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."

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