The Billion-Dollar Kidnapping Trade | The Business of Crime

The Billion-Dollar Kidnapping Trade | The Business of Crime
Posted on 29-01-2022

Kidnapping is a huge global problem.

Organized criminals find it appropriate to take out someone,

to kill them, to take them for ransom.

If you do not pay tomorrow,

we will all die here.

In late September 2021,

a group of worshippers showed up at a church

in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

Sylner Lafaille, the church’s deacon,

had just arrived to conduct the morning service

when he was greeted with a burst of gunfire.

It quickly became apparent that his wife, Marie,

was the target of a kidnap attempt by an armed gang.

When Sylner tried to intervene, he was killed on the spot.

Marie was taken, and nothing was heard for several days,

though she was eventually released unharmed in early October.

Kidnapping is hardly a uniquely Haitian pastime,

though things have become dramatically worse in the wake of

President Jovenel Moïse's assassination in July 2021.

By the end of October, there had been almost 800 reported kidnappings

in one of the world’s most impoverished nations.


Abduction holds a vivid place in our collective imaginations.

The idea of being taken

or having a loved one taken and possibly harmed

is a terrifying one.

We would likely do anything, pay anything for a safe return.

You may not ever be quite the same person you were before.

The trauma may never leave you totally.

For that reason, kidnapping has been a staple

for criminal organizations across the world

for as long as there have been people who can profit from it.

The end goal is fairly simple,

even if methods and levels of violence drastically differ

from group to group and region to region.

It’s all about easy profit.

Snatching someone and demanding a ransom

is a potentially low-risk, high-reward work,

depending, of course, on the target.

Stop. Please, no.

No, no, no, no, no. Please.

Get over here.

It's often opportunistic work.

In May 2021, a gang in Bradford, England, abducted a 14-year-old boy.

The teenager had been making decent money trading Bitcoin,

a fact he’d been flaunting on social media.

His mother was told to pay 10,000 pounds,

an amount that was eventually haggled down to 900.

After his safe return, the kidnap was reported,

resulting in a four-year jail sentence for its ringleader.

Popular culture and reality

is full of sinister kidnap plots involving rich victims.

But things are changing in the modern world—

there’s money to be made from the poor,

people who can’t afford expensive private security

or kidnap insurance.

For criminal gangs, the immediate rewards may be lower,

but so is the risk.

There is, in general,

strong connections between kidnappings and organized crime.

There is a kidnapping. I have your...

your husband and his friend.

I want you to make a deposit for 4,000 dollars.

I’ll send you the account number. If you don’t do it, I’ll kill him.

Take Mexico.

Recent reports have shown how cartels like the ruthless Los Zetas

have developed a lucrative sideline

in kidnapping Central American migrants heading north to the US.

The last decade has witnessed

the birth of a well-established trade,

even if reliable numbers are hard to come by.

According to one survivor’s testimony,

the process is well-oiled and professional.

After being snatched on their journey north,

he and around 20 others were taken to a cartel safehouse

and detained.

Following a diet of threats, beatings, and occasionally torture,

a choice was offered:

Have your people scrape together $5,000, or else.

For many already fleeing poverty in their home countries,

it represented either a crippling or wildly unattainable sum.

Help me!

Somebody help me!

There are places where kidnapping equates to

one of the few viable criminal opportunities.

Authorities in northern Nigeria

have reported on a boom in abductions involving schoolchildren.

Between December 2020 and May 2021,

at least 769 students have been taken from schools across the region.

Criminal gangs who once profited from land and natural resource disputes

have been forced to adapt

when climate change began disrupting their schemes.

Mass kidnapping offers another way of making money.

It’s the latest development in a country where abduction for profit

has boomed since the early 2000s.

Between 2011 and 2020, around $18.34 million

was paid to kidnappers as ransom in Nigeria,

according to a Lagos-based risk analysis firm.

All we are saying bring back our girls... alive!

Police were jubilant after the 2017 capture of the richest

and most notorious multimillionaire kidnapper in the country,

but any celebrations were short-lived.

When one kingpin gets caught,

another dozen splinter groups can spring up to take his place.

...Virtual kidnapping,

it involves getting a call that you believe is from a loved one,

only to have someone say they’re holding them hostage.

For other criminals,

technology has meant new and strange methods of abduction.

Virtual kidnapping has become a staple in Mexico.

The premise is simple and ingenious.

Gangs contact a family, saying their loved one has been taken.

They then intimidate or con the victim

into staying in one location until the ransom has been paid,

without any actual abduction having taken place.

There is is no physical force.

It’s all a bluff.

Please, just don’t hurt my mom.

I will do anything you want.

Naturally, the level of criminal skill involved is highly variable.

Kidnapping, virtual or not, is like any other crime—

there are highly trained professionals

and the rank amateurs.

In early autumn 2021,

a woman in Mexico was accidentally shot and killed

faking her own elaborate kidnapping on TikTok.

Back in May 2020, police in Arkansas launched a manhunt

after another woman posted a series of cryptic videos, also on TikTok,

apparently showing the aftermath of her own abduction.

Suspicion was piqued when her bio simply led to a Venmo page,

where over a dozen concerned people had already sent donations.

Investigators quickly established there had been no cause for concern.

Kidnapping is a particularly horrible form of criminal enterprise.

It trades on the terrible uncertainty at the heart of any missing episode—

blind panic mixed with ignorance as to the victim's whereabouts.

Your imagination starts running wild

with terrible things the captive might be experiencing

in a strange and unknown place.

Abduction for profit isn't unique to any one specific country or region,

but some places have it worse than others.

The more unstable, the more severe the issue.

Though Marie Lafaille didn’t come to physical harm

after her abduction in Haiti,

the pastor’s wife still has to live with

the trauma of her husband’s senseless murder.

And things move on fast.

Around two weeks after her release,

a group of 17 foreign missionaries were kidnapped.

The ransom came to 750,000 pounds per missionary.

In late November, two of the group were released unharmed,

even though it’s unclear how much money exchanged hands.