How I Escaped My Peruvian Kidnappers
by Kurt Erichsen
the taxi took a new course and started roaming the city. Some
time later we pulled into a gas station. “Give me your
card and passport,” asked Amigo. “They can run a
voucher on your card here and give us the cash we need.”
Not seeing another option, I handed
over my credit card and passport and let them run a charge slip.
They brought me a couple slips of paper to sign ––
nowhere showing any amount that was being changed or the name
of the business. I signed like an obedient Gringo should and
we pulled out of the station. They didn't even give me a copy
of the receipt. Of course by now we all knew that this was a
shakedown, so why pretend that anything else was happening? We
repeated this ritual until the card wouldn’t run any more.
no point were my kidnappers threatening. They were friendly and
chatty and pointed out places I might want to visit. They asked
if I liked pretty girls and if I wanted to meet some. They knew
a place where they could fix me right up. They also pointed out
casinos and nice bars were we could all go for a drink if we
wanted. I explained sadly that it was now 2:30 a.m. and all I
wanted to do was go to my hotel and sleep a few hours before
going to work in the morning.
After my credit card gave out the
driver said we were going to the hotel in 15 more minutes. I
tensed again because this was the really dangerous part for me.
What were they going to do with a passenger they had just ripped
off? Dark alleys and sharp objects started playing through my
head. Instead, the driver actually took off on a new direction
and the quality of the neighborhoods started to improve. After
about 10 minutes on our new route the taxi’s motor sputtered
and died. The driver ground the starter for a while and then
he and Amigo ITB got out, raised the hood and scratched their
heads. At the time this didn’t seem very suspicious, only
a perfect continuation to an already memorable welcome to Peru.
The taxi had, however, stalled right in front of the main gate
of the Lima University –– an awfully conveniently
describable and public location. Two minutes later, miraculously
(if one was inclined to believe in miracles at this point in
the game), another taxi pulled up and asked if we needed help.
My kidnappers transferred my luggage to the second car and shook
me down for a $10 tip “for their trouble!”
In retrospect I see that the breakdown
was a really a set-up. Since they now had everything they set
out to get from me they now needed to get away from me, they
were just being polite about it. They could have taken me to
some out of the way place, tried to rough me up, and taken my
wallet passport, clothes and anything else that caught their
eyes but that would probably have been too provocative to escape
notice by the authorities. They must have had a cutoff switch
somewhere in the car so they could stop at the pre-arranged point
to hand me off. The second driver did actually take me right
to the hotel. He was even trying to be a legitimate taxi and
even gave me his card if I needed transport again. Once at the
hotel I paid him generously just to watch his guilty reaction.
I hope he choked on it. I bolted from the taxi and the bellman
retrieved my luggage. Since I had arrived so late, at least I
got a room upgrade for my troubles! The first thing I did was
to call Citibank to cancel my credit card.
This was a much more
difficult ordeal that it should have been. I called the number
on the back of the card and got a recorded message that this
number was out of service at Citibank and gave me another number
to call. I called that one and gave the operator my card number
and explained I was calling from Lima, Peru, I had been kidnapped
and that I needed to cancel the card. She then asked what kind
of account this was and I told her I it was a corporate card.
“Oh,” she replied, “this number is only for
“OK, give me the number for
“No," I interrupted,"
you weren’t listening! I’m in Peru ––
I can't call an 800 number!”
“Oh, let me see.” …
wait 5 minutes… “The number you need is 1-904, etc.”
So I call the third Citibank number
of the morning. Ring, ring, “Hello, Citibank.” I
go through the ritual again. “I’m sorry sir, this
number is for Business Accounts, I can’t help you with
Corporate Accounts.” “OK, what’s the number
for Corporate accounts?”
Lather, rinse, repeat. So I call the fourth number and am put
on electronic on hold for 20 minutes at 3 a.m. I then re-call
the last number and go through the ritual again.
“Sir! I just talked to you
a few minutes ago!” was the frosty reply, "This number
is not for Corporate Accounts!"
“Yes, but the number you gave
me just kept me on hold for 20 minutes!”
“Well, sir, you must be patient.
They can get busy over there sometimes.”
“At 3 bleepin’ o’clock
in the morning? You gotta be kidding! I want to talk to your
“That won’t be necessary
sir, just call this number, 1-904- etc.”
This was a different number than
she gave before, so I finally got the Gosh This Guy Actually
Has A Legitimate Emergency number.
As I explained my situation to the
person handling Citibank Corporate accounts –– not
Personal or Business accounts mind you –– she said,
“Oh, yes, you do have several charges here!”
“Out of curiosity, madam,
was there any kind of security hold on that account before I
“Oh, no sir. The system only
flags suspicious transactions.”
“So three $150 charges at
Lima, Peru gas stations within 90 minutes are not suspicious?”
“No, sir, I really can't comment
on what the system would flag as suspicious.”
I will say that Citibank was quite
efficient in that they had a new card waiting for me when I reached
At that point I was still shaking,
but I decided to brush my teeth and try to get a few hours of
sleep before going to work. I got my shaving kit out of my laptop
case to get my toothbrush. When I opened it I noticed something
strange. My cordless razor wasn’t there. With a sinking
feeling I opened my laptop case and found that all there was
left was a couple bottles of water that Amigo ITB had left for
ballast while he had cleaned out my bag of everything that looked
valuable. That was why the driver had kept the radio blaring.
He was covering the sound of Amigo stripping my computer bag.
They took my laptop, digital camera,
razor (kind of funny because its case was broken and I had almost
replaced it before leaving), power adapter, modem cable, Ethernet
cable, memory stick and laser pointer. I was really bummed about
the 2GB memory stick because it was hidden in a side pocket and
carried my hard drive backup.
At this point I was rather philosophical
about the whole incident. I got through it intact, with only
material losses. I really regretted losing all the years of data
stored on the laptop, but the computer has a power-on password,
Windows has another password and the memory stick had yet another
password, so there was no way any of those devices would be of
much use. Yes they got my camera and a 1 GB SD card, but I had
just downloaded all the pictures I had on it, and they didn’t
have the battery charger or download cable so the camera was
pretty useless in itself.
I didn’t end up in a vacant
lot in a Lima slum beaten, wounded, or dead. I didn’t get
disappeared into the mountains and held for ransom. These were
possibilities going through my head as I took my early morning
tour of Lima. Oh, sure I could have given then a surprise Taekwando
demo if they had turned violent, but if it had come to that I
didn't foresee much good coming from resorting to martial arts.
I’m also wiser now.
I now travel with an International
cell phone. The company provides them for the asking, but until
I had this problem nobody had ever told me they were available!
I have to turn it in every time I return and any numbers I’ve
stored will be purged, but at least I can contact colleagues
and hotels if needed.
I had succumbed to something I have
feared for years –– overconfidence. I thought I knew
the drill for the place I was going. Actually, I had never arrived
by myself in Lima before. I had always been traveling with a
companion who took care of the ground transportation. On top
of that the Lima airport has been renovated since my previous
visits, so I was actually arriving into terra incognita. It would
have been better if I panicked, gotten semi-hysterical and gotten
the attention of the actual airport security. They would probably
have been able to call the hotel for me, or directed me to the
right place to meet the limo driver. When contacted the next
day the limo service claimed they had a driver waiting for my
and they were searching for me until after 2 a.m. when the hotel
indicated I had arrived. I suspect that I exited the plane and
cleared customs more quickly than they judged possible and didn’t
have the sign out soon enough. If I'd had five minutes more delay
in the immigration line I might not have had this adventure.
The next morning over breakfast
I told the story to the horror of my colleagues. I then called
Eastman Security in Tennessee to report the theft of the computer.
I assured them I was whole and hale and that the laptop was properly
password protected so it would be virtually impossible for anyone
to access the hard drive. The power-on password was coded into
the drive itself so nobody could plug it into another PC with
an unsecured BIOS and access the data. The man I talked to asked
me for a contact number so that if security wanted to get more
information they could call me back. I gave them the number of
the hotel but explained that I was going to work in 15 minutes
and wouldn’t be back until evening.
In the evening we returned to the
hotel there was a message slip under my door telling me to call
the Eastman help desk. I called and began to explain the situation
when the guy on the other end interrupted me with “Oh,
you’re the guy who got kidnapped in Peru!”
I was taken aback since it had been
about 10 hours since my first call and this fellow had to be
on the second shift. That meant that my tale of woe must have
carried over at shift change! “Yeah,” I answered
cautiously, “Am I that famous up there?”
“Oh, yes,” the technician
replied, “You’ve been the hottest topic of conversation
we’ve had for days!”
I asked what they needed from me
and all they wanted to know was where in Chile to send my replacement
laptop via DHL. I explained that I wasn’t going to be in
one place long enough for them to track me down and that they
could catch up to me with new computer on Monday morning when
I got back to my office.
After two days of visiting customers
in Peru we took a night flight down to Santiago. The limo service
that missed me on my arrival gave me a free ride in to the airport
as recompense. That was a nice gesture, but I would have preferred
for them to have been waiting for me upon arrival The driver
had instructions to only take me in the car, but I asked our
Regional Director to ride with me since I really didn’t
want to ride alone. We had a nice conversation about the business
and travel security in Latin America on the way. He was thankful
that I wasn’t bitter about my experience and had pretty
much taken the incident in stride. I admitted that I was pretty
nervous about it, but I wasn’t going to let it deter my
enthusiasm for working in the region.
I have since returned to South America
twice since this episode and have not had a single problem. Traveling
abroad is a wonderful experience that I heartily recommend to
anyone with the means and curiosity to do it. I am a seasoned
traveler. I've visited five continents and most countries in
Europe, Asia and South America. If you get the opportunity I
say, by all means go, but keep these guidelines in mind:
where you are going.
The Newark airport can be just as dangerous as, say, Lima, if
you aren't careful! The local visitor's bureau or your travel
agent isn't necessarily going to warn you of trouble spots. Websites
like Lonely Planet and US State Department can be invaluable
resources in finding out the scoop before you land.
travel alone. If I had
a traveling companion, even a total greenhorn turista from the
Tennessee hills, I would have not gotten the "Millionaire
tour" treatment in Lima.
on the plane. Predators
pick on weakened prey. If you arrive exhausted, you won't be
thinking clearly. If you can't sleep on a plane, at least learn
some relaxation techniques so you don't arrive under stress.
names and numbers in your hands.
Have a hard copy of hotel reservations in hand. You are most
vulnerable as you arrive. It is essential to be able to contact
someone you know and trust at your destination.
an International phone card with you. Unless
you are paying for international service your cell phone is an
excellent paper-weight once you leave the US. Have some way to
tap in the local phone net that you can rely on before you arrive.
in doubt, look for a uniform.
A uniformed official is less likely to do you harm than someone
in plainclothes. Notice I say less likely –– not
unlikely. Official corruption in many foreign countries is so
rampant it is not prudent to put much trust in local authorities.
In an emergency, though you are better off approaching a uniform
than a suit. The exception to this rule is if the only person
in uniform around is carrying a machine gun. These guys are NOT
tour guides, and are likely to be unreceptive to helping a distressed
get cocky. I’ve
flown a lot of miles and have had to get extra pages added to
my passport. I thought I had seen it all and got fooled by my
own overconfidence. It’s a great, interesting world out
there and most of it is worth seeing. I certainly won’t
fall for the same trap again, and I hope I have more respect
for the other traps out there I haven’t stepped in yet!