By MATTHEW HARWOOD
Published on Security Management
Christopher Falkenberg and Christopher Voss discuss the threat of an executive or employee kidnapping and why the Southwest could see an increase in such crimes.
Christopher Falkenberg, president of Insite Security, is a corporate and personal security expert. He is a former U.S. Secret Service Agent and attorney. While with the Secret Service, Mr. Falkenberg conducted numerous protective advances for the President, government officials both here and abroad and visiting dignitaries. At Insite Security, he regularly consults with Fortune 1000 companies and high-net-worth individuals on threat assessments and management, executive and family protection, security training, evacuation training, workplace security, disaster recovery planning and much more.
Christopher Voss joined Insite Security in 2009, as the managing director and leader of the firm’s Kidnapping Resolution Practice. His role is to address the security needs and protection of corporate employees and high-net-worth individuals. Mr. Voss received his training on hostage survival and negotiations during his 24-year tenure with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Throughout his career, Mr. Voss has negotiated more than 150 hostage releases and was awarded the FBI Agent’s Association Award for Distinguished and Exemplary Service and the Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement.
At 4:30 pm on Thursday, October 14, Falkenberg and Voss will conduct the session “Corporate Kidnapping: Preparing Management for the Unthinkable” at the ASIS International 56th Annual Seminar and Exhibits. The session will discuss how a company can integrate a working plan into its existing decision-making structure, raise awareness of ethical and legal parameters surrounding a kidnapping, and prepare security professionals and executives to handle conversations with a professional kidnapping negotiator.
What are you gentlemen presenting on during seminar?
Voss: As we continue to help companies understand corporate kidnapping cases, there are some consistent types of misperceptions or disconnects in these types of cases that we are seeing.We’d like to take this chance at the ASIS seminar to help people understand what they’re getting into.
When most companies deal with a kidnapping it’s probably their first time. And since they’re used to dealing with a high-pressure environment, they don’t quite understand how their approach to problem solving doesn’t quite translate to this environment. I get asked the same questions over and over by experienced CEOs who deal with stressful situations and they just need some help in understanding their current approach to problems and how it needs to be tweaked during a kidnapping.
What are those questions?
Voss: One organization we talked to had a sister organization that had someone kidnapped. The CEO called me back and asked me if I had been following it in the press. I had been aware of it, but I hadn’t been following it closely and I told the CEO that. And the CEO said, “Take a good look at it and I think this kidnapping is going to be the model for all kidnappings of this type.” I thought all right, maybe there’s something unusual here, I’ll take a closer look at it. And I did, and I looked at the reporting on it and there was absolutely nothing remarkable about the case. It was a cookie-cutter case like dozens and dozens just like it in the 150 cases that I’ve seen. So my question was this: “If this is not a new case, then the issue is it’s new to this CEO.” CEOs aren’t used to getting hit by things that are new to them. So if it’s completely new to them, they think it must be new to the world. Because in their world, they’re so experienced: they know what they’re doing. I realized that kidnapping tests people who aren’t used to being caught off guard.
When you guys go out and work, how much resistance do you receive from your customers?
Voss: We don’t get resistance once we have been hired. It’s helping them understand what the need is and what the possibilities are. It’s a little bit like trying to describe a jet airplane to a person who has only flown in propeller-driven planes. For example, if you’re flying a Corsair from World War II and someone tries to describe what it’s like to be in a supersonic plane.The Corsair pilot thinks they’ve got the fastest, most agile fighter out there. It’s hard to describe something faster.So it’s trying to help people grasp something that they have no way of understanding, because they’ve never been in the situation before, and they’re so experienced in their own worldview that they have trouble believing that this situation is different.
What types of companies need to seek out Insite’s expertise? I would think the vast majority of businesses don’t really need kidnap protection strategies.
Falkenberg: I disagree with that characterization. I think any business that does any work abroad, sends its employees abroad, has employees that live abroad, or has responsibilities for contractors or subcontractors that operate abroad should be concerned about kidnapping. I also think we’re heading toward a period where companies that have significant operations in Southwestern states like California, Texas, and Arizona all have to be concerned about this.
There are two issues. Obviously, kidnap for ransom is much more prominent abroad than it is within the United States. Obviously firms that exclusively send their employees to the United Kingdom or Germany have to be concerned less than companies that send employees to Mexico and Ecuador. Any of these countries that have kidnapping operations – Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East – have to do this. Vis-a-vis U.S. operations, it is becoming quite clear that the incidents of kidnapping for ransom in the Southwest, principally in areas where there is a lot of Mexican-American gang involvement, is increasing. Today, most of the targets of that type of kidnapping are poor people who have a background similar to the perpetrators. It seems inevitable to us that because ransom rates are so much higher when you start kidnapping wealthier people that that’s going to happen in the United States, in these areas in particular, and that companies that operate there should have a plan in place. I think Chris will tell you the trajectory of a domestic kidnapping in Texas, Arizona, or California is quite different than what it is abroad and far more dangerous.
Is the divide between kidnapping for money and kidnapping to kill?
Voss: In a domestic U.S. kidnapping, the kidnappers know that there’s a higher likelihood that they’re going to be caught, which makes the victim a liability. And the victim is the best witness against the kidnappers. Because of the penalties in the U.S. for kidnapping – they’re not only going to get caught but the law is going to be enforced.They are going to do life in prison, if not potentially face the death penalty. Therefore they must get rid of that key witness. Internationally, kidnappers are not faced with those kinds of penalties, so the witness is not that much of a liability and that’s the principal difference.They can let a witness be ransomed out internationally and be quite comfortable that more than likely that witness is not going to testify against them, so the victim is no longer a threat.
So the lesson here is that there’s a greater likelihood of getting kidnapped overseas but also a greater likelihood of surviving the ordeal?
Voss: If you’re kidnapped overseas, the chances you’ll survive is very high, physically. Now how you survive psychologically – if you ever regain your life again – that is another question. I know many kidnap victims who were kidnapped five, six, seven years ago, they’re still not over it. That has much more to do with how that kidnapping is handled while you are in captivity.
So many kidnapping victims essentially get PTSD?
Voss: Exactly, not only the victims, but the families get it. There are studies that indicate that the families of kidnap victims are suffering PTSD at roughly the same rates as the kidnap victims themselves are.
Looking ahead, have we seen a greater escalation in kidnapping rates all across the world over time?
Voss: Internationally, for political reasons, the kidnapping rates around the world jumped coincidentally with the end of the second Iraq War. Now as a general rule, it’s pretty much stayed the same worldwide, but it tends to move around. For example, the kidnap rate in Haiti three years ago was extremely high. In the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, we dealt in early 2005 to late 2006 with probably over 150 kidnappings in Haiti alone. There were so many of them that we had to spread them out throughout the Crisis Negotiation Unit. While that rate has gotten much lower in Haiti, Mexico has jumped up. Mexican kidnappings are being exported down into Central America since the Mexicans have created such an efficient and lucrative model for kidnapping.Drug gangs are making more money off of kidnapping then they were drug dealing. It’s like a virus that spreads.
What are the greatest kidnapping threats facing American companies? Do you feel the threat is bigger internally in the Southwest or is it anywhere people travel?
Voss: The Southwest is a growing threat because the Mexican- American gang problem is getting out of control and it’s an extremely lucrative business. And if American companies do business overseas, they think that they’re safer if they don’t send American workers. But the reality is that the local businessman is a higher target anyway. A typical American such as myself, I walk into Tijuana, I probably won’t get kidnapped. I could probably get shot and killed, either by stray gunfire or someone trying to murder me, but they don’t like kidnapping in Tijuana. Now the company I’m working for or that I own, if I decide in order to be safer I’ll send someone that lives in Tijuana, that’s their target anyway.
What’s the reason behind that?
Voss: Any kidnapping industry that has any maturity knows that if it kidnaps a U.S. citizen, the U.S. government is going to get involved. And they don’t want Uncle Sam and all those resources coming across the border. History has shown that as long as local citizens are getting kidnapped in Mexico, the U.S. is not getting heavily involved. They’ve come to learn that it’s very practical—every now and then they’ll accidentally grab an American citizen. But I’ve seen Americans pushed out of the way in order to grab what they thought was a local citizen who happened to be a dual-national. So every time they grab an American citizen, suddenly Uncle Sam’s law enforcement and resources are focused on that. So they’ll do it once or twice by accident and then they’ll come to realize that as long as they don’t grab Americans, then Uncle Sam doesn’t come across the border. That’s when they start to take the business associates of the companies that are doing business down in these countries.
What’s really worrisome about the Southwest then if the kidnappers are going to be reluctant to come across and kidnap any Americans?
Voss: They’re going to kidnap the Mexican-American businessman that we’re trying to do business with and they’re coming across the border to take them.
So the kidnappers know their intended victims’ travels and they pick a weak point to grab them?
Voss: Kidnappers go after low-hanging fruit. They’re going to pick the people that are easy to get and they’re going after more and more legit businessmen, so if I’m going to do business in Mexico and I hire a Mexican-American to do business for me, that’s the guy they’re going to go after.
So where does the kidnapping threat to companies in the Southwest come from if kidnappers are afraid to grab them inside the United States?
Falkenberg: In the Southwest you have either members or former members of gangs who live there. And those are the people who are engaging in kidnappings now of other ethnic Mexicans, and their sights are entirely likely to shift up the food chain, I think.
You fear they’re going to go after bigger fish?
Falkenberg: Yes, it’s a business. If you can achieve a five or ten thousand dollar ransom in kidnapping someone from the neighborhood and realize you can achieve a $100,000 ransom kidnapping somebody who lives in an affluent area or is coming out of corporate business park, it’s inevitable that that’s going to occur. And it’s also inevitable that it will be a much more dangerous situation for the victim because law enforcement will get involved and the perpetrators will be really concerned about getting caught because they don’t have collusive policemen to protect them as they do in foreign countries.
What do you say to the companies that don’t have a lot of resources but do want to develop kidnapping response plans? How should they go about that?
Falkenberg: It doesn’t require deep pockets to do the planning. None of this is incredibly expensive when you consider the risk. It’s not costly to engage a consultant to help you plan this. I think it’s rare that you’re going to find a real company that hasn’t looked at their crisis management plan, which has either hired someone in-house or sought some assistance on their disaster preparedness plan or business continuity plan or crisis management plan. A kidnapping is a crisis, but it’s a particular type of crisis, so it doesn’t require a multinational company with millions in a security budget to fully prepare. Nor does it require a ransom payment. But is there self-help guidance that we can offer? Yes, I think we’ll try to offer that at the seminar.
Voss: Seminar attendees should be able to check into the U.S. policy on their own and prep their own legal counsel. And we’ll tell them exactly what to do and how to prep them in order to do that. They should be able to begin to involve their own H.R. team to be able to minimize the traumatic stress damage to the victim and everyone else who is going to suffer traumatic stress. It’s understanding that the victims here aren’t just the kidnap victims but there are other people that are going to be damaged, potentially to the point of not being able to function as a result of the kidnapping. And they’re not even the victim.