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Kidnapping bad for business? Why the FARC may actually mean what it says.

There are reasons – political, strategic and economic – to be hopeful the FARC's offer to end kidnapping may be genuine, writes guest blogger Steven Dudley.

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On a strategic level, the guerrillas have had to alter their war against the state. To begin with, there are simply fewer rebels. The FARC have dropped from an estimated 20,000 soldiers to closer to 8,000. The result is that they are no longer in control of vast geographic spaces. They have also been effectively pushed to the edges of the country and operate in less populous areas.

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The government's increased presence in the countrysides has also forced them to operate in smaller units who are dedicated to more traditional hit-and-run rebel tactics. This makes it difficult to hold kidnapping victims over long periods of time.

Perhaps most importantly, the FARC's decision may reflect a new economic reality of the group: they simply do not make much money kidnapping anymore, and leaving it will not hurt their bottom line.

The numbers illustrate this. Kidnappings in Colombia have dropped precipitously. As this graphic created by InSight Crime using data from the Colombia government agency that tracks kidnapping (in Spanish) shows, there are currently about 300 reported kidnappings per year, compared to over 3,500 when the practice peaked in 2000.

Equally important is the changing nature of the victim. The Colombian government says that kidnapping hits lower middle and lower class more than any other sector. The ransoms have dropped in kind, reaching an average of $5,000, many times less than estimated sums a decade earlier.

Putting this together yields a bleak financial picture for the FARC's kidnapping rings. Assuming, as Colombia's Defense Ministry does, that the FARC is involved in one-quarter of all kidnappings, their gross income from kidnapping is a paltry $350,000.

Even if the group demands and receives triple the average ransom and the kidnapping rate is three times what is reported, its earnings, after expenses, would still be around one million dollars, hardly worth the time, effort and political costs of the practice.

The FARC is no ordinary organization, so they may earn much more than the average kidnapping crew. But even if we assume they make ten times the estimates above, compare that with the estimated $200 million (in Spanish) (other estimates reach $500 to $600 million) per year the FARC can earn by "taxing" drug producers or drug trafficking organizations who operate in their areas of influence, or selling coca base or processed cocaine to the traffickers, and you can understand why kidnapping has become more of a hassle than an earner.

Colombians' skepticism regarding the FARC's sudden change in tactics is warranted, but it could be that the group is simply employing a cold economic calculus to the issue.

– Steven Dudley is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here. Additional reporting provided by Andres Ortiz Sedano.

 

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The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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