We have repeatedly discussed the pre-operational steps that occur prior to most crimes from similar robbery to assassination and perhaps most notably kidnapping. These steps include things like surveillance and target selection. There is at least one type of crime where this does not occur however — at least not in the typical sense — mass kidnappings or “miracle fishing”. Mass kidnappings often called miracle fishing or pesca milagrosa have been perhaps most common in Latin America, in particular Colombia although it does occur other places as well.
Classic pesca milagrosa reached its zenith in Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s and was largely perpetrated by the two main leftist guerilla groups, the ELN and the FARC and to a degree by right-wing paramilitary groups. Most mass kidnappings have involved victims being abducted at an improvised roadblock although in some cases kidnappers enter an establishment like a restaurant or hotel and take all the patrons hostage.
Mass kidnapping may be less common than other types of kidnaps and it may be more geographically isolated to some areas like rural Colombia — so why spend time talking about it? One key reasons is that most typical proactive security measures have limit usefulness compared to other types of situations.
While there may be a number of ways it can occur (piracy and hostage taking in the horn of Africa or a mass kidnapping from a tourist park as occurred in Uganda) the classic example usually involves a roadblock or unlawful checkpoint — especially in the classic “miracle fishing” scenario in Colombia. The term “Miracle Fishing” refers to the way the perpetrators figuratively “cast a net” and gather “fish”. They keep the big fish and throw back the little ones.
In these situations the kidnappers will typically set up a roadblock on a stretch of road – sometimes over the crest of a hill or at a blind curve in a road to avoid giving the victim advanced warning. As cars pull up the roadblock the drivers and passengers are pulled from the vehicle and either assessed at the scene or more likely detained, moved from the scene to a secure location and assessed for valuation at that point. During the assessment phase the kidnappers will try to determine the value if each victim and then keeping the high-value victims and releasing the low-value victims. In some cases the valuation phase can be quite sophisticated to include using laptop computers and access to bank information. One of the most noteworthy cases of miracle fishing involved the 1994 kidnapping of US agricultural expert Thomas Hargrove at a roadblock outside Cali, Colombia. Hargrove subsequently spent 11 months in captivity. The movie Proof of Life was largely based on the Hargrove case. The movie dramatically depicts a miracle fishing/mass kidnapping incident.
In some cases victims are abducted in mass from a fixed location. I know of one case anecdotally in the early 2000s where the patrons of a roadside restaurant, also outside Cali were kidnapped en masse. They were given rubber boots and marched into the jungle. There each person was assessed and the valuable fish were retained and the others released.
Its important to understand the potential risk of miracle fishing kidnaps because a lot of the things we may do for crime prevention and kidnap avoidance like watching for surveillance, varying routes, etc. will not necessarily help. Situational awareness will still be important though. If you come upon a roadblock suddenly you will have very limited time to determine your best course of action and probably very limited options. We’ll look at assessing and dealing with roadblocks and checkpoints in the near future.