Express Kidnappings occur predominantly in the urban centres of South American countries, including Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla, and Cartagena. While the numbers of Express Kidnappings have decreased slightly in the past few years they are still a threat to tourists and residents in these areas. Some sources claim the kidnappers target only locals while others can show evidence to the contrary. One group frequently targeted is the obviously wealthier, less vigilant expats.
A typical express kidnapping consists of a victim who has been abducted by voluntarily getting into a taxi, then the taxi stops around the corner and the kidnappers get in and the taxi driver proceeds to several ATMs where the victim is forced to withdraw money. Before the kidnappers leave, the victim is also robbed of anything in their possession including jewellery, watches, phones and other money, passports or credit cards. The victims are also sometimes physically or sexually assaulted. The victims are usually released.
Less frequently the victim is abducted and held while the kidnappers negotiate with the victim’s family for a small amount of money. The focus of both of these kidnapping scenarios is to gain quick money with least amount of hassle.
1. Avoid illegal taxis: Sometimes the driver has a passenger in the front passenger seat, or other passengers who may offer to ‘share a fare’, sometimes the car has irregular markings. The best bet is to use one of the recommended taxi companies.
This situation is so worrisome in the Guayaquil area that the US Consulate has forbidden its employees from using any taxis other than vetted, radio-dispatched taxis, such as those listed on the U.S. Consulate General’s website. http://guayaquil.usconsulate.gov
2. Bus travel, especially on rural buses, also has its risks. If you must use rural buses, make yourself look as much like the locals as possible.
3. Driving on rural roads is also risky. Organised criminal groups will be watching for easy targets and a single car with one to four people inside is an easy target.
4. Avoid all travel on rural roads at night.
5. Avoid travelling alone if possible. It is obvious that this makes an abduction even easier.
6. Lock your car doors. It is very easy for someone to jump into your car at a junction or intersection if your car doors are unlocked.
7. Keep emergency numbers in the car, both on your cell phone and on a piece of paper in your car in case your phone is lost or stolen.
8. Keep your gas tank at least half full.
9. When out at clubs and bars watch your drinks. Scopolamine is a drug used to incapacitate people long enough to rob them. If someone offers you a cigarette or a piece of gum, politely decline as the drug can also be used in these products.
10. The drug has also been used in a fine powder form. The target is approached by someone with a newspaper or map, the target is asked for directions and when the map is unfolded the powder is then blown into the target’s face.
Scopolamine causes severe disorientation, and often prolonged unconsciousness and serious medical problems.
Know the Area
11. Know where all the police stations are located.
12. Know more than one route between home and the main areas you drive to (work, shops, schools).
13. Choose cash machines/ATMs in busy, well observed areas. Never withdraw money at night.
14. Keep a map in the car to consult if necessary—even better, memorise it. Do not rely on GPS alone.
15. Watch everything. Pay attention to the people near you as well as those across the street. Are they watching you? Is there a small group of people who seem to be waiting for something? Is there someone standing near the ATM? Go to the next one.
Look for the escape route. If people are waiting for you in one direction walk away. Go into a busy shop, walk with a group of people, wait. Phone for help and wait.
16. Day to day life is not the time to show off your expensive clothes or jewellery. Blend in with the locals. The more impressively you dress the more impressed the criminals will be!
17. Leave any unnecessary credit cards at home.
18. If confronted, hand over what they want. They will not leave you alone if you shout or hit them; they are more likely to attack you in order to continue to try to get what they want.
19. However, remember that each situation is different. You will have to make that assessment while always remembering that no money or possessions are worth risking your life. If you are a skilled fighter and there is one attacker, you may be able to defend yourself. If just around the corner there is a busy street you may be able to run and shout for help.
20. Take self-defense classes. These teach more than simply how to deal with a physical attack—you will also learn about how to raise your awareness and how to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
21. Register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate through the State Department’s travel registration website https://travelregistration.state.gov , to obtain updated information on travel and security within other countries.
22. U.S. citizens should consult the Country Specific Information for the latest Travel Alerts and Warnings and Worldwide Caution at the Department’s web site at http://travel.state.gov.
As always, the best advice for a resident or tourist abroad is to blend in as much as possible. To blend in you will need to practice good observational skills. And so by blending in you will also learn more about your host country as well as increase your personal security.