When the life of a hostage lies in their hands

Ingrid Betancourt was freed last week with help from 'kidnap and ransom' consultants

Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate in Colombia, was rescued last week after six years of captivity by Marxist Farc guerrillas in one of the most spectacular pieces of trickery in the history of kidnapping. A few days earlier it emerged that Sean Langan, a Channel 4 journalist, had been freed by his Afghan captors after a ransom, reported to have been £150,000, was paid.

On the face of it, the two cases have very little resemblance, but there is a common factor: the involvement of "kidnap and ransom" consultants, whose whole business relies on almost pathological discretion. "It's like Fight Club," said one informant. "The first rule is that you don't talk about it." But a consultant revealed that three American anti-narcotics agents handed over with Ms Betancourt in the same "sting" operation had been insured against kidnap. Their employers had called in a "K&R" team, although the Colombian authorities have strongly denied that any ransom was paid.

"That was a once-in-a-lifetime coup," said the consultant. "In our line of business we very much discourage rescue attempts, because the hostages are likely to get hurt."

Mr Langan's case was far more typical. "In our experience, 99 per cent of kidnappings are quietly brought to a successful financial conclusion," he said. "Hundreds of Farc kidnaps have been settled that way. Where people are beheaded or kept for years, it's because a financial deal cannot be reached for one reason or another. Many kidnappers who claim to be political or religious are simply in it for the money."

The Foreign Office was reported to be "furious" at the payment of a ransom in the Langan case, believing it will increase the risk of Britons being kidnapped in future. Behind the scenes, however, diplomats have contacts with all kinds of intermediaries. Rachel Briggs, director of Hostage UK, which supports Britons taken hostage overseas and their families, said the charity did not endorse the payment of ransoms, "because we have a long-term interest in making kidnapping unprofitable". But she added: "We don't seek to judge families who might take that option. Negotiators will say every case is different. Sometimes there is no choice but to pay."

Ms Briggs began doing research into kidnapping after her uncle was held for seven months in Colombia 12 years ago. ("I believe a ransom was paid," she said.) Hostage UK, which has the former Beirut hostage Terry Waite among its trustees, hopes to compile authoritative statistics soon, but according to its director, the five worst countries have remained constant in recent years. Mexico is currently top, followed by Venezuela, Nigeria and Pakistan. Colombia is only fifth, though seven years ago it was far out in front. Despite high-profile kidnappings, Iraq and Afghanistan come lower down the list in terms of numbers, making up the top 10 with India, Brazil and the Philippines, where occasional mass kidnappings take place.

Last year the Foreign Office dealt with 19 kidnappings of Britons, including that of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was freed after 114 days in Gaza. But five British nationals – an IT consultant and his bodyguards – remain in captivity more than a year after they were taken in Baghdad in May 2007.

Hostage UK does not reveal how many people it helps, or who they are, just as the K&R consultant was unwilling to discuss methods – such as those used to establish "proof of life" after a kidnapping. The consultants, most of whom have a police or military background, usually work for private security and military companies, several of which are based in Britain.

"There are about four or five top-rank teams, recognised by the insurers and government bodies like the FBI and the Foreign Office," said the consultant. "Each team is under contract to a particular insurer." Some companies consider kidnap insurance too expensive, and carry the risk themselves. Naming one of Britain's biggest multinationals, with thousands of employees abroad, the consultant said: "They have estimated that if one of their people gets kidnapped only once every three years or so, they will still come out ahead without insurance." The going rate for a consultant is about £1,500 a day. "It gets expensive if a kidnapping is not settled for a year, or if there is more than one consultant on the ground," said the specialist.

In one case, his team had been approached by a company whose employee had been held for some time, and only after his kidnappers had threatened to kill him within 48 hours. "We agreed to take the case on, but only if we saw it through to the end," said the consultant. "The company said they couldn't afford that – they only wanted to hire us for a week. We said we didn't work that way. Of course the kidnappers didn't carry out their threat, but the poor employee is stuck in limbo."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Fans take a selfie with Ed Miliband in Kempston, near Bedford, on Tuesday
election 2015
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power