The Missing Hours centres around the activities of The Cole Group, a kidnap & ransom consultancy whose roles involves securing the release of those taken hostage for money. The K&R industry is an opaque world, and I often get asked if what I have written in The Missing Hours is true, or if it is rather the result of my feverish author’s mind.
So, some of the facts…
Kidnap for ransom is, in reality, big business right across the world. Plucking a victim from their life, securing them away from their family and friends, and then demanding a substantial payment from those same shocked and fearful loved ones, has, for many years been a major route to income for criminal gangs and terrorist groups alike. It seems that such crimes should belong only in the pages of a novel, and yet for many thousands of people, they are not a story but rather a shocking, traumatic reality. Between twenty and thirty thousand kidnap-for-ransom events are reported worldwide each year – and those are just the ones that are reported. Experts believe that these figures are merely the tip of the iceberg. After all, there is that most infamous of instructions – ‘do not involve the authorities’. How many more victims are there, whose families do not reach out for help? We do not know.
For many years, Colombia was recognised as being the kidnap capital of the world, with armed groups (particularly FARC & ELN) going after middle and upper class targets. The kidnappings were brutal and often horribly, horribly long, lasting from months to years. In 1999, around 8 kidnappings occurred throughout the country, every single day. However, thanks to the implementation of a robust action plan by the Colombian government, as well as the opening of peace talks with FARC, these numbers have plummeted in latter years to fewer than one a day.
These days, the countries that offer the biggest risk of being kidnapped tend to be those whose infrastructure have been torn apart by civil war and sectarian violence. Syria, Iraq, Libya & Yemen have all been classified as extremely high risk for kidnap for ransom. In The Missing Hours, The Cole Group deals largely with the kidnap of business operatives, foreign nationals caught up in a war that is not theirs. The truth is, however, that worldwide the vast majority of kidnap victims (a whopping 87%) are domestic.
The kidnappings themselves can take a number of forms. You have your classic kidnap for ransom situation, in which – generally speaking – a victim is selected, closely studied for financial means, for ease of capture, for patterns of behaviour, and then, when the time is right, they are taken. The victim will be transported to a place in which they can be discreetly held, and the ransom will be levied to the family left behind. Research has shown that the dangers faced by the victim in these situations are extreme. Death is not uncommon, even after a demand is paid. The hostage experience can be an extremely long, extremely arduous one. A recent case involved a Kenyan woman who had been held by Somali pirates for more than eighteen months and was finally released after a hefty ransom was paid.
Then there is what is known as express kidnapping. In this, a victim is seized and held for a short period of time, during which they are driven about, forced to withdraw money from ATM after ATM until either their funds are exhausted or the withdrawal limits are reached. For the kidnapper, this form of kidnapping is easier – it takes less planning and, because of its limited duration, involves a substantially lower level of risk for the kidnapper themselves. Unfortunately, the danger to the hostage remains hefty. Earlier this year, 39 year old Maria Villar Galaz got into what she believed to be a taxi in Mexico city. The taxi, however, was a cover for a kidnapping operation. Maria was forced to withdraw large amounts of money from her account and then a ransom demand was made to her family. This demand was promptly paid. Tragically, Maria was not released as promised and her body was found in a stream two days later. She had been suffocated with a plastic bag.
In December, 2015, a family home in Dublin was raided by a criminal gang. A mother and daughter were taken hostage, tied up and thrown into the back of a van. The husband and father, a security guard working for a cash-in-transit firm, was ordered to steal €200,000 from his daily load and to deliver it to a drop off point in order to ensure the survival of his family. This is what is known as tiger kidnapping – the taking of hostages in order to ensure that another person takes part in a crime.
Then there is what is perhaps the strangest form of kidnapping – the kidnapping that is not a kidnapping. One day, a Virginia woman received a phone call and the first thing she heard was the sound of a woman screaming. It was, said the man who came on the line, her daughter. They had her and if a ransom was not immediately paid, she would die. The frantic mother immediately followed instructions, travelling from store to store, wiring large amounts of money to an account in Mexico, all the while the kidnapper on the other end of the phone, listening. She could not ask for help. She could not diverge from his instructions. For 5 hours, the mother struggled to gather the money demanded. And then came a text – her daughter, cheerful, checking in. She had not been kidnapped. It was all a scam.
Kidnap for ransom is a very real issue. When these crimes occur, the survival of the hostage depends on the demands of the kidnapper being balanced against the needs of the hostage. Negotiations are invariably fraught with tension and rapid payment of a demand does not always guarantee a happy outcome. The operation of K&R firms allows the high stress levels of these interactions to be mitigated, while the expertise of their consultants means that a path can be navigated through the fear and the panic in order to ensure the survival and release of the hostage. It is from such firms that The Cole Group was born.