You are the Head of Security for an international oil services company with thousands of employees located across Latin America, a position you have now held for three weeks. Your predecessor focused on security measures and loss prevention, but failed to prepare fully for the possibility of a kidnapping. Your security manager in Venezuela has informed you that four geologists have been missing for 24 hours. He reports that the geologists were travelling to a drilling site without a security escort, and all attempts to locate them have been unsuccessful.

Is there a simple explanation for the disappearance? Were they involved in a road traffic accident? Were they kidnapped? Were they killed? However, they disappeared in Venezuela, a country with one of the highest homicide and kidnap rates globally. What do you do next?

The scenario outlined is based on a real case, when professional Response Consultants were contacted and succeeded in safely and successfully recovering the four individuals during a complex negotiation that lasted 62 days. During the negotiations, the demand for the individuals was reduced from $750,000 to $281,000. 

It is not possible to predict with any level of accuracy where or when a kidnap might take place. However, there are steps that security executives can take to help protect employees, organizations and themselves when a kidnap does occur, and the first steps in this process are understanding and preparation.

The initial hours after a kidnap are critical to successful resolution of the case. To ensure an efficient response to a kidnap, a comprehensive Crisis Management Plan and understanding the role of the Response Company, which addresses kidnappings for companies working in high risk zones, is vitally important. Waiting until a crisis occurs before determining a system to manage it invites disaster for the victims, their families and can have a major financial and reputational impact on a company.


Risks, Insurance and Response Companies and Response Consultants

The most important step is to understand the level and type of kidnap risk in countries or regions where your organization operates or where employees are expected to travel for business reasons.

If your organization is operating in an area where the risk of kidnap is deemed high, you should consider the Special Risk options available through the insurance market. Carried by many leading underwriters, Kidnap/Ransom and Extortion (KRE) coverage reimburses the losses associated with a kidnap. Within pre-determined limits, the policy will cover the ransom payment; the victim’s wages; family costs; medical treatment and psychological counseling for the victim – if required; as well as all costs of a specialist Response Company and Response Consultant.

Only a select number of employees should be aware of a KRE policy to eliminate the possibility that employees inform the criminals or captors, leading to a higher ransom demand.  This will mitigate the risk of employees staging their own kidnappings.  It is also a requirement of the policy that its existence and limits remain confidential and knowledge of these details limited to select individuals.

KRE insurance policies are backed by professional Response Companies. Response Consulting is a highly specialized area, and one quality consultant does not make a quality response company. Many firms purport to be experts in kidnap response, therefore, you should conduct thorough due diligence on the company prior to selection of both a policy and a Response Company. Ask about their experience, background, language capabilities and knowledge of addressing kidnappings in specific countries.

The primary mission of all kidnap consultants is to bring the victim home safely and as quickly as possible. The Response Consultant will be unaware of the KRE policy details to ensure that the interests of the kidnapped victim, not those of the underwriting insurance company, are the first priority. This assures the client that the Consultant is acting in the best interest of the victim.


Notify a Specialist Response Company

Response Companies can react to kidnap cases across the world at immediate notice. Once a kidnap has been reported to a Response Company – normally via a dedicated, multilingual, 24/7 telephone line – you can expect immediate advice via telephone from the Response Consultant before he or she travels to the scene to advise the case. Response Consultants typically aim to be at the scene within a 24-hour window.


Does Your Crisis Management Plan (CMP) Include Reaction to a Kidnapping?

All international companies working in high kidnap risk countries should have a Crisis Management Plan (CMP) that addresses the complexities of dealing with a kidnapping for ransom. It is preferable to formulate the CMP in consultation with a Response Company who will react to the incident. The CMP is a guide that includes tools and techniques and nominated personnel to respond to and manage a crisis.  Every situation is different and requires a response tailored to fit the incident.  Time is of the essence when dealing with a crisis, and it is crucial that responsibilities are clearly laid out in the CMP, including the composition of a corporate and local Crisis Management Team (CMT) to work alongside the Response Company. 

Too often, the most common tool for companies managing risk is insurance, and kidnapping for ransom policies are no exception.  Some companies, recognizing that the cost of security reduces their profits, treat their KRE policy as an answer to that issue, without instituting preventative practices to reduce their overall risk. In the end, this thinking brings about higher KRE policy premiums across the market and, in some cases, risks cancellation.

The best-formulated plan can be rendered pointless if the actors within the plan are not aware of their roles. Selected decision-makers should be briefed on their roles in the event of a kidnap, and on the process, which will commence on initiation of a case. 

Rapid and effective reactions to an incident will rely on familiarity with the CMP as well as on having practiced the process. This training can be achieved in a short period of time and can often be done remotely in coordination with the Response Company. 

When employees “go missing” in a high-risk zone, the immediate challenge for a security executive is to determine what type of disappearance it could be. In the event of a kidnap, this process is without time constraints and may take hours, days or weeks before it becomes clear.  Concurrently, other issues also arise that will include dealing with the victims’ families, the safety of other employees and maintaining the interests and reputation of your organization.  

A kidnap case can be a very confusing time, particularly when claim and counter-claim are being made by parties purporting to be involved. Your Response Consultant will have issued you with advice on how to deal with initial contact from a kidnapper, should that happens prior to his/her arrival at the location.

The Response Consultant will be familiar with the part of the world where a kidnap takes place, and from extensive experience will be able to advise on areas including, but not limited to: liaison with in-country law enforcement and other authorities, where appropriate; providing advice to the affected family; recommending and implementing a negotiation strategy; the likely progression of events; ransom payment and delivery; and recovering the individuals.

No set of circumstances involved in a kidnap is ever the same, and a Response Consultant will advise the Crisis Management Team on the best course of action at every stage of the case.  Remember that the police may have been involved in the case, and rescues by the police can lead to injury or death to the victim. Depending upon the circumstances of the case, a Response Company may also provide support at the corporate centre-of-gravity as well as at the local level, to ensure that key decision-makers across the company are aware of developments in the case.  All decisions must be taken by the CMT in consultation with a Response Company as all too often decisions cannot be unmade.

Last, it is important that one event does not derail company operations; therefore, as well as dealing with the kidnap, you may need to take steps at the local level to reassure employees that the situation is under control. At the corporate level, a Press Relations department should be prepared to respond to media and news stories relating to the kidnap.  


About the Author: Aaron H. Sanchez is Senior K&R Consultant for Henderson Risk Limited, a  specialist in Latin American risk management. He’s a retired Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with more than 30 years of domestic and international experience in crisis management/hostage facilitating and negotiation, and complex kidnapping insurance fraud investigations.