Kidnap for ransom: State of failure in the face of lawlessness

Where I am, it is the buyer’s market for mangoes. You get a liberal splash of mango slices at breakfast in the hotel or P25 per kilogram for the golden yellows in the public market.

It’s also the season of the repulsive — the unrecorded kidnap-for-ransom cases where families of victims seek their own devices to deal with perpetrators, since the State is absent or busy elsewhere. Victims are snatched, seemingly at random, and ransom demands are valued only after knowing the income status and political resources of the victim’s family. Sometimes, kidnap gangs recoil at the thought of a higher negative consequence if the victims’ family has the power to retaliate, especially clans that behave like a state in their own domains.

Do people show fear? It doesn’t seem so. The city appears normal and people have daily pressing needs other than worrying over the possibility of falling into the hands of kidnappers. But it happens that even if you calmly and trustfully walk the street where you grew up or go on a date with your girlfriend, some elements look at you as a person of interest. Then by a stroke of bad luck, you disappear in the dark until ransom payment is made. Some remain on the waiting list of those yet to be found again by their families. They do not necessarily form part of cold cases in police records simply because the State is not there when it happens.

This is a small city that used to act as a pleasant amalgam of cultures — of Maranao Muslims, non-Muslim indigenous peoples, and Christian settlers; an amalgam that was constantly tested in the fires of inter-clan political violence. The big clans have long agreed to carve a zone of compromise, including inter-marriage as one of the solutions. But underlying horizontal conflicts and accompanying violence appear like a Gordian knot that constantly presents itself during highs and lows of rebellion. Now there’s the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that is tearing the political elite and communities apart — one side fearing the fragmentation of the city’s territory and the other hoping to benefit from the promise of peace, even to the point of treating the BBL as the singular indicator of success and peace.

But while everyone is watching the BBL spectacle in Congress, shadow actors are demonstrating a new play as if to taunt the State whether it can behave like one: kidnapping for ransom. But of course the State is also saddled with so many problems from within and without. In fact, it tends to react and then freeze before a pile of crises — from Yolanda to the Zamboanga seige and Mamapasano; and now the BBL and how to publicly narrate the bad news that is unfolding.

Of the eight kidnap victims known to the grapevine this year, seven are college-age youths. One other is a woman in her 80s. None belong to the super rich and do not show the slightest flamboyance that would tempt anyone to think that they have benefited from the Priority Development Assistance Fund or the Disbursement Acceleration Program, smuggling, fishy government contracts, or environmentally damaging extractive industries. The latest victim is an 18-year-old medical student whose family owns a small bakeshop. Yes, a small bakeshop that has no semblance of a chic pastry shop whose owner could be a movie starlet or a politician’s mistress.

The average retrieval cost — a.k.a. ransom — is P150,000. But isn’t this atrociously stupid? A kidnapper does not act alone. For the snatch, there is a vehicle, a driver, a lookout and probably other vehicles and drivers. There logically is a “safehouse” with rental and maintenance cost or perhaps a family sub-contracted to take charge of “board and lodging” while negotiations are being conducted. Then you have a negotiator with several cellphones, or more efficiently a phone with two SIM slots. He too needs a house or a hotel room and some cash to spend time on coffee or beer while talking to the family of the victim.

Assuming there are 10 people in the scheme, the per capita take is P15,000. It is baffling to think that for P15,000, someone would put himself at risk of capture, life imprisonment or possible death; and worse, for P15,000 putting another person’s life, reputation and future in harm’s way.

The P150,000 could have assured the girl at least a semester of tuition and allowances to pursue her medical education. If used elsewhere, it could have funded at least three transitional homes for the victims of the Yolanda or Zamboanga disasters where the government is procrastinating on its promises of rehabilitation and recovery.

But here’s the rub. In the Constitution, it is the sworn obligation of the State to protect its citizens, part of the social contract in exchange for collecting taxes. The national budget this year has breached the trillion-peso mark, a financial resource that enhances the coercive authority of the State. But why is the State absent when bad things happen to citizens? It is mind-boggling trying to comprehend why kidnappers seem to irrationally choose low benefits versus high costs. You may call them stupid for that. But how do you portray a State that allows lawlessness to thrive?

A friend of mine says the kidnappers are not really stupid. They know their economics. When the state is failing, the possibility of capture, imprisonment or death can be downgraded, or even deleted, from the assumptions. The benefit of lawlessness goes higher than the cost of behaving like an obedient citizen. I take pity on the marginalized ones, the “trisikad” drivers who religiously pay the P600 license and car plate. They don’t earn P150,000 for a year’s allegiance to the State. They earn a meager P5 per trip, probably P100 for a day’s lawful use of hands and feet.

Eddie L. Quitoriano is an independent consultant at International Alert and several other international development agencies, local NGOs and private companies. He is a Chevening senior fellow on conflict resolution.

This article was first published in BusinessWorld last June 14, 2015.

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