "to hold or carry off, usually for ransom", and encompasses a wide variety of crimes. Economic kidnapping – or the kidnapping business – is where a financial demand is made, which could be either hard cash, or some other financial resource. Political kidnapping, on the other hand, is where political concessions, such as the release of prisoners, changes to the law and policy retreats, are demanded. This distinction may seem straightforward, but in reality cases are rarely this clear cut. There are often grey areas between political and economic kidnapping. For example, the FARC in Colombia is a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, but kidnaps for money and is thought to earn hundreds of millions of dollars from it each year. Criminals with political aspirations have also been known to diversify. Definitions are often regarded as the preserve of hair-splitting academics, removed from the reality on the ground. But effective policies and practices for tackling kidnapping are not possible unless they respond to the motivations for the crime and take account of the way kidnappers will react to pressure. For this reason, it is vital that kidnapping cases are defined in terms of the immediate demand rather than any higher order political, religious or other goals a group may have.

Economic kidnapping is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. It is estimated that kidnappers globally take home in the region of $500 million each year in ransom payments: the hostage is a commodity with a price on his head. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but it is estimated that there are approximately 10,000 kidnappings each year worldwide. The undisputed kidnap capital of the world is Colombia, where the activity has been described as 'a cottage industry'. In 2000, the Colombian National Police recorded 3162 cases. Colombia's problem has not been contained within its own borders. Colombian kidnapping groups often cross over into Venezuela and Ecuador to take hostages, and both countries feature in the top ten. Other hot-spots around the globe include Mexico, where the problem has risen dramatically in the last five years, Brazil, the Philippines and the former Soviet Union. The following table shows the top ten hot-spots in 1999.

Global Kidnapping hot-spots – 1999

1 Colombia

2 Mexico

3 Brazil

4 Philippines

5 Venezuela

6 Ecuador

7 Former Soviet Union

8 Nigeria

9 India

10 South Africa

As the table above shows, Latin America is an important hub for kidnapping. However, it would be wrong to see the crime as a uniquely Latin American problem. Over the past decade or so, kidnapping has risen in parts of Africa, most notably Nigeria and South Africa. This can largely be traced to the expansion of multi-national companies into these countries following the rich natural resources on offer. Similarly, companies moved into parts of the Former Soviet Union following the collapse of communism at the start of the last decade, and the kidnapping rate has grown there, too.

The Targets

Due to the association of kidnapping with political extremism, it is often wrongly assumed that governments and their employees are the principal targets. However, figures published by the US Department of State in its 'Trends in Global Terrorism 1999' show that business is now the most important target of 'international terrorism'. 58% of victims in 1999 were from the business sector, as opposed to 18% from government or diplomatic staff. This is a statistic that has been driven home following the recent events in New York. Company employees are rich pickings for kidnappers looking for financial gain, and companies need to take steps to adequately protect their staff in hot-spot countries. One former British hostage, Philip Halden commented, "I said to my captors, 'Why do you do this to me, a foreigner? Why not kidnap your own people?'. They laughed and said it was because foreigners were worth more money".

It should not be forgotten, though, that around 90 per cent of hostages are actually locals – not foreigners. Kidnappers exercise rationality in their work; they weigh up their operational risks against the rewards on offer. While locals may tend to generate smaller ransom settlements than foreigners, there is considerably less risk involved for the kidnappers. The kidnapping of, for example, an American expatriate may put more pressure on the host government to act to resolve the case than that of a local farm worker, and would also bring the extra risk of the FBI becoming involved. It is also wrongly assumed that kidnappers' favoured first choice targets are top executives. On the whole, though, they look for the most exposed and least protected; hence the significant number of engineers who are taken.

The Risk for Companies

Kidnapping is not the greatest threat facing companies; as we have seen, there are approximately 10,000 cases each year worldwide. Of these, only 10 per cent are foreigners, and there were just 30 Britons kidnapped overseas in 2000. However, there are two key reasons why companies must act to reduce the risk for their staff in hot spot countries. Firstly, while kidnapping is a low frequency crime, its impact is substantial. The effects are not just felt by the hostages, who are usually left psychologically, if not physically, scarred. A kidnapping also affects the hostage's family and friends. In fact, many former hostages are quick to admit that their families suffer more than they do. Firstly the hostage always knows the state of play – whether they are dead or alive. And secondly, their family often has to make difficult decisions that could impact on the success of the case. The hostage's employers will also suffer as the result of a case. A kidnapping can affect their reputation and profile, not to mention their bank balance.

Secondly, the types of measures that companies can take to reduce their risk of kidnapping can also help to reduce other more frequently-faced threats – from other personal security threats like robbery and assault to medical ailments. Companies should provide adequate security in and around the workplace, and given that risks in countries such as Colombia and the Philippines are rarely limited to between the hours of 9 and 5, they must also ensure that employees have the right information and tools to take responsibility for their own safety and well-being. Prevention should be taken seriously as a way of reducing risks and tackling kidnapping and other threats, and it is a theme I will return to in the next article in this series.

Kidnapping is a unique crime, and its emotive nature means it will continue to generate column inches. But these stories don't often tell the honest picture about kidnapping, which is a rational crime, carried out by groups who weigh up their risks against the rewards on offer. It is also a crime that can be mapped and understood and there is much that companies can do to reduce their risks. While companies must keep in perspective the extent of the threat they face, they have a duty to protect employees against one of the most devastating experiences they could ever face, and in the process are likely to prevent a good many other threats, too.

In the next article in this series, I will outline what companies should be doing to protect their staff overseas, and the ways in which they should work in partnership with government. I will then look at what companies should do if things do go wrong, and the final article will address what should happen after a case has been resolved.

Rachel Briggs runs the Centre's Risk Programme.