Employee Safety in Global Hotspots

What risks do employees face in a sour global economy? What countries pose a growing threat of kidnapping for ransom? Is Colombia safer than Mexico? Insights from a former FBI hostage negotiator.

How to do you keep executives and employees safe in global hotspots? Chris Voss is a former lead hostage negotiator for the FBI and now CEO of The Black Swan Group. He spoke with CSO Editor in Chief Derek Slater about employee protection and particularly about trends in kidnapping for ransom.

CSO: In the event of a continued severe global economic downturn, what effects should companies anticipate in terms of ransom kidnappings and other threats?

Chris Voss: The issue of kidnapping and employee security is more of a function of political and law enforcement infrastructure. If the economic downturn diminishes those capacities, it will cause kidnapping to flourish more in places where it already exists. It won't introduce it into new regions. And economic kidnapping is like a virus; once it gets into a society it's very hard to get it out. Criminals find out it's pretty easy money.

That's what's happening in Haiti, I think. There's not much wealth in Haiti, but kidnapping numbers have to be up to 250 or so Haitian-Americans. If they grab someone who has family in the US, whatever they get - if they get $5k to $25k per kidnapping - that's really serious money in Haiti.

Also: In the past, whether it's true or false, the extractive industries - particularly energy and oil - to try to operate in environments where there's lots of corruption, there were allegations that they were paying off lots of people. Corruption as a form of tax. Under pressure from human rights groups, there's a set of voluntary principles that the extractive industries signed off on, saying that they would contribute to trying to build legitimate law enforce infrastructure instead of paying people off and encouraging corruption.

So in a lot of places [where the law enforcement infrastructure is not well-developed], these companies are just building their own security forces and compounds, to try to find a way to operate ethically. That's what most of them have resorted to. So that's also why an economic downturn will only affect their security if they can no longer afford this protection.

Allegedly, things have changed dramatically for the better in Bogata, Colombia, with violence greatly diminished in recent years. Is that correct, and are there other specific areas of the world where the level of risk has changed significantly in the past couple of years?

Yes, Colombia is much safer than it was ten years ago. Amazing difference. When I went in 1998, the guerillas had complete control of the countryside, and you could not travel there safely. In 2005, I went to a going-away function in the countryside with no military escort. We were hardly armed at all. Uribe has done a tremendous job increasing the infrastructure to push out the kidnappers.

Now sometimes when you put pressure on crime in one area, it simply moves to a different area.

Some of the Colombian kidnappers quit, and some are in jail. Of the others, some moved. So it's on the rise in Venezuela and Ecuador. In Venezuela, Chavez isn't making the infrastructure any more effective; he's not using domestic law enforcement to police the country.

What about Mexico or elsewhere?

Mexico? You have to hand it to the Mexicans for covering up a massive kidnapping problem. I recently had a conversation with the head of security for an international company based in Mexico; he tried to tell me, "Kidnapping, it's mostly criminal on criminal" - which is nonsense.

They're diminishing the problem, trying to keep the larger world from criticizing them. As critical as human rights groups are of governments, they're not fans of kidnapping either.

So it's getting worse and worse all the time. Tremendous amounts of legitimate businessmen are leaving that region.

In the Philippines, at the end of the Burnham-Sobero kidnapping case [ed: 2001-2002], the response of the Philippine and US governments really sort of took their kidnapping infrastructure apart, left the Abu Sayyaf in somewhat of a shambles. They began to move toward bombings at that time. But that's run its course and they're getting back into it, starting with locals. I think it's a matter of time before they are looking for Westerners again.

Are there other potential threats to employee safety in economic troubles?

The other thing that may be a security concern for companies is more workplace violence. That's what happens when people start to get laid off. If they fail to calculate the negative impact on their workforce as they lay them off, they're probably looking at an increase in potential workplace violence.

I know one company in particular that tried to close a plant in France, and failed to gauge the impact on the small town nearby. Protestors took over the plant, and they had to spend extra money - massively - to retake the plant. They could have headed this off with a little more thought; maybe commit to helping the people who are being laid off, helping the community find an economic replacement for the plant. Civil unrest will likely end up costing you more. It's more expensive to do it over than to do it right in the first place.

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