Perhaps no other crime is as indicative of failed criminal justice as kidnap for ransom. Kidnap for ransom, or K&R, is complicated. Relative to other crimes, K&R requires planning, time, partners, and complicated logistics to hold someone. And while in the movies K&R results in massive ransom payments, most K&R yields no more than the local maximum for an ATM withdrawal.
Kidnap for ransom is holding someone against their will in exchange for some benefit (usually monetary) that is usually derived form a third party (friend, loved one, family, employer). K&R is different from kidnap. K&R is a form of extortion where failure to comply with some instructions will, according to the kidnappers, lead to some highly undesirable outcome.
Most of what we see in the United States are kidnaps without ransom where the motivation is usually sexually motivated or motivated by child custody. K&R is virtually non-existent in the United States due to high probability that the perpetrators will get caught. Even a kidnapper with a very well thought out plan, is going to know that Americans will typically involve law enforcement despite threats or compulsions made by the kidnappers.
As we covered in Doing Business in Reynosa, most Americans going to Reynosa are visiting industrial parks or factories which are known locally as maquiladoras. And while consultants, typically those offering shelter programs, will have a tendency to downplay the security risks in Reynosa, there are definite dynamics in play that visitors should consider.
K&R thrives when you have a population of people willing to pay ransoms and weak or complicit law enforcement. Think of the United States. If a family member was kidnapped, most Americans would not assume that law enforcement is involved, nor would they hesitate to call the police for help even if the kidnappers demanded they avoid police. Even the famous Cheshire, CT, home invasion murders, the mother even risked her life to pass a note to a bank teller because she, one can presume, assumed that once police had the message their actions would give the family a better chance of survival than complying with the criminals. Reynosa, Mexico is very different as very few, if any, locals would presume that any good would come from involving the authorities.
Like much of the Northern Border in Mexico, local law enforcement is effectively neutered and untrusted by the locals. If a loved one is kidnapped, a call to the police is not made. There is a trusted federal police unit that targets kidnap, but whether people trust this unit to be effective is another story – especially as the cartels have successfully gone after these special police before.
Before talking about Reynosa or kidnaps in the state of Tamaulipas, it is important to get an understanding of the types of kidnap for ransom that are common in Mexico.
Kidnap for ransom or K&R. K&R is a form of extortion. A person or person’s are held, physically, against their will while the kidnappers try to extract something from a third-party which is usually friends, loved ones, or an employer.
Oftentimes, what looks like a politically motivated kidnap, where the kidnappers are demanding, for example, a change in public policy, release of political prisoners, or some other concession, are in fact K&R. In these cases, the kidnappers are trying to increase their leverage and political demands can create pressure or potentially even support that may ultimately help create bargaining power for the kidnappers.
In America, we rarely hear about K&R outside of the movies. Americans, however, are kidnapped overseas but most cases never make the newspapers. The FBI, or consultants employed to help with the negotiation, stress to the families the need to keep the cases out of the media.
Express kidnaps. Express kidnaps are very short duration kidnaps where the main intent is to maximize return over a very short period. In many cases, no ransom demand is made to a third party but rather the kidnappers get the victim to produce any cash or valuables they can which usually involves maximum withdrawals from an ATM. In some cases, the victim is held from one day to the next, so the kidnappers can get two days-worth of ATM withdrawals.
Virtual kidnaps. In a virtual kidnap the idea is not to take possession of a victim, but rather convince a third party that someone else has been kidnapped and then demand a ransom for their return.
The “kidnappers” rely on confusion and the likelihood that the third party won’t have the time or ability to verify that the person is missing. Imagine someone calling you and telling you the have your spouse and that they will be killed if you don’t wire money in two hours. You call your spouse and he doesn’t answer. And while someone not answering their phone might be totally normal (it is with my wife!) at this moment of panic, many people are going to comply – or at least enough people will comply to make this a worthwhile effort.
Many virtual kidnaps are conducted by prisoners who scour phone books which is why virtual kidnaps typically impact locals.
Virtual kidnap 2.0. This one is going to sound very strange and most people’s initial reaction is that they would never be a victim of virtual kidnap 2.0, but they work and they work against intelligent people. In a virtual kidnap 2.0 the perpetrators hold some against their will by convincing them creating a narrative that there are external dangers that only the perpetrator can help you avoid.
Here’s how it might work. You are sitting in your hotel room in Reynosa, and you receive a call to your room phone from the local police chief who tells you that there is a criminal in the hotel and the police are going to sweep the hotel. He tells you to close your curtains and get on the floor. He sounds professional so you comply to the point and even given him your cell phone number and name.
At this point, every sound you hear is going to reinforce this narrative – the car doors you hear closing outside, room doors opening, etc. will all be evidence in your mind that the sweep is happening. He makes other calls and provide you more information that strengthen your trust in him.
Later he calls back and tells you that there has been a problem with the operation and that they are going to quietly escort the expats out of the hotel. He tells you a taxi is waiting for you out front – just for you and that you need to go to an address. And like most hotels, there is a hotel out front but to you this is further evidence that this is real.
The address you go to is a convenience store that sells phone cards. You call from the convenience store and he instructs you to load up a phone card with $200USD and read him the serial number as he needs to call you on a non-police phone in the future because his department is infiltrated.
This scam goes on and on and until the victim gets wise to the scam. If you think you would never become a victim to a scam like this just keep in mind how irrational and tunneled in our vision, we can get when we perceive danger and start relying on our lizard brain. The scenario could take many forms and when we go to a foreign country we have lost our frame of reference.
While it is difficult to get statistics on kidnaps specifically in Reynosa, it is hotbed of kidnap in a country where kidnap is rife. When the military cracks down on the cartels and disrupts their profits in the drug trade, the incidence of kidnaps go up.
Virtual kidnaps and virtual kidnaps 2.0 are unlikely to impact travelers to Reynosa unless they are staying in a hotel (something we at Anjin Secure Car don’t recommend).
Most K&R impacts locals and because of the lack of reporting to law enforcement the actual numbers, in place like Reynosa are hard to pin point. In 2014, the Association to Stop Kidnapping (Asociacion Alto al Secuestro) put the figures for all of Mexico at 76 per day.
Even a staggering figure needs context. One way to look at these figures is to consider that 29 million Americans travel to Mexico every year and that most K&R impacts locals, statistically you are very unlikely to be kidnapped. However, this is not the takeaway. Imagine someone telling you that 1 out of million drivers in Vermont get into an ice related vehicle accident. You wouldn’t assume this is rolling the dice. Instead, you would look at the risk of having an accident as highly dependent on how you drive. K&R is no different.
Reynosa, Mexico is going through some very complicated times to say the least! Not only are cartels vying for control, but you have military operations underway. These factors have created chaos. Much of this chaos has slowed down the flow of visitors so while the risk of K&R has gone up the number of foreign targets has gone down. But that doesn’t mean that your individual risk has gone down should you decide to rent a car and driver yourself down there.
For more information on Reynosa, please see Doing Business in Reynosa where cover more general considerations.