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Robert Young Pelton's World: The Kidnap Course
Robert Young Pelton knows more than he should about being taken hostage. Here's how to avoid an unexpected homestay on your next trip. 
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Illustration: Robert Young Pelton

In 2003 two companions and I set off to walk the Darién Gap, the spit of land between Panama and Colombia known for untouched jungles, remote tribes, and occasional bouts of lawlessness. A few days into the hike, a hoard of Colombian paramilitaries tore out of the brush in an ambush, taking us hostage. For the next ten days, my companions and I marched, slept, and ate at the business end of an AK-47 (a story I reported for Adventure, June/July 2003). It was only by chance that the group's leader, Carlos Castaño, heard I'd been kidnapped by his forces. He'd remembered my name from a meeting we'd arranged years before, and put in the order for our release. By the end of the ordeal, I had shed 20 pounds (9 kilograms), my family had been besieged daily by news vans, and I had learned firsthand what it takes to be kidnapped—and live.

Kidnapping doesn't happen just to danger-seeking writers, but to off-the-beaten-path travelers as well. Ecotourists have been grabbed in India, cultural tourists snagged in Yemen, trekkers captured in Algeria, and divers taken hostage by Abu Sayyaf in Malaysia (who used the ransom to fund the terrorist group's resurgence). And though these incidents are rare, the crime of kidnapping is exploding in popularity worldwide. Time to get prepared.

Know the Danger Zones
Though Iraq and Colombia get all the press, the latest kidnapping capital is post-Aristide Haiti, which, according to my source at the UN intelligence center, sees an estimated hundred-plus abductions a day. As for places to which you'd want to travel (i.e., not Haiti), Latin America is the most kidnap-happy region on the planet. Though government figures are spotty, some private risk-assessment firms claim the area accounts for roughly 35 percent of all abducted foreign nationals. Their reports place Mexico as the reigning champ, with Colombia a close second, and Brazil and Venezuela gaining ground in third and fourth places. In those countries, the newest threat is a wave of Jiffy Lube-style abductions, which happen in 20 minutes or less and involve a taxi driver, an armed accomplice, and your ATM card. By the time the fleecing is done, your account has been drained and you're left on a corner, though usually with just enough money to catch another cab. What courtesy.
Dodge the Bullet
Tourists are not necessarily the prime targets of kidnappers, but there are some things you should do to preempt any action. First, kidnappers need time to plan things. Don't go telling every cab driver, doorman, and local tout your itinerary. Also, kidnappers love United States citizens; as a group they get the most press, fetch some of the highest prices, and can be spotted a mile off. Drop the telltale logos and Major League Baseball caps and go for a more generic look.
Second, most snatches take place at a residence or hotel, so start your counter-surveillance there. As you leave, have someone hang back to check whether anyone is following you. On the street I often stop and turn around to see who quickly averts their eyes. You'd be amazed how many times I've caught people trailing me.
Be a Good Hostage
If you do get pinched, your only decent chance to escape is during the initial grab. After that, be careful. Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, once in custody, your chance of breaking free or getting rescued is slim to none. In fact, blown attempts at both are the primary reason why kidnappings turn fatal.
While being held it's critical to channel your stress toward reality, not fear. Keep track of time, distance, or anything concrete, and you'll stay mentally sharp and ready to negotiate if the opportunity arises. Also, there's no sense in lying to your captors; the media will tell them all about you. Don't be surprised if they use that info to run a credit check or home-equity balance online.

Probably the only thing you can do to help yourself is to make conversation. Kidnappers may become a little more sympathetic to their victims after a round of small talk. I asked my captors about their kids, favorite music, anything other than politics, money, or warfare. They probably would have still drilled me in the back if I'd tried to flee, but they may have hesitated that crucial second.
Go In Prepared
There is insurance for everything, even kidnapping. And while kidnap, ransom, and extortion (KRE) insurance used to be a luxury reserved for corporate execs, it's now available to casual travelers. The standard million-dollar policy provides a professional negotiator, a ransom, evacuation, and emergency medical care. According to KRE insurance expert Robin Ingle (, coverage for countries with State Department warnings will cost more, but a reasonable base price is $1,000 a year. And now the burning question: Do I have KRE insurance? Maybe I do, maybe I don't. But publicizing your policy will result in instant cancellation.
Robert Young Pelton is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places.

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