In kidnapping, finesse works best

By Ed Leefeldt
Mon Jan 1, 5:34 PM ET

Here is a lesson in life-or-death economics: You are a kidnap victim in a third world country. Do you want rescuers to come in with guns blazing, or pay a ransom?

Movie-style rescues work -- about half the time. The rest of the time, insurers say, the victim dies in a hail of bullets. When kidnappers are paid off, the odds of survival improve dramatically.

David Lattin, who handles kidnap and extortion cases for St. Paul Travelers Companies Inc., said that in the 175 cases he has been involved in since 1991, only one person has been killed. And, even though he is a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines, he has never fired a gun in anger.

The debate on force versus payoff has advocates on both sides. Both the United States and Israel have a blanket policy of refusing to negotiate with those it calls terrorists. Corporations, on the other hand, say their first responsibility is the safe return of the victim.

Lattin doesn't debate the policies. He just works through them. "We won't give advice that breaks the law, but when you present the statistics to the local authorities, they will likely allow you to negotiate," said the soft-spoken, bearded and bespectacled Lattin.

Doesn't he encourage kidnappers by paying them off? "Yes, if you pay them $10 million," Lattin says. But negotiation itself costs nothing.

"We use time and subtle resistance," he said. "We say, 'Call me in a week.' We show that the company won't be an easy target."

Kidnappers generally play along. Their victim is a resource, and the captors get nothing by killing. "We assess their motivation," Lattin said. "If it's money, we take them down that path."

Sometimes it is not money. In 2004, a European executive disappeared from an airport in Bangladesh and was apparently being held illegally in a local jail. A story in a Singapore newspaper implying that Bangladesh was not a safe place to do business was enough to get him released immediately, Lattin said.


Lattin is willing to make contacts even in the roughest of circles, and it has paid off. In 1992 he saw the head of an insurgency group signing autographs at an airport in Davao City in the Philippines. Lattin grabbed the same flight, sat down with the insurgent and got friendly. He even got the leader's autograph on a postcard, including a "Dear David" salutation.

Later he handled a company facing extortion by the same insurgent group. He showed a copy of the card to the local union leader, who sent it to the group's top leadership. The extortion ended the same day, Lattin said.

Sometimes the payment is small. When Haitian gunmen kidnapped two Canadians off the streets of Port-au-Prince, it took only a week to get them released. The thugs had demanded $2 million. They got $4,000. In another case, the kidnap ended when the abductors' manifesto was published in the local newspaper.

Lattin said he always uses local talent to communicate with the abductors. In one case, a company in Mexico hired a former FBI agent from Puerto Rico who stumbled when translating the kidnappers' local slang. "They contemptuously said, 'Who's the 'Rican?"' Lattin recalled.

The local communicator has a script for each contact with the kidnappers, and cannot deviate from it. The communicator also does not know the end game, such as how much the company might be willing to pay. The game can be played out over days, weeks, or even months.

Lattin, 53, lives in Wallowa, Oregon, and spends a lot of time traveling, since a lead negotiator is required at the scene as well as one at corporate headquarters. In Rio de Janeiro abductions usually end in 48 hours; in Colombia they can last for nine months, he said.

Despite eschewing a swashbuckler image, Lattin is well known in the industry and director Taylor Hackford asked him to review the script of his 2000 movie on kidnapping: "Proof of Life," which stars Russell Crowe.

Lattin said the script was accurate until the shootout at the end.

"That was pure Hollywood," he said.