As they are each year, the dozens of British businesses honored with a 2001 Queen's Award for "outstanding achievement in international trade" are a mixed bag: exporters of heart valves, chemicals, aircraft-ejection seats, oilfield cranes, electronic gear, animal feed and such. Despite their diversity, each company's claim to the award a finely etched glass bowl is its success in selling its products overseas and thus contributing to the U.K.'s foreign-exchange coffers.
Among this year's winners is a small, London firm Asset Security Managers one of the biggest brokers in the booming kidnap-and-ransom industry that is centered largely in London. The city is a natural home to the specialized sector, partly because of the multibillion-dollar insurance market that is Lloyd's of London and partly due to Britain's reputation for top-notch security and intelligence services. An estimated $70 million of the roughly $130 million paid in kidnap insurance premiums each year goes through Lloyd's.
"It's all part of the invisible exports of the City of London," says Jeffrey Green, a veteran of the kidnap insurance field, who started AMS in 1989 with hostage negotiator Peter Dobbs. By selling a package including insurance, hostage negotiation, ransom payment and psychological counseling, "we're also allowing other British companies to expand their own lines of trade" to risky places, says Green. In a contracting, competitive world, business people are venturing into ever-more dangerous spots. So, too, are global aid workers and adventure tourists. Energy- and mining-sector employees, though, are among the most vulnerable. They work in remote areas, and guerrilla groups often resent multinational firms, which they view as raiders of national wealth.
Having advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1970s, the kidnap industry got a major boost with the end of the cold war. Revolutionaries lost their Soviet funds, political instability grew and new territories opened up to Western businesses paving the way for both "economic kidnapping" and specialist companies designed to protect and assist its potential victims.
Lloyd's wrote the first insurance policies for kidnapping after the 1932 abduction and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby son. Since those early days, it is virtually impossible to determine how big the industry has grown. Discretion rules, and there is no central repository of statistics. Industry sources estimate conservatively that there are about 1,800 abductions of foreign nationals a year around the world. The vast majority of victims are local people whose cases rarely attract wider attention. Green says 60% of ASM's clients are Latin American individuals and businesses, the rest being "European, North American and Far Eastern corporations with exposure in high-risk countries."
Experts all rank Colombia and Mexico as the top risks. A survey by the Hiscox Group of insurers also lists Brazil, the Philippines, Nigeria, India, Ecuador, Venezuela, South Africa and countries of the former Soviet Union in its top 10. As the wealthiest people became more security-conscious, kidnappers turned to the middle classes for less wary victims. Putting a figure on total ransom payments is very difficult, says Green, but "it's hundreds of millions of dollars, certainly."
Ending economic kidnapping is a daunting task. Through improved security, companies and ngos need to become "hard targets," says Rachel Briggs, a development specialist with the Foreign Policy Centre, a British think tank. Consistency in dealing with abductions also may help. But the real solution, she says, is to tackle the basic social and economic problems that underlie kidnap-for-ransom. "There's no doubt in our minds," says ASM's Dobbs, "that the disparity between poverty and wealth is one of the factors in the increase." Until wealth is shared more equitably, those who represent even comparative riches appear destined to remain the focus of a booming kidnap industry.
Survival of the Smartest
If you are kidnapped:
• Do not attempt to escape unless there is an extremely good chance of your survival.
• Try to get to know your captors, establish a relationship and earn their respect.
• Exercise regularly every day.
• Never refuse food.
• Ask for access to a local daily newspaper.
• Invent mind games to keep yourself mentally alert.
• Try to determine the safest place to be in the event of a rescue attempt.
• Do not attempt to negotiate with your captors on your own. This may interfere with what others are doing on your behalf.