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Lu Wanzhen, 22, was seized on Saturday from an underground parking garage by four masked men. Police had been searching for him, but only succeeded in tracking down the car used in his abduction. A year-old man earlier arrested in connection with the case was released unconditionally, and the suspects remain at large. But it may be in those cases of insurance. And I negotiated this deal sort of the last minute, and I had no chance to send a check to the owner of the cabin for the two nights we were going to be there. The one night, it turned out; but I paid a two-night minimum because I was so eager to have a day with my wife at Big Sur.

And she said, 'Oh, don't worry about the check, sending me a check. Just, when you leave, just put the money down in cash on the table, the breakfast table. The cleaning lady will pick it up. I could decide not to leave the full amount, because I didn't think it was fair after thinking about it, to pay for to nights when I'm only staying one. The cleaning lady could pocket the money. The landlady--the owner--could claim she never got the money. But, of course, none of that happened. I left the cash on the table.

My joke is that I took a photo of it, just in case these things were claimed, which, of course, a photo has no value whatsoever, but it made me feel better. And, you know, through culture and even though there was no repeat business--it was a one-off transaction, almost surely--everything went fine, and smoothly. But this kidnapping--these kidnapping interactions are nothing like that. And, you never think about, as someone who hasn't[? The idea of making sure the prisoner is alive. It's a classic thing in a movie, where the hostage is shown holding a newspaper from a recent time; and as you point out, Photoshop is reducing the value of that as a piece of useful information.

But all these things are incredibly uncertain. So, one of the questions you have to ask, especially since many of the people involved in this have very different incentives and emotional stakes and all kinds of difficulties, why would it ever go smoothly? So, what did you discover that helps understand why it goes so well? Anja Shortland: The only reason for this kind of trade to go smoothly is what economists call the shadow of the future.

So, people behave well this time 'round because it will help them in their business in future interactions. So, when I started saying what a tricky trade this was, I started off by saying this is a one-off transaction. And it would be for the factory. But, this will only work if the kidnapper understands that he's better off keeping the promises than breaking the promises. And that works because there must be a mechanism for information about good and bad behavior to be transmitted to future victims.

So, if you have a kidnapping gang working in a city, then local gossip will probably ensure that people know whether or not they can trust the kidnappers. However, how does that work for transnational hostages? How does it work for the tourist that gets picked up in a bar late at night?

How does that work for the aid-worker? How does that work for the expatriate? And that's where kidnap insurance comes in. It's the kidnap insurance and the fact that there's a very limited number of insurers, syndicates, underwrite kidnap-for-ransom; and they exchange information about trustworthy kidnappers and rogue kidnappers. And they make sure that rogue kidnappers will make it very difficult to continue in business, once they've broken their promises. Russ Roberts: And, of course, as you point out, there are specialists who negotiate, help pay the ransom; and the insurance market is essentially coordinating that.

It's a very strange market, because--I think you say this explicitly although maybe not quite the way I'm going to say it. Without the insurance role--without a role for insurance companies and the purchase of insurance to reduce the risk of kidnapping, or the cost of it, the kidnapping might not happen because it would be much harder to extract money. So, what the insurance does is--you use the phrase, 'it orders the market.

So there's a certain level of, not micro moral-hazard, but I always[? So, let's start with: Who buys insurance? I've traveled abroad a few times in my life. I have never bought kidnap insurance. But, I wonder how I would feel if it said, 'Would you like to buy kidnap insurance for your time in Caracas? And so, talk about how that--who insures? Who buys kidnap insurance? Anja Shortland: You're absolutely right, pointing to moral hazard: the problem that people change their behavior because they are insured; and they become possibly more risk-seeking or less keen to minimize their risks if they know that there is insurance.

So, the condition of kidnap insurance is that you don't know about it. So, it would be bought on your behalf by a responsible firm that is putting people in harm's way, whomso, if a firm operates in what the industry calls 'complex and hostile territories,' then they have the option of buying kidnap-for-ransom insurance for their employees. But they must not tell their employees that they have done so. Anja Shortland: With the kidnap insurance also comes a responsibility to train people how to behave in the case of a kidnap. And, to put in place all sorts of security protocols to really minimize the kidnapping, the probability of a kidnapping occurring.

So, Plan A, for an insurer is always that their customers do not get kidnapped. It is not in the insurer's interest to get into a ransom situation in the first place. So, it's a very cleverly structured contract to make it very unlikely that a kidnapping occurs. And then there's Plan B: If something goes wrong, it will almost always go right. We will make people come home, in a reasonable time, absolutely minimizing the dangers to them.

Also minimizing the price. And therefore the incentives for the kidnappers to target their customer--that type of hostage--again. Anja Shortland: Oh, very rarely needs to be operated on, thankfully. But, yeah: The kidnap insurance will only work if Plan A works almost all of the time; and Plan B mops up almost all of the rest. Some people die in captivity for existing medical conditions. And some people try and escape--and that's very, very dangerous.

But, yeah. There are [? Russ Roberts: So, let's go back to the beginning of the insurance story. It's a little bit strange because--I don't really--the moral hazard, as you point out in the book, is a little bit different than it is in other situations. I don't really have a very big incentive to go into the bad parts of a city, or the deserted stretches of highway, and putting myself at risk to be kidnapped, because I say to myself, 'Well, it's no big deal; I've got insurance. Anja Shortland: Yes, but your employer might say, 'We'll travel down that road.

We'll engage in this activity, because we are covered. Russ Roberts: Yes. But the other part, which I think is also, in many ways, more interesting to me, is that the insurance company has a great deal of specialized knowledge that is not in the--that would be very expensive for the individual or for the firm to acquire. So, by buying the insurance I tap into that [? And of course, it is then in the insurance company's interest to make sure I act on that knowledge.

And that's why you have the--you talked about training programs. I assume there's--I assume there's regions you are not allowed to go into, or your insurance is going to be voided. Anja Shortland: Indeed. There are certain things that are uninsurable; and that's very much part of the product. So, certain things cannot be done, unless whatever local, community, overlord, etc.

Russ Roberts: And the insurance company obviously wants, has to be acquiring information constantly about where the worst dangers are, and so on. They want real time risk as closely as they can acquire it, and as accurately as they can get it. But, let's talk about a case where, despite those best efforts at prevention, there's a kidnapping.

Are there certain--is there any pattern to what goes wrong and when someone does get abducted? Anja Shortland: If you know that somebody can kidnap you--if it's known there is an warlord or a rebel group or insurgent movement that has the power to kidnap people at will--then it is usually a good idea to pay the protection money.

So that they don't do it. So, the kidnappers save themselves the hassle of actually kidnapping somebody and conducting a ransom negotiation, etc. And similarly for the firm, that wants to do business in a particular territory. It's better not to put the employees at risk of kidnapping.

So, mostly we see kidnapping in areas where you don't know who to pay, because there are multiple kidnapping gangs, multiple people laying claim to a territory, or where the state moves in on drug cartels, for example: so that would be the Mexican story. If you don't know who governs, who rules a territory, then that gets difficult to organize, protect. And that's where we see kidnapping. So, that would be the pattern: You don't know who to pay for protection.

Russ Roberts: Wouldn't that be a place that you wouldn't want to do business in? So, I guess the--I guess it would have to be the case that when you are operating, we see a business operating in an area where they don't know who to pay, and they then engage in kidnapping, insure--engage in acquiring kidnapping insurance: There must be enormous profits there for them to take that risk. Anja Shortland: Absolutely. And that's why mostly the companies that we see operating in these hostile and complex territories are oil companies, mining companies, etc.

It's not worth trying to manufacture cars or print books or something like that. Is that the right--do I have the right amount? Russ Roberts: And he decided that was exorbitant; and he decided he'd just get in on his own. Tell what happened. Anja Shortland: Yes. So, this is someone who is told that there would be a roadblock if he wanted to get his goods from A to B.

He didn't want to pay, basically. It wasn't about being exorbitant, but he just didn't want to pay. So he thought, 'I'm going to be clever about this. I'm going to hide the goods on a float. I'm going to put a band on it, and I'm going to let my goods join a procession in honor of the Virgin Mary, and nobody will know that I'm taking these goods across this road. And then he realized his friend was missing. His friend has been kidnapped on the way. So, he knows exactly what's happened. People know where they are. He gets directed to the [?

So, he goes into a tent. And a small tip will be helpful; and also they would like some prescription glasses and a few painkillers to be delivered alongside this ransom. So, this man agrees to everything; get's reunited with his friend. They drive out together. So, he goes off home; goes into the next town; raises the ransom; gets the army to help him deliver the ransom and the painkillers and the prescription glasses to the agreed spot.

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And then a few days later his friend's car arrives as well. And I thought, 'That's a really interesting story, because while there is a kidnapper at the heart of it, it very much sounded like a government enforcing a tax demand by making an arrest. And, also, the rebel groups will tax business activity within their territory, but they will tax it at such a rate that makes it unprofitable to engage in that business, because they want future business, and therefore they'll be cautious about how much they demand and how unpleasant that demand is made.

Anja Shortland: Exactly. So, basically everyone afterwards reverted to equilibrium behavior. The businessman now knew that he was not going to mess with the FARC. If they asked him for money then they would get it. And they didn't hassle him or kidnap anybody else.

Kidnapped (novel) - Wikipedia

And everything worked fine after that. So, I think it's really interesting to think of kidnapping as part, really, of an intended protection relationship. Russ Roberts: We'll talk about that. Russ Roberts: But, how did the government get involved in making that delivery? They don't get along, right? The government and FARC, right? Aren't they enemies? Anja Shortland: Well, this is some time ago. And, I found it interesting. I wasn't able to get to the bottom of this. But it did seem to be some sort of live-and-let-live arrangement at the very local level.

Something that the central government probably had no idea about. But basically, if you leave people in peace out in the periphery, eventually they seem to come to cooperative solutions that allow people to bring investment goods from A to B--you know, the store[? Russ Roberts: With a little slice for the rebels to finance their computers, and Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about the negotiation. Usually in the movies they work with the police. The criminals demand that it be unmarked; and there's always some secret way that the police try to mark it so that they can trace the money, or trace the criminals--the kidnappers.

And then the money gets paid--in a suitcase, usually. And sometimes the hostage release goes well; sometimes it doesn't.


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And we'll get to that piece in a minute. But, the negotiation itself is quite fascinating. Talk about who does the negotiating in most of these situations. Because, it's not the police; and it's not the loved ones, directly. It's a consultant. So, describe how that works. Anja Shortland: We talked about moral hazard before. And moral hazard really kicks in with kidnap for ransom. If you think you are insured for a million, and as an insured person you want to make sure you are treated as well as is possible, and you divulge that information to the kidnappers, and then they know how much money they are talking about.

So, that's why that information is kept from the insured person. What insurers want to happen is that the kidnapped person, the hostage, tells their kidnapper is, 'Look, you've got to call my wife. Because they are going to be responsible for getting me back. My firm won't take responsibility for me. And that makes it easier to manage the kidnapper's expectations about how much money there is going to be got out of a negotiation. And, the other thing that one really needs to think about is what the negotiation needs to achieve is, a.

But b , also it needs to work as a self-enforcing contract, in that it's got to be in the kidnappers' best interest to release the hostage after they've got the money.

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So, not only do you have to negotiate a price that is acceptable on some level to the kidnapper, but you've got to find a price that convinces the kidnapper that they've got everything that they could possibly have got out of this. Anja Shortland: The way this process has been described to me, on many occasions, is one of squeezing the towel dry. So, you start squeezing and a lot of water will run out of the towel.

You keep squeezing, and you keep squeezing harder; and you give it another twist, and another twist. But whatever you do, eventually nothing else comes out. Or, rather, the drips and drabs that come out are not quite worth holding onto the hostage for. So, you start off with a demand. That demand needs to be quite strongly resisted. Because it's not a price as we'd think of in a supermarket. But, it's a figure beyond somebody's wildest dreams of avarice. And if you say, 'That's fine; I'm happy to pay that,' then they will just revise their demand upwards.

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In a well-organized ransom negotiation, you will have increments on a rather low first offer; but these increments have really got to slow down. So, mimicking this process of squeezing, squeezing the towel dry. The key to, um, paying a morally, ethically responsible ransom is to manage the size of the towel that the kidnappers think they are squeezing. Russ Roberts: How can you possibly do that? Obviously one way is to say, you know, 'My uncle is going to pay for this. But when the kidnappers expect that you have a corporation behind you, they start with a large number. As you say.

And if you respond--do you respond with an incredibly low number? And who is responding? How does that work? And how does the insurance company get involved on the ground with that actual process? Anja Shortland: Well, somebody will take, officially take responsibility for the negotiation. Sometimes that will be the company.

And often it will be the family. The family, or the company, whoever takes responsibility, makes all the decisions here. And they are making the decisions in the best interest of the hostage. But they will get advice and they will get coaching, and that coaching and advice will be dispensed by a highly experienced specialist, who has dealt with dozens and perhaps a hundred of this type of cases before. And, who can steer the conversation, and help the stakeholders understand that it's not in the best interest of the hostage to necessarily react positively, in a way, to horrible threats being made.

That, to coach them and help them to say: What is the right level? What would be the right increment? The decisions are made by the stake-holder. All that can be offered as advice and guidance; but it is offered by very charismatic, very calm, and very experienced people.

And most people find that very helpful indeed. Russ Roberts: And, they are probably not like most people you talk to, in the world. They are probably a little bit unusual, I assume. It takes a certain kind of person to find that line of work appealing and to be good at it. Most of them are former elite military personnel.

And, yeah, they are very calm under pressure. They understand the criminal mindset. They are not easily flustered. Russ Roberts: Tell the story--you tell the story in the book of the family, it was what's in a photograph of a finger being chopped off, with blood everywhere? Anja Shortland: A horrid picture where the family had been threatened with mutilation.

And then this picture arrives in the post. The very second where a finger is being chopped off. And the family of course goes into a tailspin. And, the consultant says, 'Well, hang on. They chopped off the finger. Where is the finger? Why haven't they sent us the finger? Russ Roberts: Spoken like an economist, of course.

But, that hostage did come back with ten digits, if I remember correctly. Anja Shortland: Absolutely right. And yes. What the kidnappers had done--a carefully prepared knife, with a little bit spared out. So it looked like fingers were being chopped off.


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But they weren't. Because, ultimately it's not in the kidnappers' interest to mutilate hostages, to get into a situation where people think they need to mount a rescue: this hostage is lost; whatever is going to happen, anyway. So, it's, it's a really interesting game of signaling, where the stake-holders want to signal that they are patient and that they are financially constrained. Until you stop reacting in this way. Russ Roberts: Yeah.

That's very good parenting advice, actually. I've been on a couple of programs recently on parenting, and I'll just let listeners draw their own conclusions there. Before we go on, I want to ask you Russ Roberts: And managing expectations. And the shadow of the future--as you mentioned.

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Russ Roberts: I don't want to miss this chance to ask this question. There's a--the book is, um--it's a little bit chilling, because it deals, of course, with a very unpleasant side of life that, fortunately most of us haven't been exposed to. But it does give you pause about travel. And I'm curious if, having written the book and done all the research that you did, and talked to all the people you did, if it had an impact on your state of mind?

Your willingness to travel; your unease? You talk about, at one point in the book, being I think it enables and somebody reassuring you, 'Oh, don't worry. The mafia makes everything safe here. I'm curious where you are now. Anja Shortland: There are certainly some places that I wouldn't want to travel. Or never did want to travel. I've done a lot of work on Somalia, but I mostly[?

To me, what [? How do you make a self-enforcing contract? How do you find a structure that incentivizes people to give excellent service over and over again--for people not to run with money when they could? And to me it was a real revelation about how good markets are and in particular Lloyd's market is at creating institutions and creating processes that deal with these completely impossible situations. And, we often ask companies to do mutually exclusive things, like go and do business in complex and hostile territories so that we can drive cars, etc. Do that with taking care of fulfilling the duty of care towards their employees.

And yet not engaging on some level with whoever controls that territory. So, we're asking really difficult questions of people and they come up with solutions, and then we can wonder whether they are good solutions. But, they are workable. And I find that interesting. Russ Roberts: You mentioned Lloyd's. Lloyd's plays an important role in the book. Lloyd's, for listeners who don't know, is a legendary insurance company in the United Kingdom--in England. And, if you had asked me, 'What's special about them?

I knew nothing about this, of course; but you point out that they play a central role in the market. So, talk about what they do and how that organizes the insurance market; and then, in turn, affects the market for kidnapping. So the interesting thing about Lloyd's is, it's not a company. It's a market in which companies come together to insure Special Risks. So, if you go to Lloyd's and want to buy kidnap insurance, you will approach a Lloyd's broker, and within the market the 20 or so companies that are willing to underwrite this Special Risk.

So, here you have a club of companies that will compete for business with each other; but on the other hand, they are also close enough together--and they are geographically co-located in one big room, which allows them to come to agreements about what is and what isn't insurable, on what conditions it would be insurable. And, that way the customer gets a choice about what to ensure exactly under what conditions and at what price. But on the other hand, these companies work well enough together to create that shadow of the future--the idea that if a pirate group in Somalia misbehaves and starts torturing sailors, they will be out of business, or their business will work really badly across the board because everyone will treat them much worse.

Russ Roberts: But is there some reputational force there? We've been talking about this as a one-off transaction, and you mentioned the local knowledge that might spread about the unreliability of a kidnapper's promises. Do the insurance firms know who these people are that they're dealing with? When we get to the situation where the executive of an oil company is abducted--or not an executive but some relatively low-level person who is out on the street doing some actual work gets abducted--does the insurance company's consultant actually know who they are dealing with on the other side?

Is there really a shadow of the future for that individual? To put it more clearly That's exactly what it is. It's not the insurer. It's the crisis responder who is retained by the insurer. But yes: the crisis responder will have the data, will have experience, and will probably have met that kind of group or that group at some previous point. And they will have also the ability to find out all the information that they need, that they can get at the local level.

So, yeah, they plug into the local knowledge and they have their own knowledge, and probably know quite well from the interactions with the Somali pirates that people basically met each other again. So, [? Anja Shortland: reputation stabilized this game even though the insurers themselves remain in the background. They make it clear that bad behavior will be punished. Russ Roberts: Because you'd think, to pick a gruesome example, that chopping off a finger is a threat; and then carrying it out would be often an effective way to get a larger sum of money.

And yet, you suggest it rarely happens in these cases. You know, obviously there is an enormous range portrayed in the book of street gangs who kidnap people, resolve it quickly for a few hundred dollars, but also there are many, many cases of tens of thousands of dollars. You'd think there would be more of that kind of threat by the kidnapper to find out what level of payment might be possible, and to test Anja Shortland: That's right.

There's always the threat. The question is: How do you respond to that threat?