Last week we had a #KRQA (kidnap and ransom questions and answers) session with Nicole Elliott from Red24. We discussed the kidnap, ransom and extortion (KRE) risks faced by those living, working and travelling in the Americas. The following transcript is quite long, but well worth a read.
Nicole Elliott, Special Risks Analyst at red24
Nicole Elliott is the Special Risks Analyst at global risk management company, red24. As a member of red24’s kidnapping response, or Special Risks team, she focuses specifically on the identification and analysis of regional and global KRE, extortion, piracy and wrongful detention threats, as well as related security risks; these include the activities of drug-trafficking, criminal and terrorist organisations. Nicole has a background as a political risk analyst, monitoring regional safety, security and travel-related developments in MENA, and subsequently, Europe and Russia. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of Safe Travels Magazine or red24.
#KRQA with Nicole Elliott at red24 – the Americas
Safe Travels Magazine: Nicole, hey, thank you for joining me – really appreciate your time.
In this session, we’re going to talk about the Americas. We’ll start with the USA and Canada – have there been any notable recent cases?
Nicole Elliott: Thanks for inviting me. Looking at the US, kidnap for ransom or extortion purposes is not a major threat, although sporadic incidents do occur. Kidnappings continue to be mainly perpetrated in relation to other crimes, be it gang-related disputes or for personal motivations, such as the recent abduction of Elizabeth Thomas by a teacher.
There have, however, been some cross-border abductions in recent times, with the victims abducted either in the southern states of the US or in northern Mexico and transported across the border. We will probably talk more about this later, but virtual kidnapping is also a growing concern in the US, with an upsurge in incidents reported since 2015. Kidnapping for ransom has been a big news topic in Canada over the past year; however, this is mostly due to the kidnappings of Canadians overseas, rather than domestic dynamics.
STM: The uptick in virtual kidnappings is definitely something we will return to later on in this series. With personal abductions or opportunistic abductions, is there anything that can be done to prevent these?
NE: Great question. Regardless of location, the majority of kidnappings in the world are orchestrated by criminal entities, a significant number of whom are inexperienced gangs, who choose their victims opportunistically – generally based on perceived means and vulnerability. There is a lot that people can do to avoid being targeted, either at home or abroad. As with petty crime, knowledge of travel area and basic situational awareness can go a long way to reducing the risk of being targeted by an opportunistic kidnapper or criminal.
STM: In the US, a large number of the news alerts seem to relate to women, and sometimes men, being abducted by a current or ex-partner; children taken in a custody dispute, or to the random and opportunistic abduction of a person, often a female, for sexual assault.
NE: In terms personal abductions, these are often conducted by individuals with psychological challenges, and can be very difficult to resolve successfully. In these cases, there can be warning signs prior to the abduction – pay attention to your gut feelings and act pre-emptively to protect yourself, be it by reporting suspicious behaviour to the authorities or getting a protection order.
STM: Thank you. It is a very difficult topic and we’re keen to avoid any victim blaming. We would urge anyone in a vulnerable situation or who has concerns about someone they believe to be vulnerable to seek help from appropriate sources. (More information at the end of this post.)
Moving further south to Central America.
Kidnappings – of all varieties, including express kidnappings and virtual kidnappings – continue to occur regularly in Mexico and in several other Central American countries. Are there any recent cases that you think are particularly notable?
NE: Yes, the kidnapping threat certainly remains high in a number of Central American countries, in particular, Mexico. Traditional kidnap for ransom and short-term express kidnappings continue unabated in many areas of the country. Locals still bear the brunt of kidnapping activity; however, foreign nationals, generally persons with a longer-term presence in Mexico, are also periodically affected. In many instances, the perpetrator is known to the victim.
In one such recent incident, a US expat, O’Neil Patrick McGean, was kidnapped in Mazatlan, Sinaloa state, during the evening of 25 October 2016. McGean had lived in Mazatlan since 2006 and owned several businesses in the city. McGean’s body was discovered buried in the garden of a residence in the Azteca area of Mazatlan on 4 November. Three suspects were subsequently arrested in connection with his abduction and murder, one of whom is believed to have been a close friend and colleague of the victim. According to reports, McGean was lured to the hotel where he was abducted by a new social media acquaintance; it was later discovered that this had been a setup by the perpetrators.
Extortion, rather than physical kidnapping, remains the primary threat in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where gang-related criminal activity is rampant. Kidnappings continue to be sporadically reported in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
STM: Later in the #KRQA series, we’re going to discuss the K+R threat to expats, which will give us the opportunity to explore that last point in more depth.
Members of the press have often been targeted for violence, intimidation, abduction and execution in several Central American countries. Do you have any advice for journalists operating in the region?
Would this vary from the advice given to other professions?
NE: Journalists often face a more complex threat when it comes to kidnapping than recreational or business travellers. This is not only the case in Central America, but in many other locations worldwide. The threat is two-fold; they are subject to the baseline kidnapping threat in the country, and there is often a specific threat to media personnel due to the nature of the work they do.
The detention of journalists in Mexico and elsewhere in Central America is definitely a concern; persons in this field planning on operating in these areas should definitely research the political and security climate prior to travel and ensure they are aware of the potential risks. That being said, the risks to local journalists are far higher in Central America than their foreign counterparts.
Mexico City, Mexico by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash
STM: Do you have any advice for the local journalists?
NE: That’s a tough one Beth, especially in cases where journalists are being targeted either by state- or non-state entities as a result of the news stories they may be covering. While individuals can certainly reduce the risk they face of being targeted in opportunistic kidnappings by implementing stringent personal security measures, targeted abductions or detentions can be far more difficult to avoid.
STM: It’s difficult to know what to say in response to that. So many of us have the privilege of not facing those threats – can’t fathom what life would be like to deal with it day in, day out.
Moving further south – in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN) has released several hostages as part of the ongoing peace talks. However, abductions by the group don’t seem to have ceased – we reported last week that a Venezuelan national was abducted while travelling from Nula in Venezuela to Saravena in Colombia. How would you rate the K+R risk posed by the ELN and FARC? Are there other groups or trends that business travellers or tourists should be worried about?
NE: Although kidnapping incident rates in Colombia have decreased significantly as a result of talks between the government and FARC in recent years, the KRE threat has not been entirely eliminated. As you mentioned, the ELN continues to pose a potential KRE threat; although locals, especially individuals linked to the government and/or armed forces and journalists tend to present as the primary targets, abductions or detentions of foreign nationals cannot be completely discounted. Persons in the extractive industry may face an elevated threat. The risk of being detained by formal or dissident FARC or ELN members is elevated within their areas of operation.
The recent detention of five foreign sports expeditionists, reportedly by a rogue FARC members, illustrates this risk.
Furthermore, there are also a number of criminal elements that remain committed to conducting kidnappings for financial gain within urban environments in Colombia. In an interesting incident in November 2016, a US judge was kidnapped for ransom while on vacation in Cartagena. After his release it came to light that his abduction had been orchestrated by a potential ‘love interest’ he had met online and subsequently travelled to Cartagena to meet.
STM: Are there particular regions that are more dangerous that others? Which would you highlight as being high risk?
NE: Within Colombia, certainly. The risk of being kidnapped or detained by a guerrilla group is elevated in the rural areas in which these groups operate. These include isolated, remote areas in the Arauca and Meta departments. Other regions with elevated kidnapping threats include Casanare, Putumayo, Choco, Guaviare and the Vichada departments. Although the majority of kidnap incidents occur in rural areas, criminal kidnappings, including express kidnappings, are most prevalent in large cities, including in popular tourist and business destinations, such as Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, Barranquilla and Cali.
Additional info: If you would like to know more, this is covered by red24’s 2017 Threat Forecast – which has regional kidnapping snapshots. Link: https://www.red24.com/nonmembers/threat-forecast_2017.php
STM: We’ve discussed express kidnappings in our previous #KRQA chats. Do you find that with crimes like that, there is a sort of ‘best practice’ sharing amid criminal groups? Or is it such a low entry crime that it doesn’t take much to pick up the basics, as it were, and start express kidnapping people?
NE: I think that, like any criminal tactic, there are many variations and levels of sophistication when it comes to express kidnappings – these depend on the location, perpetrator and in some cases, the victim. Express kidnappings can range in duration from a short-term abduction from an ATM, which may last a few hours to even a few days, as the perpetrators try to draw the maximum cash amount from the victim’s bank account. Express kidnappings can also evolve into traditional kidnapping for ransoms, should the perpetrators view the victim as a worthwhile target.
What is common about express kidnappings, when compared to traditional kidnappings, is that there is often a higher possibility of the use of violence and a negative outcome – this is because the perpetrators are often inexperienced and have already gained their objective soon after they seize the victims. With express kidnappings becoming so common in many cities across the world, both stable and unstable, it is important that travellers recognise and understand this threat, and ensure that they avoid becoming targets.
STM: That leads directly into another question I’ve been meaning to ask you for a while – do different types of abductions have trends when it comes to the outcomes?
Here you mentioned express kidnappings are likely to be more violent. If an abduction is very precisely targeted, as it was with the case of Anneli-Marie in Germany, does that have a different sort of pattern and outcome?
Is this determined more by the kidnappers? Militants with a political motive vs professional criminals vs opportunistic criminals, etc.
NE: When it comes to kidnappings, the duration, ransom demand and settlement and incident outcome will likely be influenced by a wide variety of factors, including localised KRE dynamics, the perpetrators and in some cases, the victim.
It is possible to identify broad trends when it comes to perpetrators and incident types. For instance, a foreign victim abducted by an Islamist extremist group in Yemen or Syria, will likely be held for a far longer period than an individual taken by a criminal element in Nigeria or Mexico.
Groups which conduct kidnappings for ideological and financial motives, such as extremist groups, have a lot invested in their hostages, and are keen to see that financial return. Thus, although incident durations may last several years, positive outcomes are possible.
When you come to criminal groups, who may be inexperienced, things can quickly go wrong. Such was the case with the kidnapping of the German teenager you mentioned – the perpetrators were inexperienced and ill-prepared for the police and media scrutiny following the abduction. Unfortunately they killed the victim despite her family’s agreement to pay a ransom, as they were worried they would be identified by her if they released her.
Other recent high-profile abductions of wealthy individuals by criminal groups have, however, had positive resolutions – due in part to the experience/conduct of the criminals themselves – the kidnapping of the son of Wurth CEO in Germany in 2015, and the abduction of Bernie Ecclestone’s mother-in-law in Brazil in 2016 come to mind.
STM: Thank you, that is really interesting to know. Moving on to elsewhere in South America, which other countries are of concern when it comes to kidnapping?
NE: I think Brazil and Venezuela are worth touching on. Short-term express kidnapping and traditional kidnap for ransom continue to pose a credible security threat to locals and foreigners in Venezuela, and the risk appears to be increasing due to the country’s deteriorating political and economic situation. The mounting economic crisis has resulted in increasing criminal activity and corruption, which has in turn facilitated the spread of kidnapping activity from the border areas into the rest of the country, including the capital, Caracas, which was particularly hard hit by short- and longer-term kidnapping activity in 2016.
STM: Much agreement from here. The security situation in Venezuela seems to be deteriorating by the day. Last week we reported that several oil companies are evacuating expat staff from the country. Are there any notable K+R cases in Venezuela that you think readers should be aware of? Do you have any advice for people travelling to the country?
NE: Most importantly, individuals planning travel to Venezuela need to recognise that it is a high-risk operating environment. Carjackings, express kidnappings and kidnaps for ransom are a regular occurrence in Caracas and other large cities.
Furthermore, the kidnapping threat from armed groups, both guerrilla and criminal, remains elevated in many of the western states, including in oil-rich areas. Persons planning travel to Venezuela should be cognisant of the various security threats in the country and plan their itinerary and security precautions accordingly.
In terms of recent kidnapping cases, the first that comes to mind is the abduction of the 14-year-old son of prominent local musician and basketball player, Juan Manaure, in Caracas in December 2016. This devastating kidnapping played out on social media as the victim’s father documented his search to recover his son, who had been kidnapped from his grandmother’s house, on Twitter. According to unverified reports, Manuare received a ransom demand of approximately US$30 million from the kidnappers several days after the abduction; however, further communication from the perpetrators ceased shortly afterwards. Several suspects were arrested, including the boyfriend of a member of the Manuare family, and on 15 February 2017, one of the suspects led police to a forest in Chuspica, Miranda state, where the body of the teenage boy was discovered in a shallow grave. It is believed he was killed only a few days after being abducted.
STM: I remember that case – it was heartbreaking to follow.
NE: It was awful, and unfortunately points to three trends within the regional KRE dynamic; the frequent involvement of persons known to the victim in the crime; the potential for negative outcomes (despite agreements to meet ransom demands); and the possibility that perpetrators may continue to bargain for a financial settlement once a victim is deceased.
STM: It would seem that the lack of reliable law and order is a large factor behind the prevalence of KRE incidents in the region. Are there any easy fixes for this, or is it a case of rebuilding the law enforcement and justice sectors?
NE: Yes, that is definitely true of the KRE dynamic within parts of South and Central America, where high levels of corruption have contributed to increased criminal and kidnapping activity. In countries such as Venezuela and Mexico for instance, it is widely accepted that upwards of 20 percent of kidnappings occur with police/government official involvement, collusion or knowledge. But corruption is just one contributory factor.
In addition to strengthening the law enforcement and justice sectors, efforts at tackling kidnapping threats, authorities also need to focus on other contributing factors, such as high unemployment levels and economic challenges. Further compounding matters is the continued evolution of kidnapping tactics within the region. Kidnappers have become adept at changing their tactics in response to police action against them and technological developments.
STM: A frustrating and complicated problem that continues to have a devastating impact. How about Brazil?
NE: In areas of Brazil, persistent high levels of crime and corruption, endemic gang activity and in many cases police violence, continue to contribute to a high kidnapping threat. The risk is predominantly urban and largely stems from short-term express kidnappings and extortion, rather than traditional KRE. However, several well-publicised kidnappings for ransom of high-profile locals and foreign nationals during 2016, including the kidnapping of Bernie Ecclestone’s mother-in-law, highlight the enduring KRE threat in urban centres, particularly in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
STM: Moving further south , there been a couple of cases of officials being held hostage in land disputes (in Peru, in Ecuador) and amid water shortages (Bolivia). How would you rate the K+R threat to expats working on these projects?
NE: Short-term detentions related to politically motivated and/or communal protest activity are a common occurrence in a number of medium- and lower kidnap-risk countries in South America. Locals, particularly government officials, are most likely to be affected by these types of protests; however, the risk does extend to foreign business personnel in operating environments such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Paraguay, as well as tourists. The threat is largely an inadvertent one, with foreigners being trapped in protest action and subsequently detained, sometimes for up to several days at a time.
However, the threat may be more specific and the victims’ directly targeted. This is often the case when detained individuals are employed by a company involved or perceived to be involved in the dispute which has motivated the protests. In these cases, short-term detentions by community members may extend until the disputes are resolved, potentially
posing an obstacle to business continuity and employee safety.
STM: Thank you, that’s really interesting to know.
South America remains a popular tourist destination, especially with younger people. I have friends who’ve visited Colombia, Venezuela and backpacked around Brazil. How would you rate the KRE threat in these countries to backpackers?
NE: In broad terms, backpackers will be subject to the existing baseline kidnapping threat in each country they travel through. As such, the risks they will face will likely vary considerably according to location. They may also face a marginally elevated threat due to the extended duration of their stay in certain areas and their presence in more rural areas. The risk of being abducted will be highly dependent on their travel routes and personal situational awareness.
There have been a number of kidnapping and detention incidents involving backpackers in Central and South America in recent years, including the recent detention, robbery and assault of a group of Australian backpackers travelling on a tour bus through Guatemala.
There are many pre-emptive things that young travellers can do to mitigate the risk of kidnapping, including pre-travel research and risk assessment of areas in which they plan to travel through. If possible, travellers should avoid travelling through higher-risk areas. Selecting appropriate travel insurance is also important. Once in-country, travellers should be aware of their surroundings and modify behaviour accordingly.
Editor’s note – The case of the Australians who were robbed at gunpoint in Guatemala is notable because the couple had seemingly taken the steps Nicole outlines. We would like to add that if you are headed overseas, please make sure you have appropriate travel insurance. If you are headed to an area with a known KRE risk, strongly consider specialist insurance.
STM: Before we wrap up this session, are there any other K+R cases, trends or developments in the Americas that we should discuss?
NE: I think the increase in virtual kidnapping incidents is worth discussing a bit further, as it is really proliferating across the region, including in low kidnap risk locations such as the US and Canada. This is mainly because of the anonymous and reduced-risk nature of the crime form.
Although the rewards of virtual kidnapping are reduced in comparison to traditional KRE, the relatively low risks of detection make them attractive to a myriad of criminal entities motivated by quick access to financial gain.
In 2016, virtual kidnapping activity was reported in many areas of the US, including in California, Colorado, Nevada, Maine and Texas. To date, the majority of virtual kidnapping scams in the Americas region have been fairly unsophisticated, with calls largely emanating from individuals in South American countries, and low ransom demands. However, there is potential for an evolution in tactics in 2017, which may include an increasing cybercrime element, with pre-incident surveillance of potential victims via social networking platforms, and hybrid incidents, which combine traits of virtual kidnapping and KRE, coming to the fore. This type of hybrid virtual kidnapping, in which the telephonic scam is bolstered by a physical element, is already prevalent in countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela. The case involving two Chilean tourists in Mexico’s Chiapas state in July 2016, is a good example of this type of hybrid virtual kidnapping.
STM: Very interesting – will be reading up on that!
Nicole, thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise – both are very much appreciated.
If you would like to find out more about red24, you can do so by following them on Twitter, LinkedIn or signing up for their reports via their website. red24 offer a wide range of services and products – click here to find out more.
In our next #KRQA we will be covering Europe, Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia, and then later the Middle East and North Africa. If you have any questions you would like to ask Nicole, please send them to email@example.com.
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