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Kidnappings Plummet as Colombia's Conflict Changes

Colombia's sharp decline in kidnapping in the last decade Colombia's sharp decline in kidnapping in the last decade

A new report shows how the number of kidnappings carried out by Colombia's illegal armed groups has nosedived over the last 10 years, corresponding to the changing dynamics of the country's conflict.

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In 2003, 2,122 people were kidnapped in Colombia, a rate of nearly six a day. By 2012, this had fallen 85 percent to 305 -- just under six a week -- according to the report from Colombian NGO Pais Libre. The number of people kidnapped fell dramatically between 2003 and 2007 (see Pais Libre's graph, below), but rose by 43 percent between 2009 and 2011, which also saw 305 kidnappings.kidnapping graph1

The role of common crime has increased, while that of illegal armed groups has diminished. Over a third of kidnappings over the 10 years were carried out by common criminals, a figure that rises to 85 percent for 2012.

Colombia's biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was responsible for nearly a quarter of cases in the 10-year period, but just 7 percent in 2012, while the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) was behind 11.5 percent of the kidnappings over the decade, and 7 percent of those in 2012 (see Pais Libre's graph, below, with common crime listed under "Delco").

The paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) were responsible for 5 percent of kidnapping cases over the decade, despite officially demobilizing by 2006. Their successors in the new generation of criminal organizations labelled by the government as BACRIM (from the Spanish for criminal bands) accounted for 1.3 percent of cases. This is growing -- in 2012, 2 percent of cases were attributed to the BACRIM.

kidnapping graph2

Over half the kidnappings were classified as being for extortion, while 42 percent were "simple" kidnappings -- for political leverage, publicity, or other reasons not involving ransom demands.

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Once renowned as the kidnapping capital of the world, Colombia has made dramatic progress in reducing the number of cases over the last decade.

Much of this can be attributed to the country's military success in its war against guerrilla groups. In 2002, the FARC, and to a lesser extent the ELN, controlled large territories and transit routes, where they would set up roadblocks to carry out "miracle fishing" (la pesca milagrosa) -- randomly stopping vehicles in the hope of finding passengers rich enough to be worth kidnapping or extorting.

Since a military assault drove the guerrillas out of much of their territory, and increased security measures have helped secure the nation's main road networks, the guerrillas' capacity to carry out such kidnappings has diminished substantially.

Kidnapping has also become a less attractive proposition for the guerrillas. It is a deeply unpopular tactic and a public relations disaster for the guerrillas, while the economic benefits are now dwarfed by the money to be made in the drug trade. These, along with the possibility of peace talks, were likely contributing factors in the FARC's decision to renounce the practice of kidnapping for extortion last year, which accounts for the much reduced number of kidnappings attributed to the guerrillas in 2012.

Nevertheless, it should be noted the majority of kidnappings over the last decade, and much more so over the last few years, were carried out by common criminals, who are not subject to the sort of military and political pressures that helped secure a drop in guerrilla kidnappings.

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