Colombia was once the kidnap capital of the world, with eight reported abductions a day, but over the past 15 years that number has fallen to less than one a day. How did the country achieve this remarkable turnaround?
In the year 2000, Colombia was a country paralyzed by the threat of kidnapping. Guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) set up roadblocks on major highways and kidnapped travelers en masse. Others were targeted for their political beliefs or their wealth, while some merely happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To make matters worse, the state was barely present in vast swathes of the country, which meant that kidnappers could keep their victims hostage for years.
In 2000, 3,572 people were reported kidnapped. Nobody knows how many cases were never reported.
Then, the following year, kidnappings started to drop. By 2005, kidnappings were down to less than a third of their previous levels, and by 2010 there were only 282 kidnappings reported in Colombia. The number has more or less remained constant since then, with around 300 kidnappings reported during each of the last three years, according to data from the anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion agency, known as the GAULA. As of December 12, 2014, the GAULA had registered 277 kidnappings, which means the figures were on track to come in slightly below the 2013 total.
Now, when kidnappings do occur in Colombia, they look very different than they did in 2000. Whereas the guerrillas groups of the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) were responsible for an estimated 58 percent of kidnappings between 1970 and 2010, by 2012 — the year the FARC said they would stop kidnapping, as one of the conditions for beginning peace talks with the government — that number had dropped to 14 percent.
Common criminals are now the perpetrators of the overwhelming majority of kidnappings: 75 percent, based on the GAULA’s figures. Meanwhile, armed groups descended from right-wing paramilitaries, known as BACRIM (from the Spanish acronym for “criminal bands”) carry out just 2 percent of kidnappings, while the FARC and the ELN are responsible for the remaining 23 percent.
The profile of the typical kidnap victim has also changed. The police director of the GAULA, Colonel Fabio Lopez, told InSight Crime that ten years ago, criminal groups and illegal armed actors tended to target mainly wealthy individuals. “Before it was selective, [criminals] chose their victims more carefully,” he said. “Today anybody can be the target of a kidnapping and the ransoms aren’t as large.”
Patricia Rey — the Communications Coordinator at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Colombia — told InSight Crime that about a third of the kidnapping victims rescued by the ICRC in 2013 were members of Colombia’s security forces. She said the vast majority were also Colombian citizens, while only a small portion were foreign tourists and workers.
Regardless of the victim’s profession or nationality, the chances that he or she will be held captive for years — as was the case up until the early 2000s — are fairly slim. Colonel Lopez told InSight Crime that of the kidnappings that occurred between January and December 4, 2014, some 190 victims were held hostage for 30 days or less. Of those 190, 68 percent were only kidnapped for one or two days.
‘A Frontal Assault on Kidnapping’
According to a Ministry of Defense report, a large part of Colombia’s success in reducing kidnappings can be attributed to former President Alvaro Uribe’s policies. “Without a doubt, the key factor that allowed [the country] to achieve this success was the leadership and determination demonstrated by the Colombian government,” the report reads.
The report goes on to list a number of factors — including security forces retaking control of areas previously controlled by guerrilla groups, the creation of anti-kidnapping units, and legislation defending personal liberties — that the government credits with achieving the dramatic security success.
Colonel Lopez echoed this explanation. He said that the high kidnapping rate in the early 2000s prompted security forces to “adopt stronger measures” and launch “a frontal assault” against the crime. He also credited the creation of the GAULA in 1996.
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These factors undoubtedly played a significant role in reducing kidnappings. Once security forces retook control of major roads, guerrilla groups could no longer carry out the mass kidnappings they called “miracle fishing”. Greater territorial control also meant that it was harder for illegal armed groups and criminal organizations to hide their victims for years on end. Bombing raids kept guerrilla groups on the run, so lugging a kidnapping victim along became increasingly difficult.
At the same time, Colombia’s penal code broadened its definition of the crime, allowing the judiciary to prosecute different types of kidnapping. In 2008, for example, a type of robbery known as the “paseo millonario” (millionaire’s ride) — in which perpetrators force taxi passengers to go to the nearest ATM and withdraw money — was reclassified as “extortive kidnapping” under the law.
Discrepancies in the Numbers
However, some critics have cast a skeptical eye on Colombia’s steadily dropping kidnapping rate.
Until 2003, kidnapping figures were compiled and reviewed by a committee comprised of representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the now-defunct intelligence agency known as the DAS, the army, the president’s office, and non-governmental organization (NGO) Pais Libre.
In 2003, a year into Uribe’s presidency, the government ditched this system and adopted a new policy: only registering kidnappings in the official statistics when the Attorney General’s Office opened a case, according to Semana magazine. But it may take prosecutors up to four years to open an investigation into a kidnapping case, according to the magazine.
As a result, kidnapping figures from the Uribe administration are considerably different from those compiled by a government commission meant to investigate Colombia’s armed conflict — the National Center for Historic Memory (CNMH). Whereas the official figures show a total of 9,382 kidnapping victims during Uribe’s eight years in office, the commission found 15,537 — meaning that nearly forty percent of victims were not included in the official figures. While police reported 282 kidnappings in 2010, the National Center for Historic Memory counted 1,252, and Fondelibertad — the now defunct Defense Ministry office previously responsible for recording kidnappings statistics — counted 1,120.
Colonel Lopez told InSight Crime that kidnapping statistics are currently counted based on reported crimes, and that the figures are reviewed by a committee that includes representatives from several government entities. In response to a question about the methodology for measuring kidnapping statistics between 2003 and 2010, Colonel Lopez said kidnappings were taken from cases reported to the security forces.
Kidnapping Going Down; Extortion Going Up
Another reason for Colombia’s falling kidnapping rate is that illegal armed groups and common criminals now have fewer incentives to take people hostage. Kidnapping is not as lucrative as drug trafficking, and is riskier and requires more resources than other crimes like extortion.
“To kidnap someone you need an entire infrastructure including people to do the kidnapping and guard the victim, places to hide the victim, informants, food, etc.,” Maria Consuelo Jauregui, the Director of NGO Pais Libre, told InSight Crime. “To carry out extortion all you need is a disposable cellphone and information, nothing more.”
Although Jauregui believes that better law enforcement measures has made a difference, she said that another major factor behind falling kidnappings is that criminal actors and illegal armed groups “now prefer a different type of crime.”
“Kidnapping has migrated towards extortion,” she told InSight Crime.
Jauregui said that now when kidnappings do occur, they are sometimes used as a way to pressure companies into make extortion payments, rather than as a means of generating revenue in and of themselves. In the oil-rich state of Arauca, she said, there have been recent cases of oil company employees taken hostage by criminal groups, in order to pressure their employers into paying extortion fees.
This anecdotal evidence is supported by Pais Libre’s figures on “simple” kidnappings (in which no ransom is demanded) versus “extortive” kidnappings. Even as the number of kidnappings has remained relatively constant, the percentage of “simple” kidnappings rose between 2010 and 2013 after dropping significantly in 2009.
Overall, Pais Libre’s statistics show a rising number of extortion cases in Colombia, even as the NGO says that the crime is underreported by an estimated 90 percent. The GAULA’s figures (see graph below) show that extortion cases quadrupled between 2008 and 2013, from 830 cases to over 4,800.
Colonel Lopez also conceded that in Colombia, kidnapping might have transformed into extortion to some degree. “Extortion is easier to carry out,” he said, “so it’s possible it has transformed so that there are now more extortions than kidnappings, and that that’s why we’ve seen an increase in extortions.”
However, Colonel Lopez also said that the apparent increase could be the result of citizens having more confidence in the police. “It could be because people have lost their fear and are reporting [extortion] more,” he said.
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The GAULA is currently planning to create a virtual portal so Colombians can report extortion online. Meanwhile, Pais Libre is lobbying to have extortion reclassified as a crime against personal liberty, rather than simply a crime against a person’s assets. This would affect sentencing, making extortion riskier for criminal groups. Ultimately — as demonstrated by Colombia’s dramatic drop in kidnappings — criminal groups appear to make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis. Like any other for-profit organization, once one activity becomes too costly, they look for a different way to turn a profit.