Hostage Negotiator Kidnapped In Mexico
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a new database traces the path of the trans-atlantic slave trade. The effort could help tell the stories of Americans whose ancestors came through the Middle Passage. That's coming up.
But first, we wanted to talk more about the challenges of living in Mexico, especially the business of kidnapping. American Felix Batista was kidnapped last week while doing business in the Mexican City of Saltillo. News of his abduction made international headlines because he is what is known as a response consultant. In other words, he's a hostage release negotiator. He was in Mexico to talk with business executives about ways to prevent kidnapping or minimize the risk of kidnapping.
Joining me to talk more about this is Fred Burton. He's the vice president of Counterterrorism and Security at Stratfor, which is a company that offers research and intelligence to private entities. Welcome, Mr. Burton. Thanks for speaking with us.
Mr. FRED BURTON (Vice President, Counterterrorism and Corporate Security, Stratfor): Michel, thanks for having me on.
MARTIN: Before we move forward, I want to note that we did reach out to ASI Global - that is the firm that employed Felix Batista - that does employ Felix Batista. They declined an invitation to speak with us but they confirmed that they have not received any ransom demand for Mr. Batista as of yet.
So Mr. Burton, before we start, I think a lot of people are surprised to find out that there is such a job as a response consultant. I think most people think of that as a job that government entities do, like the FBI or something like that. So if you could just describe, how long has a job like this existed?
Mr. BURTON: The job has existed for many, many years. And in essence, the negotiators operate outside of the umbrella of the U.S. State Department and the United States Embassy, but they're called in to try to negotiate actually with the hostage holders. So it's very, very dangerous work because you're consistently coming into contact with the same people that were involved in the criminal abduction to begin with.
MARTIN: Who employs response consultants?
Mr. BURTON: Most of your major Fortune 500 companies have K&R Insurance, Kidnap and Ransom Insurance, for their executives or in-country managers. And this has been going on for a good 25 years in locations such as Mexico and the Philippines and Indonesia and in Lebanon. And it's an outcrop of the hostage-takings that have been around since the early '70s. And it's a very lucrative business, and nobody kidnaps more people than criminal gangs in Mexico. For example, there's been more than 1,000 kidnappings that we have documented this year, which is up over 30 percent from last year.
MARTIN: Why has kidnapping become such a thriving business in Mexico? I think a lot of people assume that this is a - that kidnapping is political, that these kidnappings are done for political reasons, to make a political point. And I think what you're telling me is that's not necessarily the case or it isn't really the case at all.
Mr. BURTON: Well, it's not. You have to distinguish between the political kidnappings that have taken place - for example, the hostage taking of the diplomats and Americans in Lebanon back in the '80s, most of which that I worked during that timeframe. What's taking place today in Mexico is just pure criminal enterprise. And what a lot of people don't recognize, especially in the United States, is that we have had cross-border kidnappings into the United States, meaning criminal gangs will come into the U.S., snatch someone from the border and bring them back into Mexico and demand a ransom. So it's a big business.
MARTIN: Why would Mr. Batista have been a target?
Mr. BURTON: Well, this is interesting. I think that his negotiation and his profile at this time was fairly high. Meaning, if you looked at his program and schedule, he had actually been invited down there by the local police entities to do some briefings on this topic, and it appears that he also was engaged in some other kind of business while he was there. And I think the notoriety surrounding this event is a bit surprising to me because we have this take place every day in Mexico. Now, the fact that he was an American and also involved as a professional hostage negotiator has raised the press interest. But this is a major criminal problem in Mexico, as well as for U.S. law enforcement.
MARTIN: So you don't think he was specifically targeted because of the work he does or rather just because he works for a big company, is that what you're saying? You don't find it's - you don't find it remarkable that he was a kidnapping target?
Mr. BURTON: No, I don't. I think that if you look at just the trends that we have been following at Stratfor for the past 18 months or so, it's not surprising to me in the least that he was abducted. I think that the signal that this sends, especially for Western, multinational companies operating in Mexico that actually contract with the services of people like him, it sends a signal that in essence nobody is really safe. And this is the cost of doing business today in Mexico where you need executive protection teams and you need strong physical security measures to protect your personnel and country. In essence, this is the point person that you go to in a time of crisis, when one of your employees has been kidnapped. Now he himself has been kidnapped.
MARTIN: Does it suggest that there was some involvement by persons who were - are connected to the government, by the government entities that invited him?
Mr. BURTON: I think that it's certainly plausible that you may have some corruption amongst the police that perhaps either compromised his schedule or maybe even was involved with his actual abduction. Again, this is not surprising to me in the least. We have serious corruption problems amongst the ranks within the - amongst the police ranks within Mexico, and they have been involved in kidnappings as well as other crime in the past. So that's not surprising.
MARTIN: Forgive me if this is an insensitive question, particularly to someone like yourself who is involved in this work, but what is the survival rate of someone who has been kidnapped under these circumstances? Can one hold out hope that - that Mr. Batista will survive this experience?
Mr. BURTON: Well, I think there's always hope. When you look at this specific incident, because of what he was engaged in and the kind of work he is and the fact that he in essence was kidnapped on December the 10th, which was eight days ago, I think you have to look at it on the measure of - perhaps the hostage rescue teams are staging and very aggressively looking for him and perhaps he will be released.
The fact that apparently there has been no ransom demand is also a bit unusual. It's almost like it's personal with him. It's quite feasible because of his past negotiations he has ran into a criminal enterprise that wants to get even in some capacity. I think the verdict is still out as to who did it. But in essence, this kind of kidnapping is a tad bit unusual because most are either released after the ransom is paid and paid very quickly.
MARTIN: May I know how much is a typical payment? Is there a typical payment?
Mr. BURTON: It depends on the target. You can look at some of these are as little as $5,000 for the release of an individual, and some can be quite expensive. Now, also remember that part of his job is to try to negotiate that ransom down. And in essence, if he's successful in negotiating that ransom down, it's a bit of a bonus for the hostage negotiator, too. So there's a financial incentive for him to bring that ransom demand down, and there's various tactics that the negotiator uses during the course of that. So you can make a lot of enemies in this business.
MARTIN: And finally, you may consider this beyond the scope of your expertise, but you know, looking at it from here, you wonder what hope there is for ordinary people if a kidnapping expert can himself be kidnapped.
Mr. BURTON: Well, that's the issue, especially when you start looking at it from multinational corporation investment in Mexico. The cost of doing business - the security cost of doing business is increasing in Mexico because of issues just like this.
MARTIN: Fred Burton is the vice president of Counterterrorism and Security at Stratfor, which is a private intelligence company. He joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Mr. Burton, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. BURTON: Thank you for having me on.