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In Colombia, which averages about 3,000 kidnappings a year, left-wing insurgents are involved, and are estimated by the World Bank to have collected at least $1 billion in ransoms and 'insurance' from foreign companies over the past 20 years.
In the Caribbean, where there are no guerrilla groups, drug-trafficking and people-smuggling have until now been the most common criminal activities. However, there are signs that some organisations are diversifying into the expanding kidnapping business.
This is at least in part a response to more effective security operations at airports, and the interdiction of ships and planes transiting the Caribbean. Well-organised international criminal gangs are highly adaptable, and well-informed enough to spot new opportunities.
They often have an advantage over the authorities of small states, which are short of resources and ill-equipped to respond to multiple challenges.
The expansion of this activity is likely to undermine investment in the region and hinder recovery in the tourism sector. Tourism is an important source of revenue for the Caribbean which, after the negative impact of September 11, 2001, could now be well placed to benefit from concerns over the spread of Severe Acute respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in other popular tourist destinations.
In the Caribbean, the recent explosion of violent crime has included kidnapping for profit in some of the larger countries.
In Guyana and Trinidad, wealthy businessmen have been taken and held until ransoms, sometimes in excess of a million dollars, have been paid.
In both countries, kidnappings have reflected political and communal divisions and helped to exacerbate them.
In the other Caribbean country where there has been a recent increase in kidnappings, the Dominican Republic, the police are held in low esteem by those they are meant to protect.
Official figures indicate that there have been 10 kidnappings since the beginning of last year, in which the victims' relatives paid a total of $20 million for their release. In one high-profile case, a leading textile manufacturer, Juan Fernando Capellan Diaz, was kidnapped last August while jogging near his hone in Santiago.
His family are said to have paid more than a million dollars to secure his freedom, using a local priest as an intermediary. They did not contact the police, because they did not trust them to handle the delicate matter competently, or even not to be involved in the kidnappings themselves.
Because of this mistrust of the police, foreign private security companies, with expertise in training potential victims and in negotiating with kidnappers, have become involved in a growing number of cases. The authorities try to discourage the use of such companies, many of them based in south Florida, because they feel that the agreed payment of ransoms merely encourages the gangs to expand their activities and perhaps to increase their demands.
The companies argue that the victims are much more likely to survive if professional negotiators are involved. The police appear to be improving: they claimed an important success at the end of March, when three of the members of a gang that kidnapped a six-year-old boy were captured or gave themselves up, and the 750,000-peso ransom was recovered.
In the Dominican Republic, only the rich and powerful have been targeted by the kidnappers so far.
Caribbean governments are aware that they need a coordinated approach to tackling escalating crime rates.
Regional initiatives include one by the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), an umbrella body that includes mainland countries such as Colombia and Venezuela, as well as the island states.
The ACS recently formed a special advisory group on security, which is charged with presenting recommendations to the next summit of heads of government, in Panama later this year.
There is also a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Task Force on Crime and Security, which has been working on the causes of crime, and the CARICOM heads of government meeting in Trinidad in mid-February agreed to use a Regional Security System (RSS) mechanism as the basis for improving information-sharing and intelligence cooperation between member states, and for providing assistance for non-RSS countries in the region.
The authorities are not well equipped to deal with what is a relatively new phenomenon, which is compounded by widespread mistrust of the police.
Further regional cooperation in training and information-sharing are essential if kidnapping is to be curbed.