Amy Manson never planned to get into the family business. She worked at a university and a bank before taking over the company her father started. Had he run a real estate firm or a coffee shop, that wouldn’t seem unusual, but the realm Manson entered is one of life and death, inhabited by innocents and bad guys with guns.
She’s in the kidnap for ransom commercial insurance business.
Manson’s company sells a very specific peace of mind to clients primarily in Mexico, Central America, and South America—and to US companies that operate there. If an insured person is kidnapped, her firm will work to secure their release and—if necessary—pay the ransom provided under the policy.
“It’s a highly stressed, highly emotionally-charged situation,” she says. “You have a lot of unknown variables, and someone’s life is on the line. You feel both very alone and also fearful that the process could be hijacked from you. If you’re in the US you might trust the FBI to be a helpful, positive influence in the process, but in many of the countries in which we work the authorities could also be participatory. It’s very, very isolating.”
It is also very secretive. Notice that her photo does not appear with this story. She uses an alias on Facebook (“so I know what my kids are doing”). Manson, CAS/MA ’94, declines to mention the name of her company or any of its clients. Its website is locked, it does not advertise, and has almost no public profile. If you’re the kind of person who needs this kind of insurance, she’s confident that you’ll figure out how to find her.
There’s a commercial component to many kidnappings that is entirely different from the terrorism or politically-motivated abductions that often garner headlines around the world. In 2016, Manson helped start Hostage US to aid the families of victims of the latter. The nonprofit—which she stresses is entirely separate from her business—is not involved with negotiating or paying captors. Rather, its goal is to support the victims and their families during and after the ordeal.
“I helped set up Hostage US because I saw a gap in support resources when a family member gets kidnapped, and the need for an independent advocate who can guide those thrown into the mayhem of a kidnap crisis,” says Manson, who serves on the DC organization’s board of directors. “I’ve been able to apply an expertise to an area that most people don’t even know exists and help families through a process no one wants to experience and make it, not better, but easier. Families don’t need to feel alone—we are there.”
That’s due in part to Manson, who is also a senior advisor to the crisis team that helps family members make decisions to ensure the safe release of their loved ones.
“Amy has a tremendous amount of passion for the plight of hostages and their families,” says Rachel Briggs, Hostage US’s executive director. “We don’t take a formulaic approach to the work we do—we meet each family and try to understand them and respond to them. There are few people who have Amy’s abilities in that regard. She brings passion, commitment, empathy, and energy, which is vital to the kind of work that we do.”
Manson’s father, a World War II veteran full of wanderlust, started a kidnap for ransom insurance brokerage business decades ago. She was born in Bogotá, Colombia, but the family moved to New Jersey when she was young. Manson earned undergraduate degrees in Spanish (which she speaks fluently) and economics and says she would have been happy as a career student if her father hadn’t retired. He asked her to take over the business, she accepted, and 32 years later, she’s still at the forefront of the industry.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of kidnappings in most countries, because the crime is underreported, misreported, or not reported at all. In many cases, governments don’t want to admit that the problem exists, lest it dissuade tourists from coming to sip daiquiris on their beaches.
But it’s common enough that a handful of companies like Manson’s flourish in the United States and United Kingdom. In addition to the financial aspects of coverage (which include funding a third party for ransom payment, not paying kidnappers directly), the policies carry a service component that includes a crisis advisor.
“People love to call it a negotiator because of Hollywood,” says Manson, who is generally much less agitated than Liam Neeson. “It’s not a guy dressed in black who arrives on a white horse, but it is someone who’s going to show up at 2 o’clock in the morning to help navigate very challenging waters.”
Often, the ransom is paid, the hostage is freed, and the public is none the wiser. Other times, the transaction captures international attention, as when oil tycoon J. Paul Getty paid $2.2 million in 1973 for the release of his grandson, an ordeal dramatized in the recent film All the Money in the World. The most expensive ransom ever paid is believed to be the $60 million that freed Argentinian grain traders Jorge and Juan Born in 1974. (That’s roughly $305 million in today’s dollars.)
Although one of her policyholders was accidentally killed by the Colombian military while his captors were moving him, “We’ve never had—and I’ll knock on wood—a situation where in the context of negotiations, or as a result of negotiations, someone has perished,” Manson says.
Not everyone is so lucky.
The world watched in horror when in 2014, US journalist James Foley was executed by the terrorist group ISIS. He’d been held captive in Syria for two years, an agonizing period for his mother, Diane Foley, for whom the story was more personal than political.
“It’s a very terrifying experience,” she told Fox News in 2016. “We didn’t know how to advocate for Jim. We wasted a lot of time trying to find legal help.”
Following her son’s death, Foley was instrumental in helping establish Hostage US. The organization was inspired by its British counterpart, which was cofounded in 2004 by former hostage Terry Waite.
“For most families it’s the first time that they have gone through this, and hopefully the last,” Briggs says. “They’re very scared, they’re not sleeping, they often have trouble remembering what’s happening. We walk alongside the family every step of the way. We can also provide access to all sorts of differentprofessional services. It’s not uncommon for the spouse at home to not be able to access the bank account of the spouse who’s been kidnapped. You can imagine the difficulties that poses. We’re able to provide them access to lawyers and financial advisors who can get them out of that tight spot.”
The nonprofit, which is the only one of its kind in this country and relies entirely on private donations from individuals and corporations, can also arrange for family members and former hostages to receive therapy. It’s all provided free of charge.
“America is not a country that’s short of counselors,” says the British-born Briggs. “But like any country in the world there is a real shortage of psychologists and psychiatrists who specialize in trauma like that which families go through in a hostage case. We have a panel of expert mental health advisors who can help us find the right person in the right place with the right qualifications for that family.”
Since its inception, Hostage US has worked on about 70 cases. It estimates that there are more than 200 Americans kidnapped every year. While most of them are eventually released, their trauma doesn’t end when they come home. In fact, Hostage US is currently providing services to people who were held at the US embassy in Iran in 1979 and 1980.
Jessica Buchanan, a humanitarian aid worker, was held hostage in Somalia for 93 days before she was rescued by US Navy SEALs on a January night in 2012.
“For former hostages, the hardest part of it all isn’t surviving the captivity—we’ve already done that,” she says in a testimonial printed in a Hostage US annual report. “What needs to be understood is that sometimes, for those of us who have found our lives completely changed by a kidnapping, it’s not the trauma of the experience that is so hard for us to navigate, it’s figuring out how to ‘survive survival’ that is the tough part. Often times our careers have been destroyed, our lifestyles turned upside down—we have to start completely over from scratch, and we are often left with an overwhelming sense of ‘NOW WHAT?’ An organization like Hostage US gives someone like me a place to meet with others who have weathered that storm and figured out a way to make a new life, an even better life, out of something that felt impossible.”
In November 2017, Manson was connected through Hostage US with a family whose loved one had been held hostage then murdered by a terrorist group. The family was preparing for a series of meetings with the government to deal with outstanding issues and concerns about the case. According to Briggs, Manson spent two intense weeks with the family, helping them organize their thoughts, prepare an agenda, and direct their questions to various officials. She also attended the meetings at their request.
“I cannot begin to express how important it was for us to have a Hostage US volunteer with us as we navigated the very frightening territory of handling the aftermath of our brother’s [kidnapping] and murder,” a family member said in a statement that Briggs madeavailable to American. “[Amy] helped us to articulate and frame our concerns in a way that was constructive. Her experience and expertise impressed those with whom we were dealing, and helped us to determinewhen to push them, and when to accept a small victory. She was our friend and confidante, our cheerleader and coach, and someone who took care of the little details for us so we could focus our attention and energy on the task at hand.”
Manson’s current project is helping an individual who was beaten around his mouth while in captivity. Through Hostage US, she’s been able to secure him access to free dental services.
“Without it, every time he looks at himself he’s reminded of the trauma he lived,” she says.
In time, she hopes that when he glances in the mirror, he’ll see nothing more than a smiling face looking back.