The Born Legacy: Kidnappings in 1970s Argentina

view of the worldView of the World appeared on the front cover of The New Yorker on March 29, 1976. The cartoon parodies a view that New Yorker’s are thought to have of themselves at the center of the universe with very little of interest or relevance beyond their borders. To a degree, this is somewhat representative of the view many in the United States have of themselves and what occurs, or has occurred, outside their borders.

A few days ago I was having a conversation with an Argentine about the current political race for President of Argentina.  I mentioned that I had learned that Mauricio Macri, the former mayor of Buenos Aires and one of the two remaining candidates, was kidnapped in the 1990s. Don’t ever express shock or surprise to an Argentine about something you have learned about their history. They will always out-trump you. Without so much as a nano-second having passed, he asked if I was aware of the rash of kidnappings in Argentina in the 1970s and that, in fact, the highest ransom ever paid was paid in Argentina–60 million dollars!

queI can only imagine I had one of those contorted “Que?” looks on my face, trying to comprehend something so outlandish. As soon as I got home I began my investigation and started trawling the internet to find out if the story was true. So little is known about the true statistics of kidnapping in Argentina that even Wikipedia, the source of all reliable and trustworthy information just one step up the evolutionary ladder from Fox News, does not include any reference to the blight of kidnapping that occurred in Argentina during this very dark period in a country that has had more than its share of dark periods in its history.

patty hearstMost of my closest friends are unaware that I grew up with Patty Hearst. In fact, I ate dinner with her almost every evening. In our house, dinner was served in our family room in front of the six o’clock news. In 1974 the nation was galvanized to their TV sets following events of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and then her subsequent transformation over the next few months as outlaw. Now, if any of you don’t know who Patty Hearst is, well, I’m afraid we can’t be friends any longer, but as a refresher, Patty Hearst was/is the granddaughter of über wealthy American publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was the Bill Gates of the 20th century, amassing a fortune so obscene that his life was fictionalized in the Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane–and if you don’t know about Citizen Kane and, worse, if you’ve not seen it, our relationship seriously needs to end here.

In the 1920s Hearst published newspapers in 30 of America’s most populous cities. One American in every four read a Hearst newspaper. If you thought it, it was because Hearst told you to think it. By the 1930s his empire expanded to magazines, creating the largest newspaper and magazine conglomeration in the world. It is difficult to imagine a world without the internet and social media where we can learn of up-to-the-minute reports on Lamar Odom who collapsed while in a house full of hookers, which is quite surprising that it was in a brothel in Nevada and not the Kardashian mansion.

I came across an article in Business Insider which identified a list of the 18 highest ransoms paid to kidnappers. There it was! $60 million paid in 1974, the equivalent of $293 million today for the release of Jorge and Juan Born.

What is even more astounding is that of the 18 highest ransoms paid to kidnappers throughout history, half of them were paid for individuals kidnapped in Argentina! Patty Hearst doesn’t even make it into the Top 5, where she slides in at a paltry $6 million, or the equivalent of $29.3 million today. In fact, Latin America leads the world in kidnapping, accounting for some 80 percent of the world’s abductions.

Here are the winners:

#17: Ronald Grove
Ransomed for $1 million in 1972, equivalent to $5.48 million today.

Grove, one of the top employees at the Vesty meat packing company, was the first person in the country to command a seven-figure ransom price.

#16: Vincenzo Russo
Ransomed for $1 million in 1972; equivalent to $5.48 million today.

The Argentine terrorist group Montoneros captured Russo, an ITT exec, a few days after Grove’s kidnapping and demanded the same amount. Copycats.

#13: Antony Da Cruz
Ransomed for $1.5 million in 1973; equivalent to $7.7 million today.

Da Cruz, a 42-year-old Kodak executive in Buenos Aires, was captured by guerrilla terrorists for six days.

#12: Francis Brimicombe
Ransomed for $1.7 million in 1973; equivalent to $8.7 million today.

Brimicombe, a 57-year-old executive of British American Tobacco, lived in Argentina for 30 years before he was captured by a native terrorist group outside his home as he was returning from a golf trip. The group reportedly captured him to “finance their underground activities.”

#9: John R Thompson
Ransomed for $3 million in 1974; equivalent to $13.9 million today.

Thompson, the 50-year-old president of Firestone, was kidnapped by Argentine guerrillas ERP. He was captured on June 18 and released about two and a half weeks later.

#7: Enrique Metz
Ransomed in 1975 for $5 million; equivalent to $21.2 million today.

It wasn’t quite the score the Argentine guerrilla group Montoneros got when it captured the Juan and Jorge Born, but this Mercedes Benz executive was still worth a fortune.

#5: Charles Lockwood
Ransomed for $2 million in 1973 and for $10 million in 1975; equivalent to $52.9 million today.

Lockwood, a Roberts executive, was captured by the ERB Argentine group TWICE in a 26 month span, netting more than $50 million in today’s money.

samuelson#4: Victor Samuelson
Ransomed for $14.2 million in 1974; equivalent to $69.4 million today.

Esso Argentina (a subsidiary of Exxon) paid $14.2 million to rescue refinery manager Victor Samuelson from Marxist rebels after 98 days. The rebels, called the People’s Revolutionary Army, had threatened to execute him for the “crimes” of multinational corporations.

And the award goes to…

born#1: Jorge and Juan Born
Ransomed for $60 million in 1974; equivalent to $293 million today.

On Thursday 19 September 1974, a non-descript Ford Falcon Deluxe was making its way through early morning traffic along Avenida del Libertador heading towards downtown Buenos Aires. Jorge and Juan Carlos Born, as well as Alberto Bosch, a manager at a subsidiary company, were being driven to work by their chauffeur, Juan Carlos Perez. A second car followed immediately behind carrying three bodyguards assigned to protect the precious cargo in the first car.

At about 7:30am, the chauffeur was signaled and diverted by a policeman to turn off Avenida del Libertador onto a side street. As the car completed its turn, a pick up truck darted in front while another approached and collided at the rear. Within seconds, seven guerrillas surrounded the vehicles. When they realized their danger and tried to escape, the guerrillas opened fire, riddling the car with a spray of bullets and killing Perez and Bosch at close range. The brothers were bundled into a waiting sedan and whisked off to a people’s prison in nearby Martinez on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

The well-orchestrated ambush involved nineteen guerrillas, some of whom were dressed as policemen while others as telephone workers. The following day an article appeared in the New York Times reporting on the event and revealed that more than 70 individuals had been kidnapped in Argentina so far that year.

The Montoneros was an Argentine leftist urban guerrilla, and subversive group, active during the 1960s and 1970s who initiated a campaign to destabilize by force what they deemed a pro-American regime. The Montoneros formed out of a confluence of Roman Catholic groups, university students in social sciences, and leftist supporters of Juan Domingo Perón.

The Born brothers were kept in a known Argentine State Intelligence safehouse for nine months until their release in June of 1975, something made possible without public suspicion of outside involvement by the agency’s numerous contacts inside the Montoneros. Jorge Born, the principal heir to an empire spent the majority of nine months in captivity until his release in June of 1975.

gettyEleven months before the Borns were kidnapped, oil baron John Paul Getty’s grandson was kidnapped in Italy. Although he was one of the richest men on the planet, Getty initially refused to pay the ransom stating that he would “not yield to blackmail” and that if he paid one ransom, “I’ll have the other fourteen grandchildren kidnapped.” It was only after an envelope containing a lock of his hair and severed left ear did Getty concede to the kidnappers demands. However, Getty was only willing to cough up $2.2 million as it was the maximum amount he could declare on his taxes.

Soon thereafter Bunge & Born relocated to Sao Paolo, Brazil, to escape the abyss into which Argentina had sunk. In a bizarre twist, Jorge Born later formed a business partnership with one of his former kidnappers, Montonero strategist Rodolfo Galimberti.

The story does not end there as one chapter in history concludes and another begins. The period that followed the scourge of kidnappings in Argentina in the 1970s is even darker where a military government targeted these left-wing activists and militants and as many as 30,000 “disappeared.”

Perhaps our view of the world is confined to what we can comprehend and make sense of. Countless chapters in Argentine history would make anyone say, “Que???

que

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