A frequent concern of all foreigners visiting or residing in the Philippines is kidnapping for ransom—KFR. And the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind is — ‘Are kidnappings for ransom on the rise?’
If recent trends are anything to go by the answer appears to be yes. With each new KFR incident the country concerned issues a travel warning to foreigners. But is KFR really on the rise?
In an in-depth, two-part series I’m going to put KFR under the interrogation spotlight and answer questions like: who is responsible, who really is at risk, and what is being done to protect the innocent? But more importantly, is KFR really on the rise?
I’ve spent the last twenty years studying KFR incidents. For Westerners, my conclusions offer some relief, but for foreign nationals a fresh look at the risks is paramount.
On December 16, 2010, Largio “Larry” Tam de los Santos, 60, a Chinese-Filipino, was kidnapped in the family-owned Farmlands Resort in Isabela City, Basilan province, in Mindanao. The victim’s niece, former Rep. Kim Bernardo Lokin, the family spokesman, said that the kidnappers asked for a P20-million ransom for her uncle’s safe release, with half of it to be paid upfront if the family wanted “proof of life.”
Lokin said that they had sought the help of Local Government Secretary Jesus Robredo and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin but, according to her, nothing has happened. “We understand that we have to give our government enforcers time to act. But for us who belong to the family of the kidnapped victim, even a week without any developments or updates on what government is doing seems like a lifetime,” she said.
“We feel that at this point, we have been left to fend for ourselves and with no other recourse but to deal with this problem on our own,” Lokim added.
The KFR Business Model
Unfortunately, KFR is a business. It generates cash for criminals. And typically, Larry is a wealthy Chinese- Filipino businessman.
KFRs are no longer “spur of the moment” or “opportunistic” crimes. Unlike pick pocketing or a personal robbery—KFR is the result of careful planning and strategic intelligence gathering. And Filipino-Chinese businessmen, as well as, Indian, Chinese and Korean nationals are the preferred targets. Understanding why means investigating who is responsible.
Organised Crime or Terrorist Groups?
There is a myriad of KFR Gangs involved throughout the Philippines and they present as dynamic organised units operating with a highly successful criminal business model. What makes these groups ‘special’ and what makes them so hard to pin down?
The Pentagon Gang is not just one of the many groups in the Philippines that have made a business out of kidnapping-forransom. Despite being highly trained in the art of warfare, something else sets the Pentagon Gang apart from others. Their leaders have managed to escape repeated arrest and detention, raising the suspicion that local government officials, the police and the military have either been protecting or abetting the Pentagon Gang’s kidnapping activities.
Not knowing who is behind or protecting the Pentagon Gang, what it is really up to, or what the Pentagon Gang’s ‘business’ objectives are, makes the Gang very tricky to deal with. In fact, eliminating the Pentagon Gang is almost impossible. Defining the Pentagon Gang’s composition is equally difficult because of subgroups or splinters like Abu Sofia, Suicide Bombers, Diamond, and Dragon.
Over the past decade or so, these bandit groups have reaped a bonanza from KFR activities. A few of their victims have died by their hands, even after ransom had been paid. Others were killed in the crossfire of police or military operations.
In Mindanao, their victims have included Italian priests Luciano Benedetti and Giuseppe Pierantoni, Canadian Pierre Belanger, Chinese engineers working on a Japanese-funded irrigation project in North Cotabato, as well as a number of local doctors, traders, and businesspeople.
Case # 2
A 2010 unnamed KFR victim had the following to say: “I was kidnapped by seven men. I resisted, shots were fired, and one of the bullets grazed my forehead, causing me to bleed. A tricycle driver reported the incident to the barangay (Barangay – Village Administration or Municipality) and the local news media picked up the story. The news coverage made me look so rich that the kidnappers felt I was even more valuable than they initially thought, and increased their ransom demand. For 17 days I was chained, blindfolded and watched by three men. After 10 days, my family paid a ransom, which the KFR gang accepted, but they did not release me. Fortunately, a PNP (Philippines National Police) team rescued me a week later. Stay away from the media. A news blackout could save the victim’s life.”
Targets, tactics and methodology
As a narrowly focused KFR organization, the Pentagon Gang has developed a rigorous methodology in its business operations. Each operation is commissioned independently, often by a senior member of the community in league with the group (for example land owners, local government officials or members of the security forces). Once a target is identified, basic guidance is given and the team will not normally know for whom they are working. Little time is spent on reconnaissance, as the teams are motivated to operate quickly, owing to the requirement for cash. The target will normally be seized from their vehicle. The group will then take the victim to a safe house, where the authorities will be provided with details of the ransom required and payment terms. The originator of the operation will often only become involved at the payment stage. The majority of the Pentagon Gang’s victims are ethnic Chinese who dominate the local economy…
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