Ransom kidnapping in Argentina reached an all-time low of only four cases in the first quarter of 2023, the culmination of a years-long trend driven by increased law enforcement coordination and economic troubles that have made the crime less profitable.
Kidnapping first earned notoriety in Argentina in the 1970s, when a number of high-profile kidnappings by guerrillas extracted record-setting ransoms. Though insurgencies faded, kidnappings continued, becoming a professionalized criminal economy around the turn of the century.
SEE ALSO: Read our kidnapping coverage
But over the last 20 years, kidnapping for ransom in Argentina has plummeted, according to Argentina’s Specialized Kidnapping and Extortion Unit (Unidad Fiscal Especializada en Secuestros Extorsivos – UFESE). From hundreds of cases in the early 2000s to just 27 last year, this decline has been steeper and more consistent than drops in other crimes, such as murder or robbery. And though poverty and unemployment are often drivers of crime, kidnappings fell even as these measures rose.
InSight Crime compared kidnappings to official crime and economic statistics to find out what caused this decline.
The Development of the Kidnapping Economy
Professional kidnappings became prominent during Argentina’s most severe financial crisis, which lasted from 1998-2002. The crisis robbed many of their faith in Argentina’s formal economy, making crime a more appealing career.
Between 1998 and 2002, Argentina’s economy shrank by 28%, leading to a default on public debt and an unemployment rate of over 20%. This economic chaos fueled political instability, with five presidents holding office in just four years.
Although there are no official statistics from the time, kidnapping cases in Argentina likely peaked at around 600 ransom kidnappings in 2003, according to Santiago Marquevich, Chief Prosecutor of UFESE. In the early 2000s, professionalized kidnapping bands started operating around Greater Buenos Aires (GBA). These groups were organized and their crimes well-planned. They researched their targets and would hold a victim for weeks while pressuring their family for ransom.
In 2003, the economy began to recover. As GDP grew steadily, unemployment and kidnappings declined. Then in 2012, as the economy stumbled once more, kidnappings started to rise. But gangs were no longer planning sophisticated operations. Instead, a more opportunistic “express” form of kidnapping had become popular. Rather than surveilling the victim to find the ideal pickup location and holding them in a safe house for extended periods, groups were choosing victims at random and holding them for less than 24 hours.
Many of these kidnappings started as vehicle theft, with criminals looking for vulnerable cars that could be hijacked. Then, if the passengers seemed to be rich, the thieves would progress to extortion, forcing the owner to withdraw money from ATMs or pressuring their families to pay a ransom.
Express kidnappings are common in unstable economies. In Venezuela, for example, kidnappings spiked following the 2014 economic crisis fueled by plummeting oil prices and corruption.
By 2015, Argentina's express kidnappings had peaked. That year, 294 cases were registered. The number has been trending downward ever since.
Homicides and aggravated robberies have also declined in recent years, but neither has had such a precipitous and steady fall. From 2015 to 2021, aggravated robberies fell 43%. Homicides dropped by 26% percent during the same period. Ransom kidnappings fell 90%, with each year lower than the one before.
Ransom kidnappings diverge from geographic trends of crime in Argentina. Using UFESE’s geographical data on kidnappings, a clear pattern emerges: the vast majority of kidnappings -- 397 of a total 431 -- took place in Buenos Aires. Though Rosario, Santa Fe has become infamous as Argentina’s hotspot for drug trafficking and homicides, UFESE found only seven instances of ransom kidnappings there.
The decline in kidnappings has also defied economic trends. While the financial crisis may have propelled the early 2000s wave of kidnappings, the current drop in cases does not follow unemployment or poverty rates. Both figures rose from 2016 to 2020, and while they have fallen in recent years, poverty remains above 2016 levels, and unemployment is again on the rise.
In recent years, Argentina has been wracked by prolonged inflation, massive public debt, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a drought that has decimated its agricultural sector. While unemployment and poverty have fluctuated, inflation has gone from bad to worse, reaching over 100%.
Surprisingly, ransom kidnappings have decreased despite Argentina’s economic woes, with only one ransom kidnapping per month so far in 2023. With limits on ATM withdrawals capping how much can be gained from a quick ransom and devaluation meaning large amounts of cash quickly lose their value, criminals may be looking to make money through products with more durable value. Arrests for drug-related offenses, for example, rose 127% between 2015 and 2021, according to police statistics.
As inflation has skyrocketed and Argentina’s currency has lost value, kidnappings have nosedived. The correlation between Argentina’s rising Consumer Price Index -- a standard measure of inflation -- and falling kidnappings is stronger than any of the other factors analyzed by InSight Crime.
Authorities Begin to Coordinate
Another factor behind the unexpected decline may be a change in strategy by the Argentine government. Following the surge in express kidnappings in 2012, UFESE was founded to identify patterns and facilitate evidence-sharing between prosecutors unknowingly pursuing the same gang. “There would be two or three prosecutors and different commissions investigating the same band that, on different days and in different jurisdictions, committed acts with certain characteristics,” UFESE Chief Prosecutor Marquevich told InSight Crime.
Now, prosecutors collaborate with UFESE on cases of kidnapping for ransom, finding patterns across jurisdictions. UFESE, Marquevich said, “is the branch that links and relates these acts in cooperation with all of the prosecutors that are involved in each case.”
SEE ALSO: Read our Argentina coverage
In addition to facilitating evidence sharing, UFESE compiles data to reveal patterns that may link cases. Much of this evidence comes from the victims themselves, with those kidnapped providing key details like descriptions of the kidnappers’ faces and voices, vehicles and weapons used, and how their abductors demanded and collected ransoms.
The evidence that UFESE collects, along with open-source research, has allowed authorities to speed up the process of detecting new groups and arresting those responsible before they can commit a large number of kidnappings, according to Marquevich.
The Poroto, Pastor y Narvaja Gang, for example, operated in Morón and Lomas de Zamora jurisdictions of GBA during the early days of UFESE. Authorities soon linked their crimes and dismantled the group in June 2016.
Another gang, M19, kidnapped people throughout the GBA in 2016 and 2017. But UFESE found a pattern: Though victims were kidnapped from various locations, the kidnappers would always drive along the West Access Highway and General Paz Avenue while trying to extract a ransom. These roads were chosen as they were easy to navigate in case of a police chase, but also because they were close to the kidnappers’ homes. This information enabled UFESE to link multiple kidnappings to M19.
Argentina has seen various changes in the styles of kidnappings in the country, from politically-motivated kidnappings by insurgents to professional kidnapping groups to opportunistic express kidnappings.
But it appears that in the 2020s, kidnapping is evaporating as an economy in and of itself. The few kidnappings that still occur are no longer about making a living from extortion, said Marquevich. Instead, “a huge percentage of the cases we are seeing has to do with settling scores between criminal groups or people involved in crime.”