In early 1970s, leftist guerrillas in Argentina discovered a new way to make money, kidnap millionaires. Panicking firms would agree to huge ransoms, more concerned with freeing their executives than driving down the fee. This, however, is not a new way to make money. Kidnap for ransom has been seen countless times in history, ranging from nomad tribes, the 1800s, all the way to present day. Children, CEO’s, missionaries, migrants, and other innocent people are taken from their families as a criminal group’s idea of a quick buck. This paper will examine the criminal enterprise of kidnap for ransom, the historical origins of the crime, the different organized crime groups that commit kidnap for ransom, global trends, and a criminological theory that attempts to explain why criminal commit kidnap for ransom.
Kidnapping for Ransom: A Criminal Enterprise
The term “kidnapping” refers to the taking or abduction of an individual against his or her will, usually followed by some duration of captivity (Kim, 2018). When one hears someone was kidnapped, they assume the individual is child. That is a fair assumption since every 40 seconds, a child goes missing in the US and it is estimated approximately 1,500 of those children who go missing are victim of a kidnapping (Kim, 2018). However, there are times when adults are the ones who are kidnapped. An individual may be kidnapped for several reasons, but the most common are for a demand of ransom payment or as a political terrorist event.
There are many different types of kidnapping, such as tiger kidnapping, political kidnapping, and virtual kidnapping. To briefly describe these types of kidnapping, tiger kidnapping is when a hostage is coerced into committing a desired action for the criminal/criminal group. For example, the hostage may have to open a bank vault for the criminal to rob a bank or open an office after hours so they can access the building to commit their crime. Political kidnapping occurs when the hostage is taken for political or ideological impact. These hostages may be bargaining chips for prisoner release or propaganda purposes. Lastly, virtual kidnapping is when the hostage is never actually physically taken and is typically a scam. In most cases, the criminal calls a family member or employer, stating they have the person and need the money to release them; however, the individual they claim to have is not actually there (OSAC, 2017).
Kidnapping for ransom, however, involves the criminal/criminal group leveraging the hostage in order to receive a payment from their family, employer, or country in exchange for their release. Kidnapping for ransom is a major source of income for criminal gangs or people in certain countries that rely on the ransom money to finance their operations. Ransom kidnappings are on the rise worldwide and are so common in certain regions that local companies and criminal groups have a mutually agreed- upon “market price” for kidnapping ransoms. Foreigners especially are targeted due to their assumed high relative wealth and the incentive of a large government ransom payment (OSAC, 2017).
Originating Country and History
Stories of individuals being kidnapped and laws put in place to deter kidnappings have been found as far back as three thousand years, where it was written in ancient Jewish law that anyone who kidnaps another individual and either sells them/has them when he is caught must be put to death. The earliest English kidnapping law that could be found was called ‘plagium’ and it was punishable by death. Also, the term kidnapping is said to have become prominent in English law in the late 1600s, where it referred to the abduction of persons who were transported to the North American colonies for slavery. The focus of these early laws seems to be focusing on the transportation of someone against their will to a different place. Granted, given how travel was in the 1600s, being taken to another region was likely to be a permanent move, so it is not absurd for the focus to be on transportation rather than the actual taking of an individual (n.a., 2019).
While that history does not specifically mention ransom money being utilized, more research was conducted to find the first uses of ransom notes in history. It was found that in 1874, two boys were taken from their home in Philadelphia. That day, one of the boys was given back to the parents; however, the other boy was not, at which time the ransom notes started coming. In 2013, a librarian in Philadelphia found the twenty-two letters addressed to Christian Ross, demanding he give them $20,000 dollars for their son’s release (Hagen, 2013). Again, this does not necessarily display the exact origins of a ransom note since one can assume there were other cases of this well before the 1800s. However, this does demonstrate the first known, documented case of ransom notes being used for a kidnapping in America.
Transnational Crime Groups Engaging in Kidnapping for Ransom
This section will discuss different organized crime groups that have engaged and/or still engage in kidnapping for ransom. These few groups mentioned are not the only ones that currently engage in this criminal behavior; however, these are the groups that have recently made national headlines for committing kidnapping for ransom crimes.
Drug Cartel Gangs in Mexico
Gang violence in Mexico and many other South American countries is, unfortunately, becoming something people cannot escape. Taking matters into their own hands, they are fleeing their own country in hopes of finding a safer place for themselves and their families. Sadly, their good intentions are sometimes taken advantage of by drug cartels looking to make money. Recently, one hundred members of the migrant caravan traveling through Mexico were kidnapped by the Zetas gang, one of the most powerful criminal gangs in Mexico. After kidnapping the migrants, the gang members call their family, some of which already made it to America, and extort them for money to fuel their enterprise (Bonello, 2018).
Kidnappings for ransom have increased over the recent years in Russia, especially among the elite or rich. Viktoria Teslyuk, the daughter of a top executive at Russia’s biggest privately-owned oil company, was kidnapped on her way to a tutoring session and was later found dead. Around this same time, Ivan Kaspersky, the son of the founder of a leading computer security company, was kidnapped on his way to work. Shortly after his disappearance, the kidnappers demanded 3 million euro as ransom (Elder, 2011). These kidnappings for ransom were not found to be criminal organizations; however, there are cases of such happening, such as when five bodies were found in Southern California. The five people, who were of Russian descent, were kidnapped as a part of a kidnap-murder plot that was linked to the Russian mafia in 2002 (Feldman, 2002).
The thought of you, or one of you family members, being kidnapped can be enough for people to not want to travel or leave the comfort of their own home. For those individuals who have large assets, are working for a large corporation, are a political diplomat, etc., there are ways to protect yourself and your family in the event of being kidnapped. Kidnap insurance can be purchased by individuals, corporations, missionary groups, financial institutions, etc. This insurance, unfortunately, does not actually protect you from being kidnapped; however, it is designed to reimburse you the loss of the ransom paid to the kidnapper. As mentioned in the award-winning Vanity Fair article that discusses the K&R trade, the cost of insurance can be steep, ranging from $4000 dollars a day when the negotiating begins (Prochnau, 1998).
Rational Choice Theory (RCT) is one criminological theory that attempts to explain why an individual decides to commit a kidnap for ransom crime. RCT assumes individuals are rational, self-interested beings that are affected by the consequences of their actions. This theory stated individuals who choose to commit a crime choose to because they believe the rewards will outweigh the consequences and they will be able to gain their reward faster than engaging in non-criminal behavior (Akers, 2013). When examining kidnapping for ransom, one can see how the rewards could outweigh the consequences. If the kidnapper is good with technology or knows how to thoroughly hide their identity, there is a high chance they might not get caught, especially once they have their ransom money and there is no more need for the kidnapped individual. There have also been many cases where the kidnappers were never found, which fuels the assumption that they will not be caught and makes it more enticing to commit a kidnap for ransom crime.
Kidnapping is a global and historic issue in many parts of the world and many governments are doing as much as they can to ensure that the kidnappers are captured and punished. However, there are so many different criminal organizations that have/can commit this crime, as well as many different reasons why they could kidnap someone for ransom, making it difficult for law enforcement and government to combat this. As more light is shed on these acts of crime, societies should take it upon themselves to look into how they can help aide in the solution for this major transnational issue.
Akers, R. (2013). Criminological Theories. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Bonello, D. (2018). 100 people ‘kidnapped’ from migrant caravan by drug cartels in Mexico. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/11/06/100-people-kidnapped- migrant-caravan-drug-cartels-mexico/
Elder, M. (2011). Kidnappings scare rich Russian parents. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2011-05-06/kidnappings-scare-rich-russian-parents
Feldman, C. (2002). Five California bodies linked to Russian Mafia – March 21, 2002. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/03/21/kidnap.murder.plot/index.html
Kim, P. (2018). Kidnapping Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.creditdonkey.com/kidnapping-statistics.html
Hagen, C. (2013). The Story Behind the First Ransom Note in American History. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-story-behind-the-first-ransom-note-in- american-history-180948612/n.a.
(2019). Kidnapping – Origins of The Offense In English Law. Retrieved from http://law.jrank.org/pages/1552/Kidnapping-Origins-offense-in-English-law.html
OSAC. (2017). Kidnapping. Retrieved from https://www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=21732
Prochnau, W. (1998). Adventures in the Ransom Trade. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2018/04/adventures-in-the-ransom-trade