Express Kidnapping

Express kidnapping – also sometimes called lightening kidnapping – is a prevalent crime in much of the developing world.  While is particularly common in Latin America it occurs globally – I am personally aware of incidents in locations as diverse as Kazakhstan and China.

Tourists and business travelers are much more likely to be victims of an express kidnapping than a more traditional kidnap for ransom.  The typical method of operation is to grab the victim and take him or her to different ATMs to withdraw money until the daily limit is met.  In some case the victim will be held for a day or two to withdraw the limit each day.  On occasion the victim will also be held until a relatively small ransom is delivered by the victim’s family or company — turning it into a mini kidnap for ransom.

Victims are still selected but the selection process is much more rapid than in a traditional kidnap. On occasion the victim may be grabbed of the street and at other times the event may start as a carjacking (this is common in Nairobi, Kenya for example) or a taxi driver may be involved.

Perpetrators of an express kidnap are looking to turn a quick buck and dump the victim.  They usually do not have the infrastructure or desire the hold the victim for more than a few days.  They are also usually less professional than traditional kidnappers also in recent years some express kidnappers have shown increasing sophistication.  One express kidnapping ring in Caracas, Venezuela was gathering personal data on their victims to (a) assign some level of value to the person and (b) for intimidation purposes as the kidnappers can locate the victim, their family members or associates in the future if the victim should go to the police.

Some ways to avoid or mitigate an express kidnapping:

  • As always situational awareness is paramount.  There will be a victim selection process so be aware of people who may be taking unusual interest in you and move to safety as quickly as possible.
  • Avoid using ATMs on the street where you may be targeted.  Try to use ATMs located within a hotel, bank or shopping mall and be especially vigilant at these times.
  • Be very careful when using taxis as taxi crime and express kidnappings are often closely linked.
  • Be alert to carjacking techniques and develop and employ countermeasures.  As with taxi crimes, in some locations carjackings frequently escalate into express kidnapping.
  • Be cautious about drugs such as scopolamine, ativan or rohypnol being used to incapacitate you to facilitate an express kidnapping.  This is also a common modus operandi in certain locations around the world.
  • Consider carrying an ATM card linked to an account with limit funds so the account can be emptied quickly, hopefully limiting the length of your detention.
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Some Key Considerations for Overseas Driving

When possible its best to avoid self driving overseas, especially in developing world countries.  For one thing you are very exposed if you get into an accident — there is a risk both from local authorities and also from any crowd that may gather.  Generally in the developing world driving practices are much more erratic than what most of us are accustomed to.  That combined with an oopsy-daisy attitude to life and death and fundamental safety matters in many places make traveling by vehicle in general and self-driving in particular a significant vulnerability.

In some cases however it may be unavoidable or impractical especially for expatriates or those on long term temporary assignments who must maintain a level of mobility and independence. Even in these cases if you re located outside of Europe or some of the more developed Asian or Latin American countries its probably best to employ a reliable local driver. If you can’t or won’t you should at least review the following considerations (these can also be useful teaching points to train a local driver as well):

  • Consider getting some formal driving training in both accident avoidance and evasive driving. You may need to do this prior to deployment as options for this type of training may be limited or nonexistent where you are going.
  • Conduct a map reconnaissance and a route analysis prior to driving in a unfamiliar area.
  • Bring an international drivers permit even if its not required in the country where you are driving. This may be helpful if stopped by local authorities.
  • Always ensure that your vehicle is in good working condition. This seems like common sense but situations that can be annoying in your home country can be life threatening in more high-risk locations.
  • Make sure you maintain your fuel tank at half or higher. This is especially true in areas where fuel may be scarce or where fuel stations may have very long queues.
  • Know your recommended tire pressure and check it regularly.
  • Make sure you have a serviceable spare tire in your vehicle along with the appropriate tools and know how to change it.
  • Always strive to allow maneuver room between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you when stopped in traffic. You should be able to see the bottom of the tires of the car in front of you.
  • When parking you should back into the space whenever possible. This will allow you a better field of vision and the ability to depart more rapidly.
  • In high threat environments you should avoid leaving your vehicle parked unattended in a public location. If it must be left unattended the vehicle should be searched prior to entering it and departing.
  • When traveling in heavy traffic you should be especially aware of what is going on around you both for purposes of accident avoidance and also because of the vulnerability to criminals who prey on motorists stuck in traffic.
  • Consider practicing driving in reverse. In many instances fancy evasive maneuvers may not be applicable even if you know how to employ them. Sometimes if you detect a problem up ahead the best solution is to reverse until you can safely turn the car and get out of the area.

  • If you get involved in an accident in may be prudent to leave the area and go to a safe haven like a police station (in some locations this may not be that safe a haven) to report the incident.  Most of us are conditioned as drivers not to leave the scene of an accident but it may not be safe to remain in some locations.  A crowd will likely form and you as the foreigner will likely be seen as being at fault whether you were or not.  Vigilante “justice” and lynchings are common in many parts of the world and local authorities may be powerless to intervene or may willfully turn a blind eye.
  • Use caution when approaching roadblocks and make an assessment as soon as possible.  This is a topic that will be discussed in greater depth separately but suffice to say if you are living or traveling somewhere were roadblocks erected by police, military, paramilitary groups or others you should become familiar with the procedures and routine for safe passage and recognize that approaching and passing through a roadblock can be a potentially dangerous situation.

Vehicular travel in the developing world presents some risks – both related to safety and security – especially if you are driving yourself.

Thoughts on Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the under-appreciated and in fact sometimes unappreciated element of personal security.  Of all the things a person can do to keep themselves safe the most important and in fact most fundamental is to be aware of their surroundings and what is happening in their environment.  This in conjunction with a basic understanding and ability to recognize potential threats if infinitesimally more important that any hard skill like shooting, martial arts/combatives or anything else.
Despite that awareness usually gets the short shrift.  Discussions of personal security often give it only cursory mention or refer to it as “common sense” and don’t take the time to emphasize how important it really is and how to best utilize and develop awareness.  Look at how many books, DVDs and training seminars there are on combat shooting, physical self defense skills and the like and how much is available on the market dealing with awareness.
Security is often looked at as a purely functional skillset when in fact the most important aspects are mental.  While I hesitate to throw out an unscientific percentage — I think it is safe to say that a large number of personal crimes ranging from petty crimes like pickpocketing and purse snatching to violent confrontational crime like armed robbery and carjacking could have been avoided or at least mitigated if the victim was more aware in the moments leading up to the event.
In our multi-tasking world with an ever-increasing amount of distractions this issue of focused situational awareness has never been more important.
We’ll endeavor to go into this in greater detail in the near future and outline levels of awareness, how to improve this skillset and so forth.

5 Common Pitfalls When Traveling Overseas

Pitfall #1:  Using dated or overly anecdotal information to assess your destination.

The world is a dynamic place.  When planning travel to a particular location it’s important to use current information. Beiruttoday – while it has its security issues, some fairly significant – is not theBeirutof 1983 when the city was carved up by warring militias.  At one timeAbidjan,Cote D’Ivoirewas considered the Paris of Africa but that is no longer the case. Caracas,Venezuelais much more dangerous today than it was even a few years ago.

Pitfall #2:  Being too trusting of strangers.

Many travelers are much too accepting of approaches by strangers.  While developing friendships with people in different countries is one of the great advantages of foreign travel it must be done judiciously and sensibly.  When a stranger approaches you unfortunately there is sometimes an ulterior motive at work.

Pitfall #3:  Being too trusting of local contacts

In addition to strangers, even local contacts should be treated with a degree of caution.  Occasionally local contacts and partners will have a separate and hidden agenda.  This doesn’t mean that you should be rude to your local contacts or be excessively paranoid about them.  It does mean that you should not follow them blindly or believe everything they say.

Pitfall #4:  Believing your individual rights go with you when you travel overseas

For many of us living in western democracies we have come to accept our individual freedoms and rights as immutable and inalienable and as something that goes with us when we travel.  This is a dangerous misconception.  When you are in another country you are subject to the laws of that country which may be very, very different from your own.

Pitfall #5:  Having too much confidence that your Embassy can assist you or solve all your problems.

The Embassy or Consulate is usually very limited in what they can do for you if you run afoul of local authorities.  Typically this is confined to visiting you to check on your welfare and perhaps recommending or arranging for local legal representation.

Blending in and the “Gray Man”

A good point was brought up in a comment after the last post about dressing down and trying to blend in when abroad. Its an important topic that deserves a little attention.

For Westerners and Americans in particular our ability to blend in will be very dependent on the society we are in.  In many cases we may not really be able to blend in but we can avoid unnecessarily standing out.  This means leaving the cowboy hats,  sports jerseys, Oakley sunglasses, etc. at home.  Likewise the t-shirts with American flags and patriotic slogans.

To truly blend in is difficult — even if you are the same race or ethnicity as the host population.  In the Philippines as an example, native Filipinos can usually readily identify Balikbayan – Filipinos who have lived abroad for years and then returned to the Philippines.  These Balikbayan are often targeted for robbery due to their perceived afluence.

Interestingly I have heard – but cannot verify – that in Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants can distinguish each other on the street by appearance.

Therefore the goal of truly blending in may be out of reach in many cases.  Its probably better to be the “gray man” and do nothing and wear nothing that will unduly draw attention to yourself or invite interest.
You should be free of any obvious national or political indentifiers, not wear conspicuous jewelry or clothing, not appear too rich or too poor, etc.  While you might not want to look like a high profile businessman you also might not want to appear like a backpacker either.

Contrary to popular perception, backpackers and similar low budget travelers are targeted for crimes regularly.  This is in part because they are frequently carrying all their money and other valuables with them all the time and may actually be carrying more cash than the rich businessman who is relying on credit cards and local representatives to cover his expenses.

Additionally, backpackers and other poorly dressed travelers may draw unwanted attention from the local police and security forces not to mention immigration and customs personnel at the airport.  This is especially true in developing countries.

Therefore the best approach may be the middle ground.  Not too rich, not too poor.  Not clearly identifiable as any particular nationality.  While the gray man (or gray woman) may not truly blend in – he or she may draw the least amount of attention and sometimes that is the best you can do.

8 Common Myths About Travel & Personal Security

Myth #1:  It can’t happen to me.

This is perhaps less a myth and more a mindset.  Crime victims, even those living in violent places with friends and relatives that have been victims of crime still sometimes hold on to the mindset that it can’t happen to them.  Not only does this usually mean the person has taken little or no proactive measures to protect themselves but it also significantly contributes to a delayed reaction time because the person is in a state of denial and when events begin to unfold they can’t process what is happening and respond quickly enough.

Myth #2:  If it does happen it was destined to happen or it was fate and there is nothing I can do about it.

This is the fatalistic attitude mentioned earlier.  There is a phrase for it in Arabic:  “Insh’Allah” — if God wills it.  While it’s true that you can do everything right and still become a victim due to uncontrollable circumstances more often than not you can take significant measures to avoid or deter a problem or at a minimum recognize it more rapidly and take appropriate responsive action.

Myth #3:  Victims are selected at random and most crime is spontaneous.

Victims are almost always selected and there is almost always some element of planning involved in any crime.  Its true the victim selection and planning may occur very rapidly but it still occurs.  The only really exception to this is situations involving civil unrest, rioting and other types of violence that occurs on a larger scale where particular victims may truly be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Myth #4:  Armed security or carrying weapons is always better than unarmed security.

This comes down to training whether it’s the individual arming themselves or employing an armed security detail in a high threat environment or in response to a specific threat.  Armed security definitely has its place and is appropriate under certain conditions.  A person arming themselves but not getting training in how and when to employ their weapon in a tactical manner and under stress may actually increase their risk rather than reduce it.  Likewise employing armed personnel who are not well trained and don’t handle their weapons safely (as is often the case in the developing world) may also increase risk.

Myth #5:  You should always comply with an attacker’s demands.

While this is overwhelmingly true in the case of property crimes it is much more ambiguous and situational when it comes to any personal crime.  If your assailant just wants your wallet or watch you should surrender it.  If the assailant becomes physically abusive, tries to restrain you or tries to move you from the area then there are a number of factors that must be considered very rapidly and an individual decision must be made.

Myth #6:  You should never let the attacker move you from the first crime scene.

This is also overwhelmingly true in the US and most of the developed world.  The theory – which is fundamentally sound – is that if the crime is an economic crime the attacker will be satisfied with your property and will leave.  If the attacker wants to move you to a place where he can control you – also known as crime scene two – then he likely intends to subject you to some type of torture or sadistic treatment and you are far better off resisting at crime scene one.  In many developing countries where kidnap for ransom and express kidnapping are a regular occurrence it is not necessarily true.  In those situations it may well be an economically motivated crime and you may have a better chance complying with the kidnappers and very likely being released upon the payment of a ransom or upon taking money out of an ATM machine in the case of an express kidnapping.  There is no right answer for every situation and for every person.  You need to look at crime trends in the environment you are in and make decisions based on the situation you find yourself in.

Myth #7:  Local inhabitants know the security situation best and can give good guidance.

While local contacts are very valuable when gathering information about the security situation in the location where you are or will be traveling they should not be the sole source of this information and their input should not be accepted as gospel.  Frequently locals do not know the security situation that well at all unless they are in a capacity where they deal with security issues or incidents regularly and often the information they have is anecdotal or based on gossip and urban myth.  It’s also important to consider that locals may have a very different threshold of what is normal or acceptable in terms of levels of crime, violence or terrorist threat.  They may be accustomed to a level of violence, unrest or uncertainty in their society that is totally different from what you are used to.  Also for cultural reasons or in some cases personal reasons (in particular when there is a business connection to the local contact) they may intentionally understate or misrepresent the threat level.  Use local contacts and sources to gather information but view their input with a critical eye and in the context of information derived from other sources.

Myth #8:  Most personal security is just common sense.

While it’s fair to say that many personal security measures may appear obvious – common sense means different things to different people and arguably common sense is not all that common.  There is also a lot to be studied and learned in terms of criminal practices and methods that will enhance your security and goes beyond what is “common sense”.

Time + Place Predictable

One of the main factors to reduce the likelihood of being a victim of a targeted attack is to not be time and place predictable.  This is especially true for “at-risk” personnel who are more likely to be specifically targeted.  What do I mean by at-risk personnel?  These are people that because of their profile, actions, behavior, etc. are likely to be targets of violent crime for economic, political, personal or other reasons.  Some examples might be:

  • Expatriates or long term business travelers living/working in a high crime or poitically unstable area.
  • Politicians, activists, journalists or others that take a political position that may be at odds with people or groups prone to violence.
  • Stalking victims and victims of domestic violence.
  • People working in cash businesses or people working in business where they have access to unusually large amounts or money or valuables.
  • Celebrities and others that have a high public profile such as broadcast journalists.
  • Business people involved in disputes with partners, customers, suppliers, etc.  This is particularly true in the developing world.
  • Witnesses in criminal cases.
  • Judges and lawyers depending on the type of cases they handle.
  • Government personnel such as diplomats or military personnel stationed abroad.
  • High net worth individuals

People who are at-risk or more prone to be the victim of a targeted crime should consider the role that time and place predictability plays in these types of incidents and take steps to reduce their vulnerability and mitigate the risk.

As was discussed in the posts on surveillance detection most criminals, terrorists and other violent actors will conduct some type of surveillance to determine locations where there victim is both vulnerable to attack and predictable.  The greater your predictability the easier you make it for this type of assailant.

For most people two locations are place predictable: home and work.  For many people there may be others like the gym, a favorite restaurant or a favorite place to get coffee.  For most people there are defined routes between home and work that are taken everyday or almost everyday and there are points on these routes – typically chokepoints – where they are particularly vulnerable to attack and where there are points of concealment and ready escape routes for the attacker or attackers.

By varying routes and departure and arrival times at-risk personnel can at least make it more difficult to attack them.  We will discuss route analysis in greater depth in a future post.

Historically a large number of kidnappings and assassinations have occurred in the morning as the victim left their home.  A classic example is the 1992 kidnapping of Exxon executive Sidney Reso which is often used as a case study.  Reso was kidnapped by a former Exxon employee as he left his New Jersey home one morning.

Arguably most people are most predictable when leaving home in the morning.  For most too there is little opportunity for variance of route at this point as they can usually turn right or left and that’s it.  For this reason — and because of these constraints one thing you can do is recognize this vulnerability and heighten your awareness when leaving your home as we discussed in an earlier post.

People are creatures of habit.  Often in the workplace even if an employee doesn’t have an assigned parking space they generally park in the same area each day.  Understanding these vulnerabilities and making a conscious effort to change them or at least heightening awareness at these key times is a critical element of a good personal security plan.

Does everyone need to focus on varying routes and times to not be predictable?  I don’t think they do.  I think this is more important for people at risk like the examples mentioned above.  I do think everyone benefits from recognize these vulnerable points and times and raising their alertness level accordingly.  Circumstances change and the person who may not need these measures today may be at risk tomorrow.