If you get snatched on your way to work, kidnap-for-ransom consultant Ben Lopez is the man they fly in to make sure you get home safe.
He’s the best in the business and has never lost a client. Normally, he’d never put himself in harm’s way, but on one job early in his career, he found himself getting closer to the action than he ever should, almost costing him his life…
“I was an hour’s drive from Rio’s Copacabana beach. Diego Feola, a local businessman who ran a shipping firm, had been taken a month earlier from outside his office. We had negotiated a price of half ?a million Reals (Brazilian currency), around £250K with the kidnapper ‘Zeze’ and were ready for the drop. We were in the end game.
The two most dangerous parts of any kidnap are the abduction, which I can’t do anything about, and the exchange, which I can control. The reason these are the most dangerous is because these are the two points in which the kidnappers come into contact with us. As a result, they’re usually nervous and twitchy because they’re worried they might get jacked, or the police will come and pick them up.
One of the things that we are very careful about is deciding who makes the exchange. We’ve got to be very careful about who does this, otherwise the ransom could get stolen. This can put the hostage at much greater risk. The most dangerous thing we can do is leading a kidnapper to believe that they’re going to get paid and then not delivering.”
“In this case the kidnappers had insisted on the drop being made by a driver for the family called Henrique. They were insisting on this guy, which made me suspicious. Why did it have to be him? Maybe he was in on it: most of these kidnappings are inside jobs.
I wanted to make sure that, in the event he was dirty, he didn’t make off with the money. That’s when we got the idea of me substituting for him.
I realised Henrique looked a lot like me, so I thought that I could probably get away with it. I’m a native Spanish speaker, but I wasn’t going to get into conversation with them."
“The kidnapper in this case had already told us that if we played any tricks he would ‘mutilate the package’. A lot of kidnappers will threaten this. There was one guy, Daniel Arizmendi Lopez who people always bring up as a worst-case scenario. He would cut off his victim’s ears and send them to the families.
He’s the kind of person that, if he wasn’t kidnapping people and cutting their ears off, then he would have found another excuse to do it. He was always the boogieman that loomed in your consciousness, so when kidnappers start making threats like that you think, ‘What if they’re the new Arizmendi?’ I really didn’t want to put myself in the way of this guy.
Part of the reason I did was because of the hostage’s wife. One of the things that made life interesting – or dangerous – is that because I was a foreign expert being parachuted in to save the day, there was a great deal of sexual tension between me and his wife.
This woman was so hot and I think she would’ve been up for it. It would have been straight out of the movies, but I thought it was just too dangerous. My balls were doing the talking. I was thinking with the little head, not the big head. I wanted to be the hero.”
“The kidnappers had me drive around town for a long time. Sometimes this part takes hours. They call you on a mobile phone and give you directions, until they’re happy that you’re not being followed or that you don’t have some kind of surveillance. I could be pretty sure that they were watching me for some, if not all, of the journey.
Once they were satisfied they called and gave me directions to drive a bridge a few miles out of town. When I got there they told me to park the car, walk over to the other side of the bridge and drop the money next to a guy in a black hoodie who was stood with his back to me. It was quite dark by that point and I didn’t know where I was. I’d never done a drop myself – I’d supervised plenty of them but I’d never done the legwork myself.
When I was near him he angled his body towards me and put his hands behind his back. He’s got a gun, a voice inside me said. He’s taking out his gun. He’s going to grab the bags and pop one right between my eyes. I dropped the bags by his feet and he prodded them with his boot, testing the weight. My heart wasn’t in my mouth. It was on the floor.
I put down the bags and wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. I turned around and with every step expected to hear a gunshot. But it never came. I slumped back into the car and fumbled with the keys. The keyhole suddenly seemed like the eye of a needle and the key the size of a log.
You’re trying to think that they just want the money, they don’t need to kill me, but despite the knowledge of that, I was still scared to death. And say the guy is a psychopath and he just likes killing people, then he’s going to do it because he’s got the perfect opportunity.
“But I’d made it. And I won’t be doing that again any time soon.”
What happened next?
01 After a couple of hours of nervous waiting, kidnapped Diego was found wandering around Copacabana beach with a bag on his head. Apart from a couple of bruises he was completely fine.?
02 Despite Ben’s playing the hero and his attempts at bravery, the wife, Lara, “didn’t give a shit” about him after her husband had been released. He just had to sneak off into the sunset.
03 Ben Lopez is not his real name. He has to keep his identity a secret; otherwise he might become a potential target for kidnap himself. No one even knows what he looks like.
04 Ben continues to use his psychology PhD to give him an edge over the people that he negotiates with, whether they be hardened criminals or religious fanatics, from Colombia and Brazil to Iraq and Afghanistan.
As told to: Jack Barry
The Negotiator: My life at the heart of the hostage trade By Ben Lopez, is available now from Amazon.