Behind the Books:
A King's Ransom
"KIDNAPPER HAS LEFT ELEVEN DEAD."
That grim headline greeted me on day-one of my trip
to Latin America while researching A King's Ransom.
The story went on to report that these heavily armed
bandits, who had left human heads displayed on sticks,
had just taken a Canadian businessman hostage. They
demanded a hefty ransom. Over a breakfast of bananas
and fresh papaya, my guide and I re-routed my trip.
Kidnapping for ransom is now an "industry" in Latin America, and nowhere else in the world is business booming the way it is in Colombia. The scope of the problem first hit me when I heard the story of Tomas Bernardo Sinisterra, a Cali businessman who was kidnapped at gunpoint in his driveway by Marxist guerillas. The ransom demand was $6 million. For six months he was held in the Andes Mountains while his family negotiated for his release. During his prolonged captivity, his wife gave birth to their daughter, and his father passed away. Finally, after payment of less than the initial demand, he was released, thirty pounds thinner.
One man's ordeal was harrowing enough, but I was moved to write a novel when I learned that thousands of people are kidnapped for ransom each year in Colombia. Most are taken by guerilla groups who use the ransom money - millions of dollars each year - to finance their drug labs and the war against the Colombian government. Guerillas control forty-percent of the country, and the scale of their criminal operations is staggering. Once every three hours someone is kidnapped for ransom. It usually takes six months to a year to secure the victim's release. One in ten are never released. Sometimes the kidnappers demand a "ransom" for the return of the dead body.
Researching this book was fascinating. I interviewed FBI agents, State Department officials, and negotiators trained in international kidnappings. Two of these negotiators worked for Control Risks Group, the world's most elite private security firm. CRG and Lloyds of London are credited with having invented "kidnap and ransom insurance," a mysterious business that is described in detail in A King's Ransom.
Most moving of all for me were my interviews of kidnap victims and their families. One man had been kidnapped four times, the last by women dressed as nuns. The AK-47s were hidden under their habits. Another told me of a neighbor who was kidnapped six times. On the seventh, the family refused to pay. He was executed.
The story of kidnapping in Colombia is ready to be told. Mike Wallace of Sixty Minutes recently interviewed the President of Colombia, who himself was kidnapped before becoming Mayor of Bogota. The recent motion picture Proof of Life was inspired in part by the real life kidnapping of Thomas Hargrove, an American who was held in the mountains by Colombian guerillas for eleven months. Hopefully, stories like these will bring added awareness to Colombia's kidnapping nightmare.
A KING'S RANSOM: HarperCollins Publishers: May 2001 Behind the Writing of the Novel: Copyright 2000 James Grippando