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Understanding Ransom Kidnappings and Their Duration

  • Claudio Detotto , Bryan C. McCannon EMAIL logo and Marco Vannini


What factors drive the length of a kidnapping experience? A theoretical model is developed to conduct comparative statics. A unique data set covering all kidnappings for ransom in Sardinia between 1960 and 2010 is analyzed. Factors related to the ability to pay and cost of abduction matter. Policies aimed at deterring kidnapping have mixed effects on its duration.

JEL Codes: C41; K42


Financial support from Regione Autonoma della Sardegna under Grants CRP2-217 (PO Sardegna FSE 2007–2013 sulla L.R.7/2007 Promozione della ricerca scientifica e dellinnovazione tecnologica in Sardegna) and Fondazione Banco di Sardegna are gratefully acknowledged. The work has also benefitted from suggestions from Todd Sandler, which are greatly appreciated.


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  1. 1

    Alix (1978) provides a classification system for the myriad of types of kidnapping. Applying this taxonomy we restrict attention to classic ransom kidnapping along with the subcategory of express kidnappings.

  2. 2
  3. 3

    In the FBI report “Understanding Stockholm Syndrom (de Fabrique et al. 2007) the Stockholm syndrome is characterized by (1) hostages have positive feelings for their captors, (2) victims show fear, distrust, and anger toward the authorities, and (3) perpetrators display positive feelings toward captives.

  4. 4

    While the difference between the two from the perspective of the hostage is stark, we take them from the kidnapper’s perspective to be equivalent. One may think of this as assuming law enforcement activities are not affected by the kidnapper’s decision. Alternatively, one may expect significant differences in the sanction and the enforcement activity separating these two. In this case, define the action h as the choice between freeing the victim and killing the victim that maximizes the kidnapper’s payoff.

  5. 5

    One can rationalize this assumption as deaths are punished more severely, but with the potential for reduced rates of apprehension, the inequality can be reversed. This assumption is made for convenience and is not crucial for the analysis.

  6. 6

    To simplify the analysis, it is assumed that the maintenance costs must be paid regardless of the outcome.

  7. 7

    Hence, ψ=β1δk1δf1p and χ=βδkPk+β1δkδfPf+β1δk1δfpS+M.

  8. 8

    Formally, define T=max1ψR0Pr+z,1ψpSPf1p,0.

  9. 9

    Assume that if indifferent the kidnapper prefers to take action earlier rather than later.

  10. 10

    The interval n_,nˉ is nonempty and has at most one integer within it since nˉn_=1. The existence of such a n requires that ψ1ψ+PrR0zχ1ψz>0, which will be assumed to hold (see Footnote 6).

  11. 11

    One could argue that the direct cost of kidnapping is, in fact, nonlinear so that short, express kidnappings bear little maintenance costs, while these costs expand as duration increases. Incorporating this critique, let M0 be the initial cost and suppose Mt=Mt1+α. Hence, n_=1ψPrR0+ψzχαz1ψ+α and nˉ=1ψPrR0+zχz1ψ+α and the results of Proposition 1 continue to hold (with α substituting for M in (6)).

  12. 12

    If the growth in the willingness to pay was random, then it would be possible that a large, negative shock would lead the kidnappers to prefer to free the captive in a later period.

  13. 13

    There were no missing or incomplete observations, but only completed kidnappings where the victim survived is considered. Hence, failed attempts, threats, and kidnappings that end in death are not included. Since our objective is to analyze the duration of the kidnapping we are unable to accurately assess the end of a kidnapping experience when the individual does not return alive. There were 28 deaths during the time span of interest. See Detotto, McCannon, and Vannini (2014) for a complementary analysis of kidnapping and murder. Kidnappings before 1960 suffer from incomplete data.

  14. 14

    The data set is restricted to observations before 1960 due to incomplete information on the facts of the kidnapping. Information on conviction, though, is available. Thus, we do not lose any observations by measuring deterrence in this way.

  15. 15

    The mandatory asset-seizure was not implemented until the end of 1991. Hence, there exist observations that occur in the 1990s but not with the policy in place. Thus, they are collinear but not perfectly so. The insignificance remains if both ASP and decade fixed effects are included.

  16. 16

    The mean value of EXPRESS is 0.20 with a standard deviation of 0.40.

Published Online: 2014-6-28
Published in Print: 2014-7-1

©2014 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin / Boston

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