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The Kidnapping Business

Article by Rachel Briggs

September 15, 2006

Chapter One: Introduction

Kidnapping is not as visible as it used to be. Only fifteen years ago, British hostages in the Middle East regularly led the evening TV bulletins and provided a staple diet for mid-market tabloid features. Jill Morrell’s brilliant campaign to keep John McCarthy’s detention alive in the public mind captured the hearts and minds of the nation and catapulted her into the realms of celebrity. Even now, the tales of cruel punishment, personal trial and unlikely camaraderie are as unforgettable as the vivid personalities involved: warm, irreverent Brian Keenan; spitfire ace Jackie Mann, charming John McCarthy and the ascetic Terry Waite.

The huge public interest in their stories – together with the capture of a spate of American and European hostages – raised political kidnapping to the top of government in-trays world-wide: from Downing Street to the White House, the Bundestag to L’Assemblée Nationale. Kidnapping became the stuff of high diplomacy, and there was little doubt about the kidnappers’ motives. They were political organisations motivated by political goals and their demands varied in scope, from the release of a few prisoners to the dissolution of the state of Israel.

Kidnapping now rarely makes the headlines: the media arc lamp has dimmed. But when cases do generate column inches, the public’s understanding is still filtered through the news footage of the late eighties; seen as a political crime carried out by fanatics.

However, in many areas of the world, kidnapping is now big business and kidnappers are motivated by profit rather than principle. Economic kidnapping is one of the fastest growing criminal industries; it is estimated that kidnappers globally take home well over $500 million each year – and rising. The business is centred largely around Latin America – most notably Colombia, Mexico and Brazil – but there are also pockets of activity in the Philippines, parts of the Former Soviet Union and Africa.
With entrepreneurial flair, kidnappers are adapting their business models in response to prevailing market conditions and the relative risks they face of detection, prosecution and incarceration. In urban Mexico, where the likelihood of detection is high, kidnappers use more violence to frighten those negotiating to pay up quickly than in rural Colombia. There, kidnappers are beyond the writ of law enforcement agencies and can afford to extract concessions over a longer period of time. In fact, Colombia is the birthplace of ‘the double’, where kidnappers request a second payment after the first has been received, underlining their confidence and swagger in drawing out negotiations.

Responsibility for these changes largely lies with the end of the Cold War:

 Firstly, the funding of political revolutionaries world-wide fell with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the declining interest of sympathetic countries such as China. These groups have been forced to find new ways of financing their cause and for many economic kidnapping has provided an answer. Groups such as the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in Colombia now use kidnapping as a key source of income. This, of course, means that there are grey areas between political and economic kidnapping. But individual cases motivated primarily by financial gain will clearly have a different dynamic from those motivated by political goals.

 The rise of political instability has also contributed to the growth of the kidnapping business. When, post-1989, the nationalist genies escaped and fragile economies collapsed, the lawless conditions that were created in some countries allowed kidnapping to thrive. Kidnapping groups have been able to capitalise upon the instability of the systems in which they operate and use their weaknesses to grow. Under such conditions, the state’s ability to put forward risks to deter kidnappers is severely hampered.

 The opening up of new economic territories that has taken place over the past two decades has also created new opportunities for kidnappers by bringing new potential victims. The entry of firstly Western multinationals – and now much smaller companies – into new markets introduces high-value individuals into these areas with the backing of their companies. Aid and humanitarian agencies have gone into these areas to offer support against the consequences of instability. More recently, the appetite for “adventure tourism” has grown and created more opportunities for the crime. More people are travelling to more dangerous places than ever before.

Though there is overlap between the groups that carry out economic and political kidnapping, the two crimes have different motivations and the dynamics that govern them are distinct. It is important that there is a full understanding of the differences between them in order to be able to deal with the new challenges posed by economic kidnapping.

Where demands are political there is a framework to deal with individual cases, and this is understood by all concerned. The UK government has developed a simple approach: no substantive concessions. This stance underlines the government’s commitment not to be held to ransom by terrorists – because hostages are often treated as representatives of a country or ideological system. But it is also based on the premise that concessions encourage future crimes. Because the demands in political cases are for changes in legislation or prisoner releases, they tend to be resolved within the diplomatic arena, and although partnerships with other groups can be helpful, the UK government generally has the authority to take the lead on how an individual case is handled. This allows it to ensure that a relatively consistent line is taken.

Because demands by economic kidnappers are financial,the negotiating table is opened up to anyone with the money to pay. This means that companies, charities and even individuals are all able to respond independently of the government. Most groups have formulated their policies according to their own interests and the specific risks they face and have developed tools that allow them to deliver on their priorities. Companies do not have the same concerns about sovereignty as government, and many have developed services such as specialist insurance cover and corporate security that allow them to manage their risks like they would any other locational risk. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have tended to see themselves as being immune from the risks of kidnapping because of their work supporting local communities. They have also sought to maintain their independence from government and business so as not to jeopardise their position within local communities. The families of independent travellers have even fewer constraints on their behaviour as they do not have long-term interests in the areas in question.

Kidnapping has changed, but despite the differences between economic and political kidnapping – and the fact that the current policy framework is best suited to responding to the latter – there has not yet been a full discussion about what the policy objectives should be for economic kidnapping. It is no longer clear where boundaries of responsibility for safety lie, or what the role of each group – the government, business and NGOs – should be in the policy process.

This report is not an exhaustive attempt to explain the phenomena of economic kidnapping, nor a country-by-country analysis of the kidnapping industry. Rather, it attempts to set out a narrative that, though widely understood by policy-makers, has not filtered through to public consciousness. It seeks to outline the dynamics and trends of economic kidnapping – where it happens, who is responsible, who is targeted and how it is resolved. The report will also examine the implications of economic kidnapping for the main UK policy groups: the UK government, UK companies and UK NGOs as well as UK tourists. It shows that there is great potential for policies that try to prevent kidnapping by decreasing the opportunities for kidnappers. It argues that an effective approach should place more emphasis on partnerships. The UK government should seek to forge new relationships with the different policy groups and play a central role in developing a new collaborative policy framework rather than always being the lead player itself.

The Kidnapping Business argues that effective solutions to tackle the problem of economic kidnapping must be developed for the long-term, and that progress will have to take place in several phases. It seeks to overhaul the way that policy in this area is thought about and co-ordinated between the different policy groups, and set out a vision for the way policy groups within the UK can work together. The suggestions put forward in this report will form a basis from which bi-lateral and then multi-lateral partnerships and coalitions can be forged.

These policies will have a much wider impact than on simply kidnapping. While kidnapping is not the most pressing issue for most individuals and organisations, it does affect over 10,000 people a year, and it can impact on access to key natural resources such as oil. Its presence can deter investment in high-risk countries, and it must therefore be a factor in any analysis of the risks of operating in unstable environments. Economic kidnapping is also linked to so many other problems, such as the international drugs industry and other criminal activities, and so often the causes and perpetrators are the same. Solutions in this area must therefore consider the cross-impact on other problems faced by these regions. While economic kidnapping is not in itself the biggest problem facing UK policy groups, finding policies that can impact on the crime or reduce its opportunities are helpful in tackling other problems.

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