A comprehensive study by the Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography reported that in 2012, there were 105, 682 kidnapping cases in Mexico. In the major cities of that country, there are on average about six kidnapping per day, per city. It’s been my experience that in high-risk countries like Mexico, the biggest kidnapping targets are foreign executives traveling abroad on business. Just why, and how, they are targeted is fairly easy to determine but, preventing the abductions, or reducing the damage, can be achieved with some preparation.

Why are executives targeted?

Executives make good targets for kidnappers. They are usually financially stable, increasing the potential that they have access to significant money. And, even more important to kidnappers, executives are connected to companies/corporations, seen as a prime source of ransom funds. Unfortunately, another reason executives are targeted is because they put themselves in bad situations. They are in the wrong place at the wrong time and the responsibility for that is theirs. Many times, I get calls from executives who have been extorted after being snatched from a bar or a show in an unsafe area of a city that they voluntarily visited or, they have engaged with a prostitute whose real goal is to give access to her accomplices who will then kidnap her client for money. Clearly, they are taking big risks with these activities for a number of reasons and, too frequently in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and many other Latin American countries, they pay for it.

How are executives targeted?

The kidnappers are usually looking for financial gain only, not to do any physical harm. They also don’t want a long, drawn out process that will keep the victim in their company for too long. The risk of attracting attention and the authorities increase with each passing minute/hour, so the quicker a kidnapper can get some money, the quicker they are to release the victim. They target executives with the assumption that their families and companies will be able to meet demands quickly. It can be easy to spot an executive, especially at an airport. They wear suits, watches, shined shoes, jewelry, tailored dresses. They carry an expensive looking briefcase. They have multiple electronic devices. And they often come off the plane first, having flown in First or Business Class. They may also have a car waiting for them with a driver holding a card with their name on it. Tourists and locals don’t usually make that kind of arrangement, neither will lower level company employees so, the executive has just alerted kidnappers of his importance.

In the high-risk countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador, the most common form of kidnapping is the “Express Kidnap.” This involves grabbing the executive and getting him/her quickly into a vehicle. The kidnappers then drive the victim to ATM machines, withdrawing as much as they can. Given that most banks now have a 24-hour withdrawal limit, victims are held for 2-3 days until it gets too risky for the kidnappers and then, the victim is released.

An extended form of Express Kidnapping is when the kidnappers discover that their victim is connected to a company/corporation by looking through his/her wallet to find a corporate credit card, a business card or any other thing that identifies who the executive is. When that happens, they will force the victim to call their family, tell them about the kidnapping and relate the kidnappers demands. Criminal who are experienced kidnappers will ask for a somewhat reasonable amount so that it can be raised easily and wired, usually in the range of $10,000 to $20,000, The company or family will be more likely to meet those demands, not wanting to risk harm to the victim by trying to negotiate.

How to prevent an executive kidnapping

They say knowledge is power and in this case, it certainly is. Knowing that the country you are visiting has a high level of kidnappings is the first step in preventing it from happening in the first place. The internet can be a good source for finding out the risk levels but, you can also contact the U.S. Embassy in the country you are visiting. Pinkerton’s global network is an outstanding resource that their clients use frequently to determine when, and if, to send executives to certain regions. Their alerts and analyst reports are a good source for tips on areas to avoid, places that are safe to stay/visit and other factors that could affect your safety.

Pre-plan your visit

The best advice I give my clients is to pre-plan their activities and make sure each location, and each way of getting to and from those locations, is part of the plan. Choose a hotel that has a good reputation and, if you visit often to the same city, mix it up and don’t stay at the same hotel twice in a row. Brand name hotels like Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton and other U.S. hotel company locations do offer safety but, are also more targeted since they attract an affluent American clientele. Ask your host for recommendations of a local hotel that has a low incident rate.

For ground transportation, simply hailing a cab off the street in Mexico City is NOT the same as New York City. Some cab drivers are waiting for someone like you to hail them and they have a whole system already set up for when they find you so they can get money from you. Plan your transportation methods using regulated taxi or car services. Prior to arriving at the airport, find out the drivers name and what kind of car he’s driving. Have him put HIS name on the card so that you’ll be able to identify him before he knows who you are and, you can scope out the situation to see if looks like he has accomplices. If it looks suspicious, it probably is so, you can just find another cab and he will never know who you were.

Also, it is important that very few people know your itinerary and that you have a point person with whom you can check in each time you change locations. A quick call to let someone know you are leaving the hotel and getting into a cab can make a big difference in how quickly you may be found if kidnapped.

Blend into the crowds

One major thing to consider when you travel to high-risk countries is that you not look like an executive. Arrive at the airport dressed in a way that you will blend in and not call attention to yourself with signs of wealth like designer outfits or flashy accessories. Don’t have a company credit card in your wallet so that it is easily found by kidnappers. Have special business cards made that only have your basic contact information with no indication of the company or your title. Avoid taking calls on which you might be discussing important-sounding topics in public. The walls have ears, as they say.

Be prepared for the worst

Lastly, it is important to prepare for a kidnapping. Remember…Mexico had more than 100,000 of them so all the preventive measures you implement may still result in your abduction. As scary as that is, being prepared will lessen the risk and impact of the kidnapping. Most kidnappers only want your money, not you. They don’t want to harm you physically, they only want to strike fear into you so that you, and your family/company, will quickly meet their demands. Your company should conduct table-top exercises for what to do when a kidnapping happens. Your family should be included in plans so that everyone is on the same page when kidnappers call.

Don’t let emotions rule the negotiations

There should be someone designated as the person who will talk with kidnappers when they call. Ideally, you want someone who is not emotionally tied to the situation. Kidnappers will want to talk with a spouse or child who, once they hear their loved ones stressed voice, will cave to demands more easily. Part of my work is that I act as the negotiator, a link between the kidnapper and the family/company. I will advise families/companies to never say “no” to a kidnapper, but not to meet their demands immediately either. If a kidnapper asks for $50,000, I will say, “I have been able to gather $6,358 now. If you give me some time, I can get more.” They can decide what to do…take the money and run or wait to see what happens next. My next conversation will be, “Ok, the family was able to scrabble together another $2,348. That’s the best they can do right now.” The odd numbers tell them that the family is getting money from different sources and didn’t just have it around. The longer the process goes, the incremental increase I offer will decrease so that at some point, the kidnappers will figure out that they aren’t going to get much more so, they will accept the offer.

SNAP…and they are gone!

I’ll give you one final piece of advice that could be the difference between you being kidnapped or not….always have a camera with you! Notice someone suspicious following you? Take their picture and make sure they see you doing it. See a car parked out in front of your hotel and the same car near your meeting location? Take a picture of it. You have just let them know you are aware of them, making you more on guard and harder to snatch. There wouldn’t be so many kidnappings if it wasn’t relatively easy to do so, if you make yourself one of the harder fishes to catch, they’ll just cast their net somewhere else!

About the Guest Post

Mike Clayton is the Founder of TAC Group Solutions and the author of this guest post. The views, opinions and positions expressed within guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Pinkerton. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author(s) and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

Published August 18, 2014