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Wednesday, 27 June, 2001, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Colombia: Kidnap capital of the world
Alistair Taylor in April 2001
Rebels held Alistair Taylor for two years
By BBC News Online's Simon Fraser

Thousands of people have been seized in recent years by Colombia's notorious kidnappers.

The victims are the raw materials in an increasingly lucrative illegal industry, pawns in a game reckoned to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Records for last year show one kidnap occurring in Colombia on average every three hours.

Rebel
ELN rebels have staged audacious raids
That is an estimated annual total of 3,500 - and includes only those that are reported.

Most kidnappings are blamed on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC - Marxist rebels who use kidnapping and the drugs trade to fund their 37-year military campaign against the government.

A report by the military in 1999 estimated the rebels had grossed more than $600m in ransom payments in the preceding five years.

But the country's second rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has also latterly taken to staging mass abductions to boost its income and leverage in negotiations.

Climate of fear

Several ELN operations have been particularly spectacular: The hijacking of a domestic airliner, the abduction of an entire church congregation in Cali and the kidnapping of an angling club out fishing.

Last year the ELN emptied an upmarket restaurant outside Cali and set up roadblocks nearby, netting some 80 people.

Andres Pastrana
President Pastrana was himself kidnapped in the 1980s
The attacks showed Colombians they were not safe anywhere, whether at sea, on land or in the air.

Kidnapping had previously been a fear of only the very rich.

Many ordinary Colombians will no longer travel long distances by road, for fear of being abducted at guerrilla roadblocks.

Others want to leave the country altogether.

Foreign targets

In many cases hostages are released following negotiations or payment.

But others have been killed or mutilated.

In November last year, the body of a businessman, Fernando Betancur Sanchez, was found bearing signs of torture. A ransom of $400,000 demanded for his release had already been paid.

FARC guerrilla
The FARC is blamed for most kidnaps
Foreigners, and especially oil workers, are a favourite target, particularly of the ELN, which believes Colombia's natural resources are being pillaged.

Briton Alistair Taylor was working for oil giant BP Amoco when he was snatched two years ago.

Mr Taylor, from Aberdeen, was finally released by the ELN in July.

His lengthy time in rebel captivity is one many others have suffered.

In December 2000, the ELN released 42 soldiers and police officers it had been holding hostage, some for over three years.

Campaign

The two rebel groups are not solely responsible for Colombia's startling kidnap statistics. Colombia's police say they have just dismantled one of the country's most sophisticated kidnapping rings.

Relatives of Santander shooting
Those seized leave behind anguished relatives
It had been operating for 11 years, snatching oil workers and tourists from the Amazon region of northern Ecuador and then shuttling them across the Colombian border.

Colombians grew so tired of the kidnappers two years ago they held mass demonstrations and launched a campaign against them.

Green ribbons were pinned to clothes as anti-abduction and anti-violence symbols.

And people were urged to sign documents prohibiting any ransom demand being met in the event of the signatory's kidnap.

It was hoped this might make kidnapping less worthwhile for guerrillas and criminal gangs.

The kidnapping rate has since doubled and the measure now seems forlorn.

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See also:

29 Nov 00 | Americas
Kidnap rate rockets in Colombia
18 Aug 99 | World
Colombia's hostage trade
07 Jun 00 | Americas
Colombia overture to rebels
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