Adapting to Evolving Kidnapping Trends
Print Issue: April 2020
Fernando Marti was on his way to school.
The 14-year-old son of wealthy sporting goods chain owner Alejandro Marti was traveling in an armored car with a driver and a protection agent in Mexico City when the vehicle was stopped by what appeared to be a law enforcement officer manning a roadblock.
But it was all an act. Kidnappers shot and killed the driver and injured the protection agent, and they took the boy into custody—demanding a large ransom for his safe return. Marti was devastated and paid the ransom of more than 5 million pesos. But his son was never returned. The boy’s body was later discovered in the trunk of an abandoned car.
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Marti’s son was one of 438 abductions reported across Mexico in 2007, and it marked a turning point in the resurgence of kidnapping after a surge and wane in the 1990s.
After Fernando’s murder, Marti went before the National Public Security Council to ask Mexico’s security and justice institutions to respond to the crisis of violence in the nation. He then went on to found a new company—Mexico SOS—and became an advocate against kidnapping and political corruption, with a personal focus on kidnapping prevention.
In April 2019, the U.S. State Department introduced a new risk indicator on its individual country Travel Advisories to warn Americans about the risks of kidnapping and hostage taking by criminal and terrorist actors.
“The new ‘K’ indicator is part of our ongoing commitment to provide clear and comprehensive travel safety information to U.S. citizens so they can make informed travel decisions,” the department said in a press release.
State was prompted to create the new indicator after Kimberly Sue Endicott, a U.S. citizen, was kidnapped—along with her safari guide, Jean-Paul Mirenge Remezo—while traveling in Uganda. The captors demanded a ransom of $500,000 for her freedom, which was ultimately paid to release Endicott and Remezo unharmed. Uganda’s government and security services negotiated the handover and brought the two to safety.
As of 31 December 2019, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) had 87,438 active missing person records—35 percent of which were cases where the individual was under the age of 18.
As domestic and international travel has increased over the past decade, so have the risks business and leisure travelers face. Travelers, expatriates, and executives are prime targets for kidnappings because of socioeconomic divides across the globe and the spread of radicalization.
Motives for kidnapping are diverse, and they vary across geographies. Some are conducted by rogue regimes looking for fighting power, such as the widespread kidnapping of children in Sudan to reinforce militia fighting groups. Others are kidnapped at sea by Somalian pirates, who demand ransom to release crews and cargo.
Many acts of kidnapping are carried out by terrorist or criminal enterprises as a form of extortion in return for prisoner exchanges. They might also seek media coverage, financial compensation, and other considerations.
According to the United Nations (UN) Office of Crime and Drugs, terrorist groups have taken to using kidnapping and ransom to help fund their operations. The UN found that between 2008 and 2014, al Qaeda and its direct affiliates made at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings.
The UN also found that Boko Haram has reportedly created a kidnapping task force that focuses on rulers and civil servants, businesspeople, politicians, and foreigners. These individuals are typically kidnapped and held in exchange for money or the release of other Boko Haram militants.
Nations that had the highest kidnapping and ransom rates in 2019 include Colombia, Lebanon, Mali, Mexico, and the Philippines, according to the U.S. Department of State. Numerous other nations have received the department’s “K” designation for high risk of kidnapping and hostage taking.
One of the authors recently attended a Domestic Security Advisory Council (DSAC) meeting in Dallas, Texas. At the event, Mexico City FBI Legal Attaché (Legat) Joe Gonzalez said that the FBI worked 118 kidnap or hostage situations in Mexico alone in 2019.
Methods of kidnapping have evolved beyond the traditional “snatch and demand” methodology, where kidnappers take custody of a victim and demand a ransom—typically from employers or family members—to release them to safety. While those methods are still used, most kidnappings today are forms of express or virtual kidnapping.
Express kidnappings involve a small and immediate demand for ransom from a victim, such as an ATM kidnapping. Criminals hold a victim hostage, transport that victim to an ATM, and force him or her to withdraw the maximum amount possible from his or her account before being set free.
Virtual kidnappings are hoax driven. A victim’s family might receive a threat in an email or phone call that a loved one was abducted and will be harmed if they do not pay a ransom. Fear sets in, which can cause family members to pay the unidentified kidnappers, although no one has been kidnapped.
The National Autonomous University of Mexico found that between 6,000 and 8,000 virtual kidnappings and phone extortion schemes were reported in Mexico in 2017. These kidnappings are on the rise, according to the FBI, because they are not limited by location.
Decisions in Crisis
Kidnap Crisis Management Teams (CMTs) have evolved alongside the growing threat of extortion of business travelers. They typically consist of a leader, a deputy leader, and representatives from other organization stakeholders, such as finance, environmental health and safety, public relations, facilities or property management, engineering, security, medical, information technology, purchasing/distribution, and quality control.
Choosing the right leader for the team is critical. The leader keeps the team moving and acts as the key decision maker when time is of the essence. Often the chief security officer of the organization is a candidate for the lead position because he or she often has the important task of persuading C-suite members to fund kidnap and travel security awareness training.
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Obtaining buy-in from the board and CEO to create a CMT and conduct training may be difficult because kidnapping is a scenario many do not want to think through. A best practice for encouraging engagement is to rely on statistics about travel risks from agencies like the U.S. State Department, as well as information obtained through the organization’s own risk assessments about threats and crime trends.
Many of the decisions about training, when and where to use additional executive protection, and providing a driver and armored vehicle will depend on what the business mission of the organization is. For instance, an executive of a wealth management firm might have a higher risk profile when traveling on business than a software developer.
CMT leaders should organize meetings, tabletop exercises, and policies and procedures about responding to kidnappings and ransom demands that are integrated into the organization’s overall risk management policy. These policies should be created in partnership with the organization’s legal team, who—should a kidnapping occur—would likely lead the negotiation process and work with the security team and others to recover the victim.
CMT leaders should also discuss what aftercare is provided to victims of kidnappings—and to employees who work closely with them. The trauma from these events can have a long-lasting impact, so the CMT should work with HR to ensure that counseling services are provided to victims after recovery.
Additionally, the CMT must develop global liaison partnerships with groups in other countries where employees might be traveling—such as with a local project management team, local authorities, and appropriate embassies who can act as force multipliers in response to an incident.
For instance, a U.S.-based CMT should have a point of contact at FBI field offices in countries where employees frequently travel, along with contacts at the in-country U.S. Embassy. If an employee is kidnapped, these will be critical for recovering that individual.
It also might be helpful—and necessary—to develop contacts at firms that specialize in hostage negotiations and extractions. An organization’s legal team can work with the CMT to develop these relationships, which could turn into hiring them for services should an incident occur.
Understanding kidnapping risk means recognizing where there is continuity and where there is change. It means knowing when new threats emerge and when old ones subside. However, understanding the unique challenges kidnapping poses to a corporation requires more than an acknowledgment of where levels of crime are the highest. Security managers must consider the nuances of the threat from one location to another and have a team in place to mitigate them.
Leland Dean is vice president of global corporate security for Bank of New York Mellon, adjunct professor at the University of Houston, and deputy chief of the Financial Services CSC for Infragard.
Matthew Porcelli, CPP, is a private security manager and consultant with more than 10 years of experience and is a graduate of the FBI Citizens Academy. Porcelli sits on five ASIS International Councils: Crime Prevention, Cultural Properties, Executive Protection, Global Terrorism/Political Instability/International Crime, and Young Professionals.
Travel Planning Tips
One of the most critical steps organizations can take to prevent employees from being kidnapped while on work assignments is to emphasize the need for travel safety and executive protection when necessary. As a duty of care, executive protection can help expedite and allow executives to focus on what matters while they travel, instead of security.
To formulate a travel plan, organizations must understand the methods available to communicate with employees while out of the office, understand their personality profiles and preferences, be familiar with country-specific threats to security, have knowledge of multiple routes to destinations, and be prepared for unexpected medical emergencies.
The travel plan should also include vetting hotels that employees stay in. And if the employee is traveling via private plane, the travel plan should include vetting for hotels where the flight crew is staying.
In some instances, organizations may need to hire security or police officials to watch those responsible for the security of the plane itself.
Eighty-five percent of kidnappings occur in or around a victim’s vehicle, including while in traffic or at a stoplight. The importance of a dependable, well-trained driver is imperative, as is a less noticeable vehicle with bullet-resistant protection. Sturdy SUVs or sedans are common vehicles for executives to travel in. Picking a less noticeable brand may be beneficial to blending in.
Kidnappers often engage in surveillance of their intended target, who they hope does not notice their efforts. Patience, research, and surveillance are key to kidnappers’ efforts. Locations such as busy airport terminals or festivals are prime hunting grounds for kidnappings of naïve business and leisure travelers.
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Finally, employees on travel should be motivated to think about their own safety and to be aware. Travelers and executive protection personnel should always have "go bags" in their vehicles or hotel rooms that contain the essentials, including a change of clothes, lightweight shoes, a flashlight, and prescriptions.
Additionally, travelers should memorize key contact details—such as an emergency hotline or 24-hour command center phone number—or program them into their personal devices.