When Gustavo Curtis, 54-year-old vice president in charge of Beatrice Foods Co.'s subsidiary in Colombia, was kidnapped from his white, chauffer-driven Dodge on a Bogota sidestreet on Sept. 28, 1976, several events followed in short order:
A hurried telephone call was placed from Beautrice's Chicago headquarters to an obscure six-story white stone building in downtown London.
A little-known subsidiary of a British insurance company answered its phone and immediately dispatched a four-man team of highly specialized counter-terrorist experts to Bogota.
After arriving in Bogata, the team secretly look over all dealings with the kidnappers while at the same time searching for the victim.
The kidnappers demanded $5 million for Curtis' freedom.
Intense negotiations began between the kidnappers and the British team.
After eight months of haggling over price, Curtis was freed.
While this real-life drama (more like a movie script) was being acted out, Curtis was left bound and gagged in a "hollowed-out cave 60 feet underground," for eight months, while an organization he had never heard of negotiated his ransom price down from $5 million to about $450,000-and finally paid off.
When he was freed, Curtis was weak, emaciated and rather upset. Upset enough, in fact, to file a $185 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York against Beatrice for allegedly doing nothing to free him for eight months. The company even had been aware of terrorist threats against him several months before his abduction, Curtis claims in his suit, which is still pending. He says Beatrice told him at the time of the threats not to worry, that measures were being take to protect him.
But Curtis' suit also has shed some light on the existence of a four-year-old, super-secret, para-military organization called Control Risks Ltd. A subsidiary of the Hogg Robinson Group, a British insurance consortium, it is described in Hogg Robinson's annual report for 1977 as a security company whose "kidnap prevention and ransome service is now being used by Lloyd's (of London) under-writers as well as by many international companies both within the United Kingdom and around the world." What Hogg Robinson does not say is that if you purchase kidnap insurance, you get Control Risks as part of the deal-like it or not.
And if and executive is kidnapped, Control Risks takes over everything, from efforts to find the victim to ransom negotiations. And whatever Control Risks says, goes. While Control Risks Ltd. officials would not talk to the Washington Post on the record, several sources connected with the company both directly and otherwise agreed to be interviewed off the record, and were able to describe the workings of a growing, yet mysterious business.
In fact, the terrorism/kidnap prevention insurance business, which began at Lloyds after the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932 and blossomed after the Peugeot kidnapping in Paris some 20 years ago, now generates $50 million to $60 million in annual premiums, according to sources at Lloyds, whose under-writers handle virtually all such business placed by brokers such as Hogg Robinson.
It is difficult to come up with a more exact figure on such business because one of the conditions a company must adhere to when it buys kidnap insurance for its executives is an agreement not to tell anyone that it has the policy. "We don't want terrorists to know who is insured for obvious reasons," a source involved in the business says. "Wouldn't you go after someone who is insured? It's a guaranteed payoff." All kidnap policy slips are kept out of public view in a locked safe at Lloyds.
Insurers at Lloyds say the contract that is signed for kidnap insurance is "airtight. It mandates that the firm operate always within the law, cooperate with the police, and that nothing must happen to encourage this kind of crime." Estimated costs for kidnap policies range from $30,000 to $150,000 a year. One huge multinational corporation is said to be paying $400,000 a year for comprehensive worldwide coverage. And for its own insurance, Lloyds has Control Risks.
Many countries have laws forbidding kidnap insurance, while others forbid ransom payments because they fear such payments encourage more kidnappings.
In the Curtis case, however, Control Risks decided to pay the $450,000 to kidnappers in Colombia despite the local law banning such payments. For that effort, two Control Risks'operatives found themselves in South American jails for six weeks.
The two British negotiators, both former British Army majors with the elite Special Air Service, returned to England only after jumping bail and skipping their trial in Colombia.
In all, Control Risks Ltd. employs 10 men working out of offices in London, Washington and Beirut. At least two employees are former British Intelligence agents, and four of the 10 make up a flying strike force ready to move at a moment's notice to any part of the world. Besides their work in conjunction with kidnap insurance-including kidnap-prevention activities, the firm has designed and installed security systems in such places as the Cairo Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.And there is the "ransom service"-the special service of bargaining for the life of a hostage at a price the uninsured employer finds agreeable. That service can be purchased after a kidnapping occurs.
The British Army has developed many of the world's top anti-terrorist experts during its long struggle in Northern Ireland, and thus has been a fertile training ground for many Control Risks operatives.
And for the most part, the training has paid off. Control Risks claims to save its clients an estimated $10 million annually in ransom demands, while at the same time not further endangering the lives of the kidnapped executives. There was even the case of the two Italians hostages who were released with no ransom ever paid. Of course, there are those like Beatrice's Curtis who might differ with that analysis. But, he did, at least, live to sue.
Terrorist activity is, if anything, on the rise. According to the most reliable figures available, acts of terrorism around the world against American businesses jumped from 250 in 1976 to 400 last year.
When one considers that an American company pays an average of $100,000 to insure each of its top executives overseas every year, and that the estimated total U.S. ransom payments average about $18 million a year, it is easy to see that the game of kidnapping insurance is a profitable one.
British law enforcement officials, who asked that their names not be used, also said that American law enforcement officials are much more prone-in domestic kidnappings where they have authority-to having a company pay a ransom straight away. "That way they feel they can save the victim's life and perhaps plant a clue in the ransom that will help lead to the eventual capture of the kidnappers," one official said.
Consequently, 90 percent of American kidnappers are eventually caught, according to one insurance broker. But in other areas of the world, including England, law enforcement authorities encourage a hard line. Italian authorities even have raided insurance brokers in an attempt to ferret out the names of an estimated 30 Milan businessmen believed to have taken out ransom coverage of up to $5 million.
"Kidnap is now a universal problem of epidemic proportions," wrote David Walker, managing director of Control Risks Ltd., in a recent issue of Risk Management magazine. "Terrorists in Argentina are believed to be operating with a fund of around $240 million that they accumulated largely from ransom payments."
Further, Walker said, "Kidnap is a uniquely efficient means of separating a rich man or a corporation from their assets. There is a large element of drama and excitement in this form of crime which appeals to the media and guarantees the extensive press and television coverage the politically motivated terrorist seeks."
Walker recommended kidnap insurance for several reasons, not the least of which is that "the under-writer's representatives, with their experience in coercive bargaining, are likely to achieve a lower ransom settlement than would be made by a distraught family or bewilded corporation."
"It is important to remember that the kidnappers do not hold all advantages during negotiations," he added. "Their power stems from their total control over the destiny of their victim, but it only exists as long as they do not excercise it. If they kill their hostage, they increase their culpability, lose their insurance against a police assault and lose all chance of obtaining a ransom."
Thoughts that no doubt comforted Gustovo Curtis during his eight-month visit in a dark Colombian cave.