For Armed Groups, Kidnapping is a Cruel but Effective Form of Tax Enforcement

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Frank Wyer, covers the new article by Danielle Gilbert, United States Air Force Academy, “The Logic of Kidnapping in Civil War: Evidence from Colombia”. 

In October 2021, the kidnapping of 17 American missionaries by an armed gang in Haiti demanding a $1 million USD ransom generated a storm of media coverage. Yet while such high-profile cases garner significant attention, in many conflict-affected countries kidnapping for ransom is a shockingly common occurrence. During Colombia’s armed conflict for example, nearly forty thousand people were kidnapped by armed groups over a forty-year period. In a new American Political Science Review article, Danielle Gilbert uses evidence from the Colombian case to investigate why armed groups employ kidnapping for ransom. Her findings not only constitute an important step towards explaining the phenomenon of kidnapping, but also offer a fascinating insight into how armed groups choose financing models.

In many respects, kidnapping for ransom might seem to be a relatively unattractive source of revenue for an armed group. For one thing, it requires that a group invest significant resources into capturing victims and guarding them until a ransom can be secured, if it is forthcoming. For another, the inhumanity of the practice risks generating backlash from the civilian population, on whose support, or at least passive compliance, armed groups often rely. Considering these costs, one might expect that only the most desperate or ill-disciplined armed groups would engage in the practice. Yet the two groups at the center of Gilbert’s study, the FARC and the ELN, were both highly organized and well-resourced, and yet both utilized kidnapping for ransom extensively.

Why would these groups engage in the costly and risky business of kidnapping? Gilbert’s core argument is that for groups like the FARC and ELN, kidnapping for ransom can serve as a strategy for enforcing tax compliance. Armed groups that rely on extortion for income need to ensure that their victims do not shirk on payments. Just as government tax agencies impose audits and fines, so too armed groups need to impose punishments that recover missed payments and deter further noncompliance. In this context, the logic of kidnapping for ransom becomes clear: the cruelty of kidnapping deters potential tax evaders, while the ransom money recoups the lost income.

“Kidnapping for ransom is not a problem unique to Colombia; indeed, Gilbert cites data suggesting that roughly 84% of armed groups worldwide have engaged in kidnapping and that ransom money accounted for up to 15% of revenue for terrorist groups in particular.” Gilbert tests the implications of this argument in the Colombian case, combining process tracing techniques with evidence from 78 interviews with dozens of former members of armed groups and state security personnel, among others. In line with her argument, she finds that both the FARC and ELN relied heavily on extortion for revenue, and that members of these groups viewed kidnapping as a critical method for deterring evasion and extracting money from victims who refused to pay. Moreover, both groups developed sophisticated systems to monitor extortion targets, capture noncompliers, and hold them until ransom had been paid. Further, this strategy appears to have worked; not only ordinary farmers and ranchers, but even large multinational corporations acknowledged making extortion payments to avoid having their employees kidnapped. In sum, there is substantial evidence from the Colombian case that kidnapping functions as an enforcement mechanism for extortion.

Kidnapping for ransom is not a problem unique to Colombia; indeed, Gilbert cites data suggesting that roughly 84% of armed groups worldwide have engaged in kidnapping and that ransom money accounted for up to 15% of revenue for terrorist groups in particular. Gilbert’s article constitutes an important step towards understanding a variety of political violence that is highly prevalent, deeply destructive, and yet up to this point has received relatively little attention from scholars.

 


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