By Scott Stewart
Vice President of Analysis
During the afternoon of May 20, officers from the New York Police Department's Major Case Squad entered a warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, where they found Pedro Portugal in a makeshift apartment with his hands bound and his eyes covered. Portugal had been kidnapped April 18 on the street in front of his Jackson Heights, Queens, business — in broad daylight — and held by captors who demanded a $3 million ransom from his family in Ecuador. During his 32-day captivity, Portugal's captors threatened him, beat him to the point of losing teeth and burned him with acid. Lacking the money to pay the ransom, the family turned to U.S. and Ecuadorian authorities for help. An extensive investigation led to the location where Portugal was being held and his eventual rescue.
One of Portugal's captors was arrested as he attempted to flee the warehouse, and two others were arrested shortly thereafter. Three other suspects in the case remain at large, and at least one of them, the alleged ringleader, reportedly traveled to Ecuador shortly after the abduction.
At the moment a kidnapping occurs, the abduction team usually has the element of surprise on its side and typically employs overwhelming force. To the unsuspecting victim, the abductors seemingly appear out of nowhere. But a careful examination shows that most kidnappings are the result of a long and carefully orchestrated process. Because of this, there are always some indications and warnings that the process is under way prior to the actual abduction, meaning that many, if not most, kidnappings are avoidable. The Portugal case provides us with an opportunity to take a more detailed look at kidnappings and how they can be avoided.
Types of Kidnappings
There are many different kinds of kidnappings. Most of them have nothing to do with money or political statements. Rather, they typically are the result of abductions associated with custody disputes, boyfriends who abduct younger girlfriends from their families or strangers who abduct a victim for sexual exploitation.
Even among financially motivated kidnappings, there are a number of different types. The stereotypical kidnapping of a high-value target comes most readily to mind, but there are also more spur-of-the-moment express kidnappings, in which a person is held until his bank account can be drained using an ATM card, and even virtual kidnappings, in which no kidnapping occurs but the victim is frightened by a claim that a loved one has been kidnapped and pays a ransom to the apparent abductors. There are also so-called "tiger kidnappings," in which the target's family is abducted in an effort to force him or her to comply with demands such as to open a bank vault or safe at the target's place of business.
Financially motivated kidnappings can be conducted by a variety of criminal elements. At the highest level are the highly trained professional kidnapping gangs that specialize in abducting wealthy individuals and frequently demand ransoms in the millions of dollars. Such groups often employ teams of specialists who carry out a variety of specific tasks such as collecting intelligence, conducting surveillance, snatching the target, negotiating with the victim's family and establishing and guarding the safe house where the victim is kept. Since kidnapping is such a broad topic, for the sake of this discussion, we will focus primarily on deliberate kidnappings of high-value targets.
At present, the kidnapping environment in the United States is very different from that of places like Venezuela, Guatemala or even Ecuador. In those countries, kidnapping is rampant and has become a well-developed industry with a substantial and well-established infrastructure. Police corruption and incompetence ensures that kidnappers are rarely caught or successfully prosecuted. In many cases the authorities are even complicit in kidnappings, causing families to hesitate to report kidnappings.
But in the United States, crime statistics demonstrate that motives such as sexual exploitation, custody disputes and short-term kidnapping for robbery far surpass the number of reported kidnappings conducted for ransom. The main reason for this difference is the advanced capabilities of law enforcement in the United States. Because of these capabilities, the overwhelming majority of criminals involved in kidnapping-for-ransom cases reported to police — between 95 percent and 98 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics — are caught and convicted. Those convicted also face stiff state and federal penalties.
Since kidnapping is a crime that requires extended contact with the victims to negotiate and receive a ransom, the kidnappers are exposed for a long time. This is a great risk in places like the United States, where police possess sophisticated investigative and technical capabilities. This risk was clearly illustrated in the Portugal case, where the investigators were able to track down the kidnappers and rescue the victim. Because of this environment, and the high cost/benefit equation attached to kidnapping for ransom, it is a relatively rare crime in the United States.
Most kidnappings for ransom in the United States occur within immigrant communities. In these cases, the perpetrators and victims tend to belong to the same immigrant group (for example, Chinese Triad gangs kidnapping the families of Chinese businesspeople, or Mexican criminals kidnapping Mexican immigrants). This is exactly what happened in the Portugal case, with Ecuadorian criminals preying on a victim living in the United States and demanding a ransom from his family in Ecuador.
The Kidnapping Process
In a kidnapping for ransom like the Portugal case, the nature of the crime requires that abductors follow a process very similar to the terrorist attack cycle: target selection, planning, deployment, attack, escape and exploitation. In a kidnapping, this means the group must identify a victim; plan for the abduction, captivity and negotiation; conduct the abduction and secure the hostage; successfully leverage the life of the victim for a ransom; and then escape.
During some phases of this process, the kidnappers may not be visible to the target, but there are several points during the process when the kidnappers are forced to expose themselves to possible detection in order to accomplish their mission. Like the perpetrators of a terrorist attack, those planning a kidnapping are most vulnerable to detection by the victim while they are conducting pre-operational surveillance — which is done well before they are ready to carry out the abduction. As we have noted in several past analyses, most criminals are not very good at conducting surveillance. The primary reason they succeed despite their poor surveillance tradecraft is that, for the most part, no one is looking for them.
Of course, kidnappers are also very easy to spot once they pull their weapons and grab the victim. By this time, however, it is usually too late to escape their attack. They will have selected their attack site and employed the forces they believe they need to overpower their victim and complete the operation. While the kidnappers could botch their operation and the target could escape unscathed, it is simply not practical to pin one's hopes on that possibility. It is clearly preferable to spot the kidnappers early and avoid their trap.
During the kidnapping planning process, kidnappers, like other criminals, look for patterns and vulnerabilities that they can exploit. They will study the potential victim's habits for patterns in an attempt to identify locations where the target will be at predictable times. They will then choose one of these predictable places and times for their abduction operation. Generally, they are looking for an ideal attack site — a place where they can hide their abduction team, quickly gain control of the victim and then quickly escape.
According to the Queens district attorney, in the Portugal case, the victim was walking from his business to his car when he was approached by one of the suspects who called his name and flashed what appeared to be a New York Police Department badge. A second suspect then grabbed Portugal and forced him into a waiting sport utility vehicle at knifepoint. Once in the vehicle, Portugal was beaten into submission and a cap or hood was pulled over his face to obstruct his vision. As the abduction vehicle left the scene, it was followed by a minivan that contained what was likely a security element for the abduction team.
Interrupting the Process
The kidnappers' chances for success increase greatly if they are allowed to conduct surveillance at will and are given the opportunity to thoroughly assess the behavior of the target and the security measures (if any) the potential victim employs. In several cases in Mexico, the criminals even chose to attack despite precautions such as armored cars and armed guards. In such cases, criminals attack with adequate resources to overcome the security measures. For example, if there are protective agents, the attackers will plan to neutralize them first. If there is an armored vehicle, they will find ways to defeat the armor or grab the target when he or she is outside the vehicle. Because of this, criminals must not be allowed to conduct surveillance at will. Potential targets should practice a heightened but relaxed state of situational awareness that will help them spot hostile surveillance.
Potential targets should also conduct simple pattern and route analyses to determine where they are most predictable and vulnerable. This is really not as complicated as it may seem. While the ideal is to vary routes and times to avoid predictable locations, this is also difficult and disruptive and warranted only when the threat is extremely high. A more practical alternative is for potential targets to raise their situational awareness a notch as they travel through such areas at predictable times to look for signs of hostile surveillance.
The term I am using here, "potential targets," points to another very significant problem. Many kidnapping victims simply do not believe they are potential targets until after they have been kidnapped and therefore do not employ simple, common-sense security measures such as practicing situational awareness. Frequently, when such people are debriefed after their release from captivity, they are able to recall suspicious activity before their abduction that they did not take seriously because they did not consider themselves targets.
Potential targets do not have to institute security measures that will make them invulnerable to such crimes — something that is very difficult and can be very expensive. Rather, the objective is to take measures that make them a harder target than other members of the specific class of individuals to which they belong. Groups conducting pre-operational surveillance prefer a target that is unaware and easy prey. Taking some basic security measures such as maintaining a healthy state of situational awareness will, in many cases, cause the criminals to choose another target who is less aware and therefore more vulnerable. Simply paying attention to anomalous events that could be a sign of hostile surveillance and altering one's behavior, or better yet, bringing suspicious behavior to the attention of the authorities, can interrupt the process and cause the kidnappers to target someone else. If such signs are not looked for, or ignored, the victim has very little chance of escape.
In retrospect, almost every person who is kidnapped has either missed or ignored indications of the impending danger. While brutal kidnappings like the Portugal case can be prolonged, traumatic and painful ordeals, they are also almost always avoidable.