When I was 12, my family moved from New York to Venezuela. At the time, Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan-born terrorist, was in his heyday and I was fascinated by him. Even then, I understood that he was just a narcissist.

I studied psychology and my first job out of university was in a secure psychiatric unit. I didn’t know anything about personality disorders, but I was physically imposing and I threw myself into it. Whenever a patient became violent, a message would go out over the PA calling me by my code name, “Dr Strong”. Over time, I realised I could get patients to do what I wanted – I could change their behaviour – by asking questions and talking.

Then, at a dinner party, I was told about a private security company in London, and their “reaction division”, which dealt with kidnapping and extortion. They needed someone who spoke Spanish. The company told me I could work in their kidnapping response team, but then took for ever to come back with a firm offer. I kept ringing them. What I didn’t realise was that The Wait was a test. In a real hostage situation, The Wait creates pressure and the consultant must remain calm. I revealed my impatience, and I didn’t get the job; but the interview made me realise what direction I wanted to go in.

The kidnap and ransom industry, or K&R, is traditionally made up of three components: a security team, an underwriter and a broker. It was a few years after my interview that I realised that I could add a fourth dimension: psychology.

Kidnap is a uniquely human crime that relies on the fact that we are social animals. It’s immensely traumatic for the victim to be isolated, and their family suffers too. I could see a gap in the market: if companies were prepared to pay for physical security for their employees, they would be willing to pay for psychological support as well. So, I called some brokers at the company where I failed The Wait and told them my idea. They loved it, and they took me on as a sub-contractor.

My first job was the case of a 16-year-old boy who’d been kidnapped. The parents were so distressed they were creating problems for the negotiators. The boy was freed while I was still on the plane. The family was relieved, but traumatised. So I stayed a week and guided them through the recovery process. With that one job, my worth was proved and the floodgates opened. I spent the rest of the year in Latin America.

The first thing I tell the client is to agree to do business with the kidnappers. When I arrive in the country, we find the right people to work with. A good, local communicator, often a member of the family, is essential. Once the team is in place, we wait – sometimes minutes, sometimes days – for the kidnappers to call.

When I go into a job, I always expect to pay. For each country, there is a going rate. You can’t under-offer because the kidnappers won’t accept it, but if you over-offer they might see you as a cash cow, and come back for another member of the company, or family. If they ask for too much, it can take weeks to get the price down, and the fear is they’ll harm the hostage. The highest ransoms I’ve worked on are in Somali piracy cases, where they can ask for several million pounds. The lowest can be four figures.

Work has slowed since that first, frantic year, but I still do up to six cases every year. Some days, I burn waiting for the next call. My job is always to get the hostage out alive. I don’t care what happens to the kidnapper. So far, I have a 100 per cent success rate.

Ben Lopez is a pseudonym. ‘The Negotiator: My Life at the Heart of the Hostage Trade’ is published by Sphere, £17.99

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article