Kenya's criminals tap a growth industry: kidnapping


POSTED: Monday, October 12, 2009

NAIROBI, Kenya—Little Emmanuel Aguer was one of the most recent victims.

A month ago, he was snatched on the way to his grandmother's house. Four days later, after his middle-class family received calls asking for $70 or else—calls the family were not sure were even genuine—his uncle found his corpse stuffed in a sugar sack. His head had been bludgeoned and his eyes were gouged out.

Emmanuel was six years old.

“;These people knew what they were doing,”; said his uncle, Mariak Aguek. “;What they did was so traumatizing, I can't even express it.”;

Nairobi, Kenya's capital, is a teeming city of have-nots and have-lots, so notorious for violent crime that it is often called “;Nai-robbery.”; But there is a new problem, or at least one that is causing new fear—kidnapping, and several recent attacks have been on children and Western women.

Parents in the packed, iron-shanty slums that ring downtown Nairobi like a collar of rust are walking hand and hand with their children, even short distances. In the frangipani-scented enclaves where the diplomats live, security is being beefed up at schools and e-mail kidnapping alerts are spreading faster than a computer virus.

More than 100 Nairobi residents have been abducted for ransom this year, security consultants say, a huge increase over years past. Big chunks of money are changing hands. And as the security experts say, the minute you start paying ransom, kidnapping goes from a crime to a business. Just ask those in Mexico City, in Baghdad and in Bogota.

Blindfolds, safe houses, military-grade assault rifles and complex, well-practiced maneuvers with cars to block in unsuspecting prey—they are all part of Kenya's emerging kidnapping industry.

The kidnappings are highly organized and often ruthless. One Belgian woman who was recently held for more than a week was stripped naked, according to security consultants who worked on her case. A second foreigner, a German woman, was seized in a subsequent attack and then locked in a closet with the Belgian woman in the same squalid house, indicating that a criminal gang may now have its sights on Western women.

In July, two smartly dressed young men walked into the workshop of an Indian trader in Nairobi and asked him to give them an estimate for a new well. When the trader went out to the site, he was jumped by a gang of six, bundled into a car and cruelly beaten with hammers and belts until his family cobbled together $3,000 for his release.

“;It was a set-up,”; the trader said. “;They must have been monitoring me for some time.”;

Many people here are beginning to wonder if the Kenyan thugs may have been inspired by their Somali brethren next door, who have made millions snatching foreigners on land and sea.

“;Their appetite is growing,”; said Charles Owino, a Kenyan police spokesman. “;And if we don't manage it, it can grow to be big.”;

Kenyan security companies see the spike in kidnappings as proof that their other security measures may be working—possibly too well. Yesterday's big fear in Nairobi was an armed home invasion, in which rough men with machetes and guns would scale the walls of a house in the wee-hours of the night, burst in and terrorize the family in a quest for jewelry and electronics.

Executives for KK Security, a private security force that protects 4,000 homes in Nairobi, said they used to respond to a home invasion every week. Now, it is more like a couple of times a year.

But as it gets harder to break into homes because of all the security devices people deploy these days (like silent alarm systems and electrified fences) and with the Kenyan police force more mobile (because companies like KK are driving them around), criminals are looking to the streets, where people have less control over their environment.

“;It's shifting from brutal crime to smart crime,”; said Patrick Grant, a KK executive.

And kidnapping, he says, “;is easy money.”;

Who's safe? Just about no one. Nairobi seems to be in the swell of another crime wave and though the police say they are cracking down (which often means simply shooting suspects on sight), a general feeling of foreboding seems to be spreading. In May, gun-toting robbers hijacked a bus along Kenya's busiest road, the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, robbing all the passengers and raping the women.

In June, a Kenyan member of Parliament was carjacked and kidnapped, and when he finally got home, he heard a strange thumping noise in the trunk—it was the desperate sounds of another man who had been kidnapped and locked in there.

In July, carjackers robbed and kidnapped a senior police commander. An assistant minister was also terrorized in his own home by an armed gang. But he got little sympathy, at least online.

“;A thugs who robs a minister, president or an incompetent m.p. is the ROBINHOOD of today and what a good job,”; read a recent post on a Kenyan blog. “;If the government cannot afford security, sometimes nature has its own way of dealing with it.”;

Even the prime minister's private office was recently looted.

“;I don't know if it's the global recession or what,”; said the wife of one Western diplomat, who preferred to remain anonymous. “;But there's been a lot of crime lately, and everybody's talking about it in the diplomatic circles.”;

The German woman kidnapped in September described three days of terror. Her abductors threatened to rape her, slice her into pieces and kidnap her child. They knocked her in the head with a pistol butt and then incongruously offered her marijuana.

“;You're thinking they will never let you go,”; said the woman, whose family forked over an undisclosed ransom for her release. “;Time just doesn't pass.”;

But it is not just the haves who are getting hit. Take Emmanuel's family. They have enough money for a stereo and a fridge and cold sodas for the occasional guest. But they are hardly rich. They are refugees from southern Sudan who have been through hell and back—civil war, squalid camps, persecution, even fears of being enslaved. Now they have to worry about their children getting chopped up when they step outside to take a stroll past the dirt soccer fields or corrugated iron gates of their middle-class neighborhood.

“;My son was really intelligent, he was really honest, when I sent him to the store to fetch something, he always came back with the right change,”; said Emmanuel's father, Ater Aguek. “;Sometimes, I still have dreams I'm playing with him.”;