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Kidnapping in Colombia

In jest kidnapping has been called Latin America’s fastest growing industry. While there’s nothing funny about it for the victims of their families it cannot be denied as something of a social phenomenon. Last year in Colombia alone the number of hostage taken hit an all time high of 3000 and the moneyed classes find themselves paying protection money to avoid being targeted.

In jest kidnapping has been called Latin America’s fastest growing industry. While there’s nothing funny about it for the victims of their families it cannot be denied as something of a social phenomenon. Last year in Colombia alone the number of hostage taken hit an all time high of 3000 and the moneyed classes find themselves paying protection money to avoid being targeted.

From an objective point of view kidnapping is one of the most democratic forms of crime in that almost anyone can do it. A thug needs no more than a gun or even a knife to take someone hostage and the families of the victim are often too scared to approach the police. There’s less rick involved than say, robbing a bank and, depending on the wealth of the hostage, it’s potentially just as profitable. The potential for easy money has given rise to the synonym in Colombia ‘fishing for miracles’.

Probably the majority of kidnapping that takes place in Colombia is conducted by the guerilla rebels in the countryside and they especially target people traveling on the highways. Anyone working for a multinational company or foreign government tops the list of desired targets and all such people will generally have a team of bodyguards with machine guns whenever in an exposed zone.

But that won’t help much when the other side has bigger guns than you. Last year in Brazil a businesswoman was abducted when she flew in from the US to visit family in Sao Paulo. The kidnappers had checked out her bank balance and the times of her flight and were waiting for her when she landed. They stormed the airport and whisked her away, bodyguards, airport police and army units not withstanding.

I recently met someone in Bogota whose father had been kidnapped and held hostage for six months whilst his abductors extorted all they could from the chain of restaurants and apartments that he owned. When he was released he at once sought the help of a team of lawyers in an effort to salvage his business assets. The guerillas that had taken him took exception to this and one day when he exited one of his restaurants they shot him dead. His family now are scared to walk the streets.

It seems that in Colombia it’s not the best of ideas to advertise your wealth. While the middle classes dress up in an effort to appear successful, many of the rich wear old, simple clothes in public so as to pass unnoticed.

“I never pay for anything with my credit card,” An old American resident told me, “The gangs have people working in the banks and supermarkets to identify people who are worth abducting. They’ll kidnap you and then phone the guerillas to see if they can sell you on.”

Like a freelance kidnapping agency. In fact, I heard of a French woman who, upon being released by her enriched captors, recognized one of them some weeks later working behind the counter of a local supermarket. She was warned not to say a word if she valued her life.

Part of the reason for the surge in kidnapping in Latin America is that the distribution of wealth here is loaded more heavily in favor of the rich than perhaps anywhere on the planet. Around the big cities the slums stretch for miles and are often zones where the police and ambulances dare not enter. Meanwhile the wealthy live live of comparative luxury in suburbs with high walls to keep out the view of the poor. It’s not right but it’s understandable that the poor look for any and every way to grab a piece of the pie for themselves.

But more and more it’s not people with cars and speedboats who are most at risk but rather just ordinary working people whose family might be able to scrape together a thousand dollars if they sell most of what they own. They’re easier to target and easier to intimidate.

Whenever anyone asks me about my family I tell them that i’ve lost contact with them completely. I let them know that i only just scrape a living by teaching private English classes and I maintain an appearance that borders on the disheveled. A good dose of paranoia is definitely beneficial for one’s health in Colombia. You never do really know who you’re talking to.

But however poor I Might try to appear a foreigner means dollars here. The would-be abductors know that family in Europe could probably sell their car or take out a loan in a pinch. There are certain outlying neighborhoods that I have to avoid and though some tourists do travel through the country by bus, I think they need their heads examined.

I met a Dutch guy the other day who came within seconds of being kidnapped; he was on his bicycle at a traffic light when he heard someone behind him giving his exact description on a walkie talkie:

“He’s wearing a red jacket, blue jeans and he’s on a bicycle heading west on the Central Orient.” He at once realized what was about to happen and sped forwards through the red light, weaving his way like a madman through the traffic. He only stopped cycling some twenty minutes later, collapsing behind a bush and unable to hear anything above the frantic beating of his heart.

Kidnapping in Colombia has everything to do with the war and men with guns. Maintaining an armed campaign isn’t cheap and it’s a good sideline to trafficking in coke. When the home minister of Colombia recently announced that he would put an end to coke production for once and for all everyone winced. Not that anyone believed he would achieve his aim but if he made it harder to smuggle drugs then the guerillas would step up the hostage taking. They have to pay for the guns somehow.

Perhaps the scariest thing about kidnapping is that it’s no longer about what you have in your pockets. I used to think that if i wasn’t wearing an expensive watch, gold jewelry or carrying a bunch of credit cards then no thief would take an interest in me. I didn’t consider that my freedom itself could be stolen. It’s difficult to grasp that the colour of my skin and British roots could be a target in themselves.

Provided that one takes precautions and listens to local advice the chances of being kidnapped are pretty slim. For now. It’s a risk just being here and no one knows what violent turn the 58 year old hostilities might take next.