Ben Lopez, one of the world's leading hostage negotiators, explains how a rubber chicken can save your life
Ben Lopez is a Kidnap and Ransom (K&R) consultant, with over 20 years' experience as a hostage negotiator. He tells Peter Moore how to survive being kidnapped... And not to rely on your embassy for help.
How likely is it that a traveller will be kidnapped?
You’ve probably got a very low chance of being kidnapped as a traveller, just because kidnappers are not particularly opportunistic. It’s a very rare kidnap when someone says ‘Oh boy! Here’s a good one. Let’s kidnap them!’
Most of the time it’s something that’s been planned. They've done reconnaissance, they’ve been observing your movements for days or even weeks. They want to feel very comfortable that they’re not going to get caught or they’re not going to get hurt during the abduction.
Also, there’s no telling from a traveller's demeanor whether they’re somebody who has got access to money. Is he a broke student with no money? Or is he the son of a Lord?
There are some countries where any foreigner is regarded as wealthy. But I’m guessing that that would result in an opportunistic robbery rather than a kidnap.
That’s right. Yeah. One of the cardinal rules of travelling is "don’t flaunt your wealth”. Don’t walk around wearing gaudy jewelry or big Rolexes or wear top of the line trainers and stuff like that. It’s just tempting people.
The bottom line is that the great majority of people all over the world are fine. They’re not kidnappers, they’re not thieves, they’re just regular people trying to get along like the rest of us.
Some of our readers work as volunteers. If you’re in a country longer term, working for a large organisation, are you more susceptible to being kidnapped with the view that your organisation or your government can be held to ransom?
There used to be this notion of security through engagement. In other words, if you’re somehow connected with the community that you live in or you’re working with that this somehow provides you with a modicum of security. It has intuitive appeal to it but frankly I would not want to bet my life on that. It’s a little naive. Since September 11 all bets are off. It used to be true that journalists were left alone because they were there to tell the story, they weren’t part of it, but those days are over.
You mainly deal with business folk, corporations, and sometimes just families. As these clients get better security will kidnappers start going after softer, less rich targets. For example, I read an article the other day about middle class families in India being targeted by kidnappers.
The same phenomenon has been happening in places like Mexico and Colombia and other places in Central and Southern America for decades now. The bottom line is that the middle class families in these countries are plentiful, they are psychologically known to the kidnappers, they are a known quantity with relatively predictable responses and predictable routines. Kidnappers are like everyone else. When they’re doing something that might be dangerous or risky, they want to try and minimise the risk, minimise the danger to themselves.
By kidnapping a foreigner, whose reactions you have no real ability to predict that’s adding an element that is uncontrollable and therefore more unattractive. Not only that, because kidnappers operate in their own environment they know what the government or the local law enforcements response is likely to be or not be.
A lot of travellers think that if they get into any trouble while they’re overseas then their embassies are going to ride in on a white charger and rescue them.
If only it were thus!
Do embassies have in-house negotiators to deal with these situations or do they always call in third parties like yourself?
Neither. They don’t have negotiators for the simple reason that no responsible government will either enter into the negotiations with kidnappers or be seen to enter into negotiations with kidnappers, for the simple reason that for the rest of eternity no national from that country would be safe from kidnappers because the reputation gets out there.
“These guys pay! So let’s kidnap the guy from this country.”
So they don’t have in-house negotiators. In fact they will assiduously stay away from negotiating and will rely on the local law enforcement, military and other authorities in general.
So it would be the family of the victim that would get a negotiator involved?
Yeah, that’s right. There would be some contact made through the family.
In your book, The Negotiator, you mention the rise of 'express kidnaps' where kidnappers abduct people just long enough to visit an ATM twice. Which countries is this becoming more prevalent in?
It’s a risk in any country that’s got ATMs. It’s been a problem in Mexico, especially in Mexico City. But like I said, it can happen any where there’s an ATM. It’s not something any place is immune from.
I guess it’s a pretty quick and clean operation for kidnappers. They get two maximum withdrawals from you and then set you free before anyone realises you’re missing.
It’s kind of a Poundland versus John Lewis. You know high volume. Pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap.
In your book I got the impression that kidnappers in different countries you had to deal with them in different ways. There were different issues. Which country has the easiest kidnappers to deal with and which has the most difficult?
Well, none of them are easy. None of them make your world easy otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a kidnap. But it’s like anything else in the human condition. You’ve got regional variations. A bit like you’ve got with regional cuisines. And languages and dialects.
But let me put it this way: it’s more useful to distinguish between the various types of kidnap, I think, than it is to distinguish between location. In other words, it’s much easier to deal with a kidnap for ransom than it is with a kidnap for political or religious reasons for the simple reason that it’s a business transaction. They have something of value and I’ve got something of value. It’s really just a question of coming to terms and then making the deal. Whereas if you’re dealing with a political or religious kidnap the goals and the motivations behind the event are often not entirely rational. Perhaps the reward they will get is not of earth, so the level of risk is much higher.
You mention that Somali pirates, for example, were relatively easy to deal with because to them it’s simply a business transaction.
There’s no pretence there that it’s about religion or politics. It’s about the money. And when it’s about the money it’s real simple. It’s just about the numbers.
Like haggling over the price of a car or a carpet?
That’s exactly what it’s like. The mechanics of it are quite comparable. Obviously you’re haggling for people’s lives which puts a lot more pressure on you, but mechanically it’s very similar.
You always travel with a rubber chicken. You found that it disarms people at airport security checks and border crossings. I really like the idea of crossing a dodgy border somewhere with guards rummaging through your bag looking for something to pilfer and they come across this rubber chicken.
It’s magic. It works at airports, it works at checkpoints, it works any time I’m getting my bag searched. If a situation is tense, it’s guaranteed to lighten the mood. It makes them look at me in a new light. It humanises me in their view. I’m no longer just a foreigner, I’m a guy who might have a sense of humour. In a way, I’m also doing them a favour with this rubber chicken, breaking up their day a bit. They’re gonna remember the guy with the rubber chicken. They’re not going to remember the 85th guy who had to take off his shoes.
I know at the beginning of the interview you said that it’s very, very unlikely that a traveller is going to get themselves kidnapped, but I’d like to finish off with some tips from you for people, just in case they are.
The first thing they should do is not get kidnapped. It sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying.
Be constantly aware of your surroundings. I mean that’s the point of travelling – not to walk around with your head in the clouds but watch things. There’s a lot to be said for your gut telling you that something’s wrong. Listen to your gut. Four billion years of evolution can’t be wrong.
Pay attention to your personal belongings, make sure they don’t get stolen or tampered with. The majority of problems you’re going to have when you go travelling won’t be kidnap related – they’re going to be things like people stealing your stuff.
Obviously, before you go, look at the Foreign Office or CIA website about the country that you’re going to. They’re usually up to date and they’re quite accurate. And they give you a sense of what the government thinks is going on there. Don’t think for a minute that if you do get kidnapped in a place that the government will come to your rescue. They can’t most of the time.
Avoid flaunting your wealth or your position. Avoid Red Light districts or high crime areas, although in a lot of destinations these places are OK because the government and police tacitly let them operate as a source of revenue. Don’t be ostentatious. Don’t carry large amounts of cash and flash it.
If you are kidnapped, nothing guarantees survival but these are the kinds of things that can help.
Never negotiate for yourself. I guarantee you’ll be the worst negotiator in the history of the world. Every hostage, in some point of their captivity, whether it’s after 24 hours or 24 months, feels as if they’ve been forgotten. You’ve got to have faith that there’s a lot of people on the outside dedicated to securing your release. The more you negotiate for yourself, the longer your captivity will be. It’s almost a rule – like a law of physics.
Stay calm. In moments of high stress, you’re being stressed is only going to make the kidnappers more difficult to deal with and dangerous.
Don’t give them an excuse to mistreat you by not co-operating. Don’t give them an excuse to mistreat you by sticking out, by being too anxious. The thing is, the more anxious you are, the more anxious you end up making people. The more anxious you make people the more angry, the more dangerous, the more difficult you make them to deal with.
Eat and drink whatever you’re given – if it’s edible or drinkable, obviously – because you don’t know when you’re going to be fed again.
Try to exercise your body and your mind if you can – it lessens stress and helps pass the time. One of the worst things about being in captivity is the boredom. Especially to people from the western world who are used to instant gratification for information, the internet, telephones, TV. The inactivity of being captive can often be the most difficult thing to deal with.
Make mental notes about your surroundings. It might come in handy later in the event of a rescue attempt.
Another important thing is to humanise yourself. Make yourself a human being to these people because it’s harder to hurt another human called Peter than it is to beat the crap out of a piece of merchandise. Use your name. Don’t necessarily give away too many details about your family but try to connect or establish a rapport with your captors.
Some people have made connection with their captors by talking about football. That can be a touchy one if you’re a Liverpool fan and they’re an Everton fan. But you might want to think about switching to become an Everton fan. You do what you need to do. Try to establish rapport.
Be ready for a rescue attempt. They are really rare but they are also highly dangerous for hostages. That's the point where the most hostages get hurt or killed.
I mentioned before about making mental notes about your surroundings. What you want to do, in the event that a rescue attempt does happen, you want to locate a safe place to go, some place you’ll be shielded from bullets and explosives. It might be a corner of a room. You’ve going to have to figure that out because you going to have to go to that place, get down on the floor and stay there until the authorities come and physically pick you up. Stay down until the authorities come and physically pick you up.
The human eye is attracted to movement, so don’t get up and start waving your hands and saying “Look! I’m the hostage!” because guess what? The kidnappers will do the same thing. These guys are trained that if someone is posing a threat to you, you fire first and ask questions later. You don’t want to be in a situation where you get killed by friendly fire.
Ben Lopez's book, The Negotiator: My life at the heart of the hostage trade, is available now on Amazon.