The king of anti-kidnapping

Colombia has its human rights problems, but in one respect it's a poster child for law-enforcement progress. Once the kidnapping capital of the world, Colombia claims to have slashed its snatching-for-profit business by 88% since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002. The man who may know the kidnapping business personally is Uribe's vice president, Francisco Santos, who was snatched in 1990 and held hostage by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel, was seeking to pressure the Colombian government not to extradite him to the United States to face drug charges. Santos was a young editor at El Tiempo, the country's leading newspaper, which was owned by his prominent family. He spent the next eight months chained to a bed. (The kidnapping later became the subject of a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

After his release, Santos founded two groups to help kidnapping victims and their families, and to press Colombian society to resist extortion and to demand change. As vice president, Latin America's most famous hostage has been a key player in the fight against the guerrillas and drug barons who made Colombia a scarier place for many than Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Colombia has now been asked by Paraguay for help in combating its own burgeoning kidnapping problem—a phenomenon that's metastasizing across Latin America, particularly to Mexico and Brazil. It's perhaps revealing that no one in Baghdad or Washington has asked Santos for his views on the lessons that Colombia's experience has to offer for the growing abduction problem in the Iraq, where kidnapping has become a key tool of politics, profit and terror.

In an interview yesterday in Washington, Santos argued that kidnapping must be viewed as an insurgent military technique useful for controlling territory (by inspiring such fear that outsiders won't dare intrude), undermining the government's credibility (by creating terror and mistrust) and asserting political control (by intimidating or killing enemies). It is also used to sabotage economic growth, as people will be disinclined to accumulate wealth in a country if their families quickly become targets for ransom, he said.

These lessons are important for the Middle East. The dimensions of Iraq's kidnapping problem are unknown. Last year, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, 449 people were reported kidnapped in Iraq but the official tally is believed to represent fewer than 10% of the actual kidnappings. There are anecdotal reports of families that pay ransom in hopes of freeing kidnap victims, only to learn that their relatives have been beheaded. Fear of kidnapping is often cited by Iraqi refugees as a reason for fleeing the country.

Santos argues that battling kidnapping requires a permanent, specialized law enforcement group with counter-intelligence skills and the ability to conduct undercover surveillance. The weak link for kidnappers, of course, is that they must communicate with the families of their victims in order to collect ransom, and these communications can be intercepted, whether or not the terrified families report the crime. (But abductions for the purpose of ideological intimidation or terror are almost impossible to stop, Santos said, precisely because no demands are made.) Colombia made a dent by forming 32 special law-enforcement units, each with 50 to 100 officers, dedicated to investigating kidnappings and rescuing victims, Santos said. U.S. training also helped, and Colombia now boasts a success rate in hostage rescue operations of more than 95%, he said.

The Uribe government also made a special effort to control the roads, where most of the abductions were taking place. And the decline in kidnapping—down 77% in 2006 alone—is part of an overall U.S.-funded pushback against the two left-wing insurgent groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). However, these two groups and others are still believed to be holding more than 3,000 hostages, including 56 high-profile political figures, military officers and police.

Santos' advice to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki? "Don't try to hide the problem." Many governments try to conceal their abduction statistics, but their people know the truth, he said.

It's hard to imagine that Iraq can quickly copy Colombia's tactics. Efforts to reconstitute the Iraq police and armed forces have been plagued by a Draconian de-Baathification policy, slow U.S. training, terror, attrition and chaos. How could Iraqi law enforcement officials possibly summon the skills and resources to set up special anti-kidnapping units? Still, six years ago, Colombia was being classified as a possible "failed state." And the terror and agony inspired by widespread kidnapping are arguably as corrosive to government and society as suicide bombing. Colombia's lessons are worth a second look.

Sonni Efron is a member of The Times' editorial board. Send us your thoughts at

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