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Kidnapping is big business in Colombia

Colombia is considered to be the kidnapping capital...

Colombia is considered to be the kidnapping capital of the world, with rival guerrilla and paramilitary groups abducting civilians and using ransom money to finance their 37-year civil war.

The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 3,000 people are kidnapped in Colombia each year. The British Medical Journal reports that is more than half of the world's kidnappings.

Only a handful are Americans and Europeans. Most are Colombians who are either wealthy or who can scrape together ransoms as low as a few thousand dollars.

Mike Ackerman, founder of The Ackerman Group, a Miami, Florida-based firm that consults companies in kidnap and ransom cases, said about 50 non-Colombians are abducted each year. Experts say it is impossible to know the exact number because many kidnappings go unreported.

Ackerman said kidnappers often set up road blocks and question motorists to decide if they are worth kidnapping and how much ransom to demand.

Scottish oil engineer Alistair Taylor, who has been held hostage for the nearly 20 months by communist guerrillas in Colombia, was kidnapped during a drive to work. National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels are demanding a $3 million ransom from his employers, the Texas oil firm Weatherford International. CNN correspondent Karl Penhaul met with the rebels and with Taylor recently and discussed his life as a hostage.

Many companies operating in Colombia and other high-risk countries take out ransom insurance policies on their employees because the risk of kidnapping is so high.

"I would say most large companies, most Fortune 500 companies are insured," Ackerman said.

Most companies will not say whether they are insured, because doing so could invalidate their policies and put their employees at greater risk of being grabbed by kidnappers hoping for multimillion dollar paydays.

According to the U.S. State Department, most Americans kidnapped in Colombia are taken by guerrilla groups, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the ELN. Both are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. There are several smaller groups as well.

The motivation for the kidnappings is usually money, not politics.

"They are political groups that do the kidnapping, but they're out for money. The political groups have to support themselves and one of the ways that they support themselves is through these ransoms," Ackerman said.

Colombia is not the only country with the problem. Ackerman said kidnappings are becoming more common in Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Chechnya, the Philippines and, recently, in Haiti.

Nick Catrantzos of the Control Risks Group, an international firm based in London, England, said kidnapping groups are organized and entrepreneurial.

"They specialize in these things, they develop these cottage industries, [with] a specialization that would make Henry Ford proud," Catrantzos said.

"There are separate gangs that will actually snatch people and then sell them to the highest bidders to the largest organizations," Catrantzos said, "and from that there are separate gangs that contract out for different portions of the kidnapping experience if you will."

He said in many cases the people who guard the victims are simply hired hands who have little contact with the organizers of the kidnapping.

Control Risk has handled about 1,000 cases over the last 25 years.

Catrantzos said there are things companies can do to reduce the risk of their exposure to kidnappers -- but the risk cannot be eliminated.

"The safest way to eliminate risk is to do nothing, to stay at home and never do any business. The minute you eliminate all risk you eliminate all opportunity," he said.

Some of the most important things people can do to reduce their risks are to keep a low profile and avoid setting routines that kidnappers could follow.

Catrantzos said people are most likely to be targeted at home, at work, or while traveling between home and work.

If a person is kidnapped, his government can help his family or employer contact the proper authorities to help secure his release. Many governments, however, including the United States, refuse to pay ransoms or make other concessions to kidnappers.