The day I fly from New York to Miami to attend a kidnap prevention and survival course, I read an article about a foiled abduction of two Americans at a barbershop in Yemen. The kidnappers, it turned out, had chosen their victims poorly: One was a United States Special Ops commando, the other a CIA officer, both attached to the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. The Americans shot and killed their would-be abductors. They had followed Andy “Orlando” Wilson’s Golden Rule of surviving a kidnapping: Don’t get kidnapped.
Wilson, a 43-year-old British Army veteran who once served in Northern Ireland, picks me up on a swampy morning at a Motel 6 in Dania Beach, a suburb of Miami. He is the founder of Risks Incorporated, a private security firm that offers a three-day kidnap and ransom course in which I’m enrolled. A skeptical man with a dark sense of humor who has worked in the security industry for two decades, Wilson moved to South Florida 13 years ago with his then-wife and never left. He has slicked-back hair, blue eyes, and stubble; he looks a bit like a world-weary Ralph Fiennes, with a few extra pounds.
As we drive to an office in nearby Pembroke Pines, Wilson briefs me on the bourgeoning business of international kidnapping. The White House’s recent acknowledgment of the accidental killing of two al-Qaida hostages in Pakistan in January, as well as the dark news from Syria in recent months, both overshadows and underscores the fact that kidnappings are a global scourge. As incidents have increased worldwide, a parallel industry has emerged, one that includes insurance companies, negotiators, lawyers, and security firms like Risks Inc. In a 2010 investigation, London’s Independent newspaper dubbed this the “hostage industry,” and estimated its worth at about $1.6 billion a year.
“You don’t have to be rich. People will kidnap you for next to nothing,” Wilson says. “Venezuela is out of control. Mexico is out of control.” Most of his clients for the Florida course are executives or wealthy individuals who live in high-risk areas, primarily in Latin America. (Wilson also offers the course in Belgrade, Serbia.) Other students have included American businessmen who travel to potentially dangerous locations, security contractors, and an international yacht captain. (Lambros Y. Lambrou, a trial lawyer in Manhattan and a father of two, took Wilson’s kidnap course to help ensure his family’s safety when they travel to countries like Mexico and Serbia, where his wife is from. “We live in a very uncertain world sometimes,” Lambrou says. “Unfortunately, most of the time the only person you have to protect you is yourself.”)
Risks Inc. is one of a few dozen private companies I had found that offer kidnap prevention and survival courses. Costs range from about $600 to a couple thousand dollars. Some are entirely in a classroom; others include role-playing. (In one course I found, instructors take students into a forest, cover their heads with pillowcases, and shock them with Tasers during a mock interrogation.) Wilson’s course is somewhere in between: part tutorial, part field exercise, tailored to the needs of the client. The company’s website promises to “take you into the real world of terrorism and kidnap and ransom!”
In the car, Wilson tells me that the first part of the course stresses his Golden Rule. Many people end up kidnapped, he says, by putting themselves in vulnerable situations—getting into an unmarked cab at the airport in Caracas, Venezuela; visiting dangerous neighborhoods without protection; associating with criminals in any way—and by not being adequately prepared to handle those situations. Once you’ve been kidnapped, your life is completely in the hands of criminals who view it as a commodity, or worse, a statement. At that point, survival depends on luck, money, and some basic knowledge about kidnappings the course’s latter part purports to teach.
In a chilly conference room he’s rented, Wilson hands me a copy of a book he wrote about international security and a binder filled with printed news articles about him and his company. Among them are stories about an incident in Mexico a few years ago when videos emerged of Wilson and his colleagues subjecting Mexican police to forms of torture, including waterboarding. News outlets interviewed human rights advocates who accused Risks of teaching Mexican cops how to torture. Wilson says it was the opposite: He was partly trying to teach them how to resist torture, but mostly he was attempting to convey to them the reality of the world they inhabit. “If we can break you with water, what the fuck do you think the cartel is going to do to you?” Wilson says. “It’s getting across to people: This isn’t a game.”
The day’s lecture begins with Wilson reinforcing that very point, presenting a slideshow of the bloody aftermath of a gangland shooting in Mexico. As I contemplate a photo of a man slumped in the driver’s seat of an SUV with his face shot off, the course’s second student arrives. He’s skinny and pale, dressed in a pastel polo and khaki shorts. I’ll call him Tommy. He shakes my hand, and I note a generous application of cologne.
The best kidnappers are not dumb. They are sophisticated and well organized.
Tommy takes a seat at the conference table, chewing loudly on a piece of gum. He tells us that he drove from his home across the Florida peninsula last night with his wife, who is pregnant with the couple’s second child. He’s previously attended one of Wilson’s firearms classes and has enrolled in the kidnap course in order to learn how to better protect his family—he considers it a Mother’s Day gift to his wife. He takes several small knives from his pockets and tosses them on the table. He had sent out a GPS flare from this phone to record his whereabouts upon arriving at the office, just in case.
Hunched over the conference table and flipping through slides on his computer, Wilson walks us through the nuts and bolts of personal security: Be aware of your surroundings; keep a low profile; don’t wear anything flashy; always have an escape route; mix up your daily routine; watch for people watching you. “The basics of personal security is awareness and counter-surveillance,” Wilson says. “One thing I want you to get in the mindset of during this course is how to think like the criminals.” The best kidnappers, he says, are not dumb. They are sophisticated and well organized; they will trail targets for days and know exactly who they’re after. The better you understand their methods, the better you can protect yourself. Periodically Wilson pauses and asks in his workingman’s British accent, “Any questions?”
Although it’s in his business interest to present the world as an inherently hostile place, he clearly believes it to be so, and his computer is filled with evidence to back it up. He turns his laptop screen toward us and plays a short documentary about the rise of kidnappings in Venezuela, where gang members throw captives off highway overpasses if their families don’t pay within a few days. He then presents a ghastly slideshow of more Mexican drug war violence: a severed head with bulging eyes, a hand with missing fingers, a body whose head had been dipped in acid.
My palms are clammy, and I find myself groaning audibly at the images. Is this necessary? I wonder. I’m already feeling queasy when Wilson loads a video in which four women are bound and kneeling facing a camera. Three of them are topless. A dozen or so men dressed in black surround them, speaking Spanish. Some hold guns, others axes. I start to feel like I might throw up.
I ask Wilson what’s about to happen.
“They get chopped. Axed.”
A journalist I admire told me once that you lose a piece of your humanity watching videos like this. The quote comes to mind, and I stand to leave the room.
“All right, all right, all right,” Wilson says. “This is why I tell people”—he lowers his voice—“do not … get … kidnapped.”