Express kidnapping – also sometimes called lightening kidnapping – is a prevalent crime in much of the developing world.  While is particularly common in Latin America it occurs globally – I am personally aware of incidents in locations as diverse as Kazakhstan and China.

Tourists and business travelers are much more likely to be victims of an express kidnapping than a more traditional kidnap for ransom.  The typical method of operation is to grab the victim and take him or her to different ATMs to withdraw money until the daily limit is met.  In some case the victim will be held for a day or two to withdraw the limit each day.  On occasion the victim will also be held until a relatively small ransom is delivered by the victim’s family or company — turning it into a mini kidnap for ransom.

Victims are still selected but the selection process is much more rapid than in a traditional kidnap. On occasion the victim may be grabbed of the street and at other times the event may start as a carjacking (this is common in Nairobi, Kenya for example) or a taxi driver may be involved.

Perpetrators of an express kidnap are looking to turn a quick buck and dump the victim.  They usually do not have the infrastructure or desire the hold the victim for more than a few days.  They are also usually less professional than traditional kidnappers also in recent years some express kidnappers have shown increasing sophistication.  One express kidnapping ring in Caracas, Venezuela was gathering personal data on their victims to (a) assign some level of value to the person and (b) for intimidation purposes as the kidnappers can locate the victim, their family members or associates in the future if the victim should go to the police.

Some ways to avoid or mitigate an express kidnapping:

  • As always situational awareness is paramount.  There will be a victim selection process so be aware of people who may be taking unusual interest in you and move to safety as quickly as possible.
  • Avoid using ATMs on the street where you may be targeted.  Try to use ATMs located within a hotel, bank or shopping mall and be especially vigilant at these times.
  • Be very careful when using taxis as taxi crime and express kidnappings are often closely linked.
  • Be alert to carjacking techniques and develop and employ countermeasures.  As with taxi crimes, in some locations carjackings frequently escalate into express kidnapping.
  • Be cautious about drugs such as scopolamine, ativan or rohypnol being used to incapacitate you to facilitate an express kidnapping.  This is also a common modus operandi in certain locations around the world.
  • Consider carrying an ATM card linked to an account with limit funds so the account can be emptied quickly, hopefully limiting the length of your detention.

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