A surge in extortion rackets organized by foreign gangs has substantially increased the number of kidnappings in the capital, with the average now running at almost one a day.
The rate of kidnappings has risen sharply in the past seven or eight years. Half of all kidnappers and victims in the capital are foreign nationals, usually from the same ethnic group. Detective Chief Superintendent Sharon Kerr, who heads Scotland Yard's serious and organized crime unit, said the growing number of foreign criminal networks carrying out kidnaps in the city led to increasingly complex and high risk situations.
"They are bringing their criminal enterprises with them and their different methodologies," she said. It was vital to gain immigrant communities' trust to help combat gangsters in their midst.
A total of 358 kidnaps were reported in London last year, according to figures released by London's Metropolitan police (Met) on Tuesday. The Met's specialist kidnap unit -- the only one in the UK -- works on about 50-80 "live" kidnaps a year. There have been 31 cases this year, 55 last year, 85 in 2003 and 79 in 2002.
In the other 300 or so cases, police are only notified after a ransom has been paid and the victim freed, and the true figure could be much higher, as many underworld-linked crimes go unreported.
The involvement of so many foreign nationals in kidnaps means the Met often works with police forces in several different jurisdictions. For example, someone might be kidnapped in London and a ransom demand made in Pakistan.
Kidnapping is particularly prevalent in the Chinese, Afro-Caribbean, South Asian and Eastern European communities, where extreme violence and torture is common, often over relatively small amounts of money. Last year, a group of Lithuanian men seized a young Lithuanian after overhearing his accent in the pub. They beat him senseless and then scrolled down the numbers in his mobile phone, calling friends and relatives to demand ?200 (US$364).
Police rescued the critically injured victim, who spent weeks on a life support machine.
So far, the Met kidnap unit, set up in 2001, has had a 100 percent success rate in recovering people alive. Skilled negotiators work round the clock to try to secure victims' safe release. In as many as 80 percent of cases, armed officers storm the kidnappers' stronghold and rescue the victim. But bringing the kidnappers to justice is difficult, often because victims are too frightened to testify. The prosecution rate for kidnap is just 20 percent, although many perpetrators are jailed for related offenses.
However, Sir Ian Blair, the Scotland Yard commissioner, said yesterday the Met is talking to the Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service to try to get more kidnap cases to court without the victims having to give evidence, in line with recent policy changes on domestic violence.
Most kidnaps are crime-related -- 29 percent are clearly linked to drugs, and another 36 percent are motivated by drugs or other crime.
But the vast majority of victims are usually innocent parties. For instance, a drug supplier may get his gang of "enforcers" to seize the younger brother of a drug dealer who owes him money.
Another 19 percent of kidnaps the Met deals with involve human trafficking, often of young east European or Asian women brought into the country illegally and then sold as sex slaves. In some cases, money is extorted from their families in China, Europe or elsewhere.
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