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Latin America: Kidnapped! Personal security in Latin America

Rodrigo Amaral is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

Comparatively few Western business owners feel the need to invest in personal security against the threat of kidnap but in Latin America, the threat is all too real. Rodrigo Amaral delves into this murky world and assesses how it can be avoided

It took 26 days of painful negotiations for Franco Andreola, an entrepreneur in the transport sector, to regain his freedom after he was kidnapped by a criminal gang in Buenos Aires. The payment of the ransom was an elaborate affair. A friend was ordered to take a train and, once inside the wagon, received a call on his mobile phone telling him to throw a bag with $200,000 through the window at a specific location. The delivery of the money was set up after four previous rehearsals, and, while in captivity, Andreola was forced to record tapes that would be sent to his family to show he was alive.

Andreloa was released on a small road some 65km north-west of the Argentinean capital. A little nervous and disorientated, he struggled to contact the authorities and return to his family. Andreola came out of his ordeal in good health, but he might well be justified in complaining of bad luck. After all, once released, he revealed that the real target of the gang was a fellow businessman who was having dinner with him on the night of the kidnapping.

Agribusiness entrepreneur Francisco White wasn't as lucky. Kidnapped a few days after Andreola, he was found dead three weeks later. Both stories illustrate a sad fact that Argentineans have been forced to realise in the current decade: a steep rise in the number of kidnappings. Although it was once much safer than its neighbouring countries, Argentina has been catching up in the violence and criminality league tables. Today, kidnappings are the most terrifying threat to the security of business families in the country – statistics show that one Argentinean is victim of this kind of crime every two days.

The numbers are far from unusual in the region; if anything, they are much lower than in Mexico, Colombia, or Brazil. Wealthy families all around the subcontinent have been taking strong measures to protect themselves, sometimes hampering their freedom of movement and limiting the range of activities they can undertake in their daily lives.

Rebel forces
They also have to adapt themselves to the particularities of criminal groups active in every country. They vary from left-wing terrorist groups to sophisticated organised crime gangs, but more often than not are unpredictable petty criminals. This is by no means a consolation to potential victims as experts say that professionals are much less likely to cut fingers or ears out and send them to families of victims than the amateurs.

"Kidnapping for ransom is the most serious security threat faced by business owners in Latin America today," says Wesley Odom Jr, associate managing director of the Ackerman Group, an American firm that provides consultancy on security issues for several companies and individuals in Latin America. "And Mexico has overtaken Colombia as the kidnap capital of the world." Odom estimates that over 2,000 kidnapping cases were registered in Mexico last year.

Not all of them targeted business owners – being wealthy is not a necessary requirement to catch the attention of Latin American criminals, as is attested by the widespread wave of "express kidnappings", where the victims, often middle class people, are taken on a tour of ATMs to withdraw all the money they can. But business families tend to attract more attention from the real professionals in the business.

Many organised kidnapping gangs have been disbanded by security forces, but some still remain active. In countries like Colombia, for instance, business owners are targeted by left-wing militant groups that for some time have blurred the line between revolutionary and criminal activities. Both FARC and ELN, the two main such groups, run highly organised and sophisticated kidnapping machines. They are also accused of involvement with drug trafficking and have helped to spread the "kidnapping for ransom" problem to neighbouring countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela.

But things have been looking up in Colombia of late. "There used to be between 2,000 and 3,500 kidnappings a year there, but now the numbers have dropped to 600–800," Odom remarks. "The risk remains pretty high, but is restricted to some particular regions of the country. Rural areas are more dangerous, but it is still not unusual for businessmen in cities like Bogotá, Medellin or Cali to take extreme precautions when they leave home."

He attributes the reduction in the number of kidnappings, primarily in Colombia, to hard line but effective security policies being deployed by president Alvaro Uribe. The opposite has happened in Brazil, where the security apparatus has been unable to cope with the increase in crime rates, according to José Jacobson Neto, vice-president of Grupo GP, a São Paulo-based security group. "Kidnapping is a problem in São Paulo, where much of the country's wealth is concentrated and where there are a lot of slums where hostages can be hidden from the authorities," he says. "But it is becoming more common in cities like Fortaleza Recife, Porto Alegre, Curitiba and others as well." Curiously, in Rio de Janeiro, where crime rates are famously high, kidnapping is not much of an issue, but that may be because powerful drug traffic gangs don't want authorities to have any more reasons to storm the city's slums.

Many families have opted to buy insurance policies against kidnapping and ransom as a way to ensure extra protection. But these products, usually purchased from American or European insurers, are not always well regarded by local authorities, who fear insurance can hamper their efforts against kidnappers by making it more likely that ransom will be paid. Some security experts don't recommend such policies either. "They end up being an additional draw for criminals," Jacobson says.

Prevention is better than cure
The emphasis of the advice to wealthy families is therefore laid on prevention. Clients are advised not to adopt routines – for instance, taking different routes to go to work every day and riding different vehicles on alternate days. "We try to throw a degree of unpredictability into our client's pattern of behaviour," says William Daly, head of the New York office of Control Risks, which advises several dozens of individuals in Latin America on security issues. "Our hope is that when criminals see that our clients are difficult targets, they move to other targets."

To drive with the car windows closed and doors locked is a basic requirement, and those who can afford it often opt to move around in armoured cars or even helicopters. Security awareness training sessions are provided by companies like Control Risks, and such measures usually extend to partners, children and other relatives of the client, Daly says. Domestic staff must be submitted to extensive periodical background checks, should be paid fairly and treated well to create a feeling of loyalty to employers, he adds.

Due to the demand by individuals and companies who want to avoid problems, the private security business is thriving in several countries. Grupo GP, for instance, employs 13,500 people in six Brazilian states, 500 of whom are highly trained bodyguards. The cost of private security is commonly around $9,900 a month for a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week post, according to Jacobson.

While kidnapping is the most serious security threat to business families in the region, being the victim of a pickpocket and other small-scale crimes are sometimes seen as justified in countries where income distribution patterns are hugely unbalanced. However, the most common threat is burglary or home invasion.

Experts make a number of recommendations for families to protect themselves from being harmed by invading criminals. "We usually recommend that families have a 'safe haven' in their home," says Odom. "It is basically a room isolated with fortified doors and with other precautions available, where the family can convene if a burglar gets into the home and call the police. That is the most effective way to protect the family, we don't recommend the use of weapons or firearms."

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