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Kidnapping a threat to Americans

Published: Monday, April 22, 2002

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 22:07

CNN's "The Capital Gang" and Thomas Hargrove, whose life inspired the movie Proof of Life starring Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan, spoke at the MSC Wiley Lecture Series Friday night at Rudder Auditorium about American safety abroad.

The main discussion was on threats Americans face while living in and visiting other countries.

Hargrove, a 1966 graduate of Texas A&M, was kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas of FARC, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, at a roadblock in 1994. He was held hostage for 334 days in the Andes and was released only after his family paid a ransom.

Hargrove lost 60 pounds, was kept in chains and locked in a room for days at a time while his wife and professional kidnap negotiators bargained for his freedom.

He is one of the few victims who will talk about the experience and explain the kidnapping and ransom industry from the inside.

Kidnapping is big business in Latin America, Hargrove said, but he said the media rarely reports it. Most of the hostage negotiations are kept secret and families of hostages negotiate with the kidnappers more often than Americans realize.

"Kidnapping is seldom reported to the press," Hargrove said. "If a person is in the media and becomes high profile, they then become more valuable and it could raise the price of the ransom."

The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News wanted to release stories about Hargrove while he was held in Colombia, but at the request of his family, the newspapers did not run the stories.

Last year, more than 3700 people were kidnapped and held for ransom in Colombia, Hargrove said.

Businesses that put up money to pay a ransom seldom report it. Hostages are rarely released if their families say they cannot pay the ransom.

"If you're in the business of selling Oldsmobiles, you don't give them away for free," Hargrove said.

Hargrove distinguished between the two main types of kidnapping: those for ransom and those for ideological or political reasons. The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, a photojournalist who was recently killed in Afghanistan, was a kidnapping for political reasons, he said. There is almost no mention of ransom in those cases, and the hostage is more likely to be killed.

Members of "The Capital Gang," including Margaret Carlson, Al Hunt, Robert Novak and Kate O'Beirne, also gave their view on kidnapping of Americans abroad.

"The government should not get into that business [of bartering for hostages]," Novak said. "Civilians have to take their risks in places like Colombia."

In 1993, a law was passed in Columbia making payment of ransom illegal, Hargrove said. But the Supreme Court overruled the law because it said it violated the human rights of the victim. Although it is illegal to barter with kidnappers, a waiver may be granted if the hostage's life is in danger.

"We (the United States) are the enemy when hostages are taken for ideological reasons," Carlson said. "They become more valuable that way and there is almost no reason to turn them over. [The kidnappers] get the press coverage they are after and are successful with nothing to lose."

Hargrove said terrorists subject victims and victim's families to psychological terror by releasing photos of the hostage with scenes of guns pointed at them or holding up newspapers.

"Terrorists use that tactic to try and soften up the families in order to come up with more money during ransom negotiations," Hargrove said.

The crisis in the Middle East was also part of the panel discussion. "The Capital Gang" discussed the possibility of peace in the Middle East and whether the United States should expel Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"(President) George Bush reminds us that states that inspire and help terrorists (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia) are our target," Kate O'Beirne said. "If Saddam Hussein is toppled, there will be fundamental changes."

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