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The True Crime Issue

The Art of Ransom

The kidnapping biz is booming these days. Once the specialty of South American guerrilla armies and drug cartels, abducting and bartering for human beings has become a global industry in the past decade.
September 3, 2014, 3:00pm

The kidnapping biz is booming these days. Once the specialty of South American guerrilla armies and drug cartels, abducting and bartering for human beings has become a global industry in the past decade. According to data from the security firm Control Risks, kidnappings in Asia and Africa made up more than half of incidents worldwide in 2013, thanks to growing social unrest and the spread of radical groups. While any terrorist cell, street gang, or band of pirates can pull off an abduction, the real artistry lies in extracting a hefty ransom. Here s a brief list of notable ransoms through the ages:

1532: Atahualpa, King of the Incas

Paying his own ransom to conquistador Francisco Pizarro, the last emperor of the Incas surrenders a hall full of gold and silver worth roughly $1.5 billion in modern money—the largest ransom ever paid.

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1874: The First Ransom Note

Kidnappers abduct four-year-old Charley Ross near his home in Pennsylvania and leave what is believed to be the first ransom note in US history, demanding $20,000 for the kid’s return. Ross is never found.

1970s: The Montoneros

The left-wing guerrilla group terrorizes Argentina, abducting businessmen and extorting enormous sums of money. Their chef d’oeuvre is the 1974 kidnapping of Jorge and Juan Born, wealthy grain magnates. The brothers are returned months later for more than $60 million. That’s equivalent to roughly $293 million in 2014 money, making it the largest ransom in modern history.

1973: John Paul Getty III

When oil tycoon J. Paul Getty refuses to pay a $17 million dollar ransom for his abducted grandson, kidnappers cut off the 16-year-old’s ear and send it to an Italian newspaper. Getty eventually agrees to a $3 million ransom but pays only $2.2 million, the largest tax-deductible amount, and loans the other $800,000 to his son, the kid’s father, at a 4 percent interest rate.

1974: Patty Hearst

The 19-year-old heiress is kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a left-wing domestic terrorist group that demands the Hearst family distribute $70 million in food to poor people in California. Hearst’s father quickly donates $6 million in food, but the SLA decides to keep its hostage because the food was shitty. Three months later, Hearst announces she is joining the SLA and changing her name to Tania.

1996: Victor Li

The son of Hong Kong’s richest business tycoon, Li Ka-shing, is kidnapped by Chinese gangster Cheung Tze-keung, a.k.a. “Big Spender,” and returned for $133 million. A year later, Big Spender demands a similar ransom for Walter Kwok, another Hong Kong business scion. Kwok is eventually released for $77 million.