Kidnapping in Colombia
Mauricio Rubio, Economics, University of Carlos III, Madrid
Research Grant, 2002
The goal of the project is to analyze why kidnapping rates have been so high in Colombia. A brief history of kidnapping shows that it has two different roots. It was practiced in rural areas by some late “bandoleros” of the political violence period in the 1950s. On the other hand, urban kidnapping of foreigners—diplomats and CEOs—was imported from groups such as Tupamaros and Montoneros.
The relationship between drug activities and kidnapping has been quite complex. First, drugs facilitated the replacement of a few foreigners paying huge ransoms—the typical set-up during the 1970s—with a higher number of local victims paying less per incident. Drug lords buying haciendas had a side effect of pushing up rural property prices. This speculative trend displaced poor peasants and attracted urban middle classes to the countryside. The weekend house owner became the typical victim during the eighties, when kidnapping rates first increased significantly. Rural guerrilla groups were able to get kidnap resources with a negligible effect on agricultural production and without deteriorating relationships with peasants. The usual arrangement with rich farmers was extortion. Second, drug dealers gave a definitive stimulus to paramilitary groups as a private protection scheme against kidnapping. Third, some notorious drug lords began their criminal careers as kidnappers. Forth, drug traffickers have used kidnapping for purely political reasons and currently use it for collecting debts. Fifth, guerrilla groups easily shift between kidnapping/extortion and drugs to finance their military operations.
Indiscriminate kidnapping appeared when the middle class group of urban victims was besieged within the urban areas, by the mid ’90s. Kidnapping has been mostly linked to politically motivated groups. Colombian evidence does not corroborate the claim that kidnapping is just another business. One key issue for kidnappers is how to deal with agency problems. Several testimonies show that guerrilla leaders have been conscious of the need to indoctrinate their troops and to adopt highly centralized decision processes. Indoctrination diffuses personal responsibility and reduces the individual tendency to appropriate big cash ransoms. This may help explain why nonpolitical groups have not been able to kidnap in such a systematic manner as guerrilla groups.
Several testimonies show that guerrilla leaders have been conscious of the need to indoctrinate their troops and to adopt highly centralized decision processes. Indoctrination diffuses personal responsibility and reduces the individual tendency to appropriate big cash ransoms.
Upward turning points in the trend of aggregate statistical data—a first rise in the early ’80s and a soaring rate by the mid ’90s—are consistent with this brief history. However, two significant drops in the aggregate rate—from 1992 to 1995 and from 2001 to date—are not easily explained. A quite common hypothesis—that the first drop was due to an antikidnapping law—was not corroborated with time series procedures.
Cross-section data shows a pattern of high initial concentration and a later spreading of rates. Statistical models show that the capacity of local factors to explain regional differences of kidnapping rates is not only small but has been decreasing. Also, that the regional patterns of kidnapping are mainly explained by the geographical expansion of armed groups.
Micro-level data is scarce and the quality is dubious. Reaching former victims for interview or to answer a questionnaire has been an extremely difficult task. Interviews with negotiators show that preventive efforts have concentrated on trying to reduce the risk of being kidnapped, but no significant progress has been made on how to deal with the situation when it happens. No explicit evidence has been found about changes in the know-how of perpetrators besides the one associated with increased threat reputation and the bureaucratic buildup of rules and procedures.