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Sunday, July 19, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Commentary -- Many Tourists Ignore Kidnap Threat

Washington Post

Editor's note: Hagedorn Auerbach is a former Wall Street Journal reporter. This article is based on her new book, "Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping"

In the summer of 1995, FBI agent Leon Schenck traveled to Kashmir to help negotiate the release of four Western tourists snatched from their campsites after a day of trekking. The case showed how easily unsuspecting tourists can fall into perilous circumstances and how difficult it can be to resolve kidnappings in foreign lands.

The kidnappers were Islamic militants fighting for Kashmir's separation from India. The tourists were pawns in the militants' attempts to pressure the Indian government into freeing some of their imprisoned supporters. On July 4, the militants abducted four men, two Americans (including Donald Hutchings of Spokane, still apparently in captivity) and two Britons, and whisked them to a hideout. A few nights later, one of the Americans crept past his sleeping guards and escaped. The militants then captured two more hikers, a Norwegian and a German.

By the time Schenck was en route a month later, the militants had murdered the Norwegian tourist, Hans Christian Ostro.

On the plane, as Schenck thought about the dangers ahead, he fell into a conversation with two trekkers. "I was shocked," he said later. "I asked them if they knew what was happening in Kashmir. They looked at me, I swear, almost with an air of excitement. `Yes, we know, but we aren't worried. The trekking areas are fine. We'll be fine.' I couldn't respond."

Kidnapping is a greater threat to Americans working or traveling abroad than is commonly known. Several factors have contributed to the rising danger: The booming Western economy and the end of the Cold War have made international travel available to more people. More companies are sending employees to unfamiliar locales. These well-heeled Westerners become alluring targets for drug traffickers seeking ransom money to fund criminal activities, guerrillas with political aims or terrorists seeking to pay for weapons.

As business travelers take steps to protect themselves - many learn kidnap-prevention techniques, drive armored cars and hire bodyguards - they have become what is known as "hard targets."

The "soft target" is the tourist. Unprotected and often distracted, the average tourist is easy to spot. Since 1991, tourists have been abducted in Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Tanzania, Turkey, Venezuela and Yemen.

Governments are sometimes powerless or unwilling to deal with such crimes. In a recent advisory on Colombia, the U.S. government warned travelers: "Since it is U.S. policy not to pay ransom or make other concessions to terrorists, the U.S. government's ability to assist kidnapped Americans is limited."

Many tourists are traveling without the knowledge, skills or humility to know what they might encounter. After the Kashmir kidnappings, a British consular official in India said, "Hundreds of people are still going to Kashmir, despite what's happened. We cannot dissuade them. They think, `It can't happen to me.' "

Last December, when an American businessman was abducted in Acapulco, news reports called it the first abduction of an American in Mexico since the kidnapping wave began there in 1994. I was stunned: I knew of several Americans abducted in Mexico in the previous three years.

I did not fault the press, knowing how hard it is to report these stories. Many incidents are handled covertly, by either companies or families. Even if the cases are known, the targets are rarely high-profile individuals.

I first heard that the kidnap trade was picking up in 1994. As I read the studies of firms that handle kidnappings for corporations and insurance companies, my initial suspicion was that they could be hyping the statistics as a scare tactic to attract clients - especially for kidnap and ransom insurance, a relatively new product that some people say encourages kidnappers.

After interviews worldwide with crime-watch groups, human-rights advocates, government officials, professional negotiators and families of hostages, I realized that the kidnap studies were conservative in their estimates.

Only 10 percent to 50 percent of kidnappings, depending on the country, are reported. "There are no reliable international statistics on kidnappings," said a 1994 report by Kroll Associates, a private-investigations firm that works for governments and corporate clients.

"Fear of retribution, incompetent or corrupt police, or laws that prohibit the payment of ransoms provide powerful disincentives to reporting an abduction. Governments themselves, seeking foreign investment or tourism, have little incentive to broadcast a kidnapping problem. As a result, there may be great disparities between official statistics and informed estimates."

Those in the field have no doubt that abductions are increasing. Consider that in the 1970s and 1980s, when kidnappings were bigger news, Colombia and Italy led the world in kidnappings, with 1,011 and 433 reported incidents respectively for the 10 years from 1976 to 1986. Last year, there were nearly 1,800 abductions in Colombia, which is still considered the world leader in the crime, and as many as 1,500 in each of the countries vying for No. 2: Brazil and Mexico.

In the past five years, according to analysts at several private-negotiations firms, abductions of foreigners have doubled. So-called "fast-food" kidnappings, in which a person is snatched off the street and taken to a bank machine for a cash withdrawal, has become a popular technique in Mexico City. In some countries where longer-term kidnappings occur, such as Brazil, there are "hostage hotels" - houses stocked with food and medicine, operated by kidnap gangs.

Countries undergoing social, economic and political transitions tend to be hot spots for kidnapping. As wars have ended, armies of well-armed soldiers and rebels have become unemployed. Such warriors don't generally become real-estate agents or accountants.

Control Risks Group, a London-based investigations firm that works on kidnap cases, says its list of the most dangerous countries for kidnapping includes Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Pakistan, Guatemala, Venezuela, India and Ecuador. Russia is moving up on the list, and Yemen is widely known as a country where tourists, in particular, are at risk.

Still, if you arm yourself with information and training, you can travel to most places without fear.

Before you leave, check out the State Department's travel advisories , by phone (202-647-5225) or Web site (http://travel.state.gov).

Also available on the Internet are reports by private companies that assess the risks worldwide on a daily or weekly basis; these reports sometimes include announcements that the State Department has not yet posted. And travel writers should mention in their articles any problem in the featured country.

In the years after the fall of communism and the installation of a new regime, a "new" Cambodia was touted in the press. By 1994, tourism was up 50 percent over the year before. None of the glowing articles about the visual riches of Cambodia and its enthralling ruins mentioned the kidnap risk. Victims that year included a woman from North Carolina, who was released after 42 days, as well as three British citizens, two Australians and a Frenchman, all eventually killed by their captors.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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