5 Coun­terCus­tody Prin­ci­ples that Can Make You a Kid­nap­per’s Worst Night­mare

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Front Page - By Pa­trick McCarthy

In May 2017, Frank Mass­abki and his fi­ancée, Jen­nifer, trav­eled to Mexico City to scout lo­ca­tions for their up­com­ing wed­ding. An hour af­ter rent­ing a car in the city, they were rear-ended by an­other ve­hi­cle. The cou­ple told In­side Edi­tion that they stepped out to in­spect the dam­age, but were ap­proached by sev­eral men with guns who threw them into the back­seat and drove them to a lo­ca­tion they didn’t rec­og­nize. The kidnappers bound their wrists with shoelaces, blind­folded them, and said they planned to de­mand a ran­som. The men then at­tempted to sex­u­ally as­sault Jen­nifer, but she fought back, re­ceiv­ing a punch to the face that broke her nose. Dur­ing this strug­gle, Frank man- aged to es­cape from his crude re­straints and ran to call for help. Re­al­iz­ing they had lost con­trol, the kidnappers fled, and the cou­ple were able to re­turn home to the United States. As a re­sult of count­less melo­dra­matic Hol­ly­wood de­pic­tions, kid­nap­ping may seem like a dis­tant threat — the sort of thing that only hap­pens if you’re a se­cret agent, mil­lion­aire busi­ness­man, or key wit­ness in a mafia mur­der trial. But the un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity is that it does hap­pen to or­di­nary peo­ple like the Mass­abkis, es­pe­cially in im­pov­er­ished coun­tries where ruth­less crim­i­nals and cor­rupt of­fi­cials view for­eign­ers as high-value tar­gets. And if these in­di­vid­u­als can’t get what they want, most won’t hes­i­tate to re­sort to tor­ture, rape, or mur­der.

Ed’s Man­i­festo: Counter-Cus­tody Train­ing

Ed Calderon, who you may rec­og­nize from our Sur­vival­ist Spot­light in­ter­view in Is­sue 25, has forged a ca­reer as a spe­cific type of sur­vival in­struc­tor. Based on first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence with the car­tels dur­ing his time as a Mex­i­can law en­force­ment of­fi­cer, Calderon has de­vel­oped an in-depth cur­ricu­lum that teaches stu­dents how to avoid ab­duc­tion and es­cape cap­tiv­ity. These cour­ses are more than just aca­demic the­ory — they place stu­dents in sim­u­lated kid­nap­ping sce­nar­ios, and give each in­di­vid­ual a jar­ring glimpse of the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma that can en­sue.

We re­cently at­tended one of Ed’s two-day counter-cus­tody cour­ses, and learned sev­eral skills that can help you turn the ta­bles on kidnappers and in­crease your odds of mak­ing it home alive. These prin­ci­ples can help you avoid un­nec­es­sary attention from would-be at­tack­ers, and de­velop the re­solve to es­cape life-threat­en­ing illegal im­pris­on­ment.

1. Know Thy En­emy

Si­t­u­a­tional aware­ness and threat iden­ti­fi­ca­tion are cor­ner­stones of self-de­fense, whether you’re con­cerned about theft, as­sault, or ab­duc­tion. Given Ed’s ex­pe­ri­ence in Mexico, the first por­tion of the class was ded­i­cated to spot­ting car­tel mem­bers and their as­so­ciates. If you think that these in­di­vid­u­als only ex­ist south of the border, he’ll be the first to tell you that you’re sorely mis­taken — de­mand for street drugs and hu­man traf­fick­ing has main­tained a healthy net­work through­out the United States.

There are many phys­i­cal cues that can help you iden­tify some­one who’s ac­cus­tomed to vi­o­lence. A crooked nose, cauliflower ears, and scar­ring on the knuck­les are clear signs of phys­i­cal brawls; a cal­lus on the mid­dle fin­ger of the dom­i­nant hand speaks of many hours rub­bing against the trig­ger guard of a weapon. Mus­cu­lar phys­i­cal build isn’t nec­es­sar­ily an in­di­ca­tor, as many hard­ened crim­i­nals are over­weight or out of shape. Tat­toos are also hit or miss, as high-level crim­i­nals know bet­ter than to brand them­selves with iden­ti­fy­ing marks. In mod­ern car­tel cir­cles, streetwear fashion is in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar — skinny jeans and high-end sneak­ers have re­placed stereo­typ­i­cal cow­boy ap­parel and snake­skin boots.

Ed says car­tel mem­bers are of­ten “armed to the teeth” with weapons rang­ing from full-auto-con­verted civil­ian ARs and AKs to grenades and belt-fed ma­chine guns. Un­sur­pris­ingly, gun laws in the U.S. and Mexico haven’t pre­vented them

from ac­quir­ing these weapons. Fight­ing tac­tics and com­mu­ni­ca­tions are gen­er­ally prim­i­tive, but this is chang­ing as new-gen­er­a­tion car­tel mem­bers re­al­ize the value of ther­mal op­tics, drones, and other mod­ern re­sources. Re­straints of­ten con­sist of sur­plus or off-brand hand­cuffs, rope, duct tape, and com­mer­cial zip ties or pur­pose-built zip cuffs. These ba­sic ma­te­ri­als are com­bined in de­vi­ous vari­a­tions — for ex­am­ple, teth­er­ing cuffs to a belt loop to re­strict arm move­ment.

The abil­ity to piece to­gether these clues and un­der­stand the threat early can pro­vide time to de­fend against it in­stead of be­ing blind­sided. Know­ing your en­emy also lets you know what to ex­pect if you’re taken cap­tive.

2. Never Go With­out Tools

In any sur­vival sit­u­a­tion, tools pro­vide a tremen­dous ad­van­tage, and this is es­pe­cially true in cap­tiv­ity. With proper train­ing, items such as hand­cuff keys, shims, a Kevlar cord saw, and a sharp blade can help you es­cape most re­straints. How­ever, get­ting these tools through a rudi­men­tary pat down — much less a thor­ough search — isn’t an easy task.

Dur­ing the counter-cus­tody class, stu­dents prac­ticed es­cap­ing hand­cuffs in var­i­ous po­si­tions us­ing cuff keys and shims. We were then tasked with con­ceal­ing these tools to make it through a head-to-toe search. This process led to an acro­nym Ed Calderon refers to as ACPN:

Ac­cess: Can you get to the tool while wear­ing cuffs? What if it’s be­hind your back? What if you’re blind­folded and ly­ing face-down? The waist­line and an­kles are gen­er­ally eas­i­est to ac­cess while re­strained.

Con­ceal­ment: Can the tool be hid­den from a vis­ual in­spec­tion, pat-down, metal de­tec­tor, or even a strip search? This must be bal­anced with ac­ces­si­bil­ity, since deep-con­cealed items may not be reach­able when you need them.

Per­ma­nence: Will the item stay with you in a SHTF sit­u­a­tion? For ex­am­ple, your fancy SERE kit para­cord bracelet will al­most cer­tainly be re­moved by kidnappers, so stor­ing crit­i­cal items there is un­wise.

Nar­ra­tive: If your tools are found, what do they say about you? A con­cealed ce­ramic knife may lead cap­tors to think you’re a spy or as­sas­sin; a set of lock­picks could be con­sid­ered bur­glary tools. Also con­sider dis­pos­abil­ity and trace­abil­ity — a dol­lar store par­ing knife is su­pe­rior to an ex­pen­sive dag­ger en­graved with a se­rial num­ber.

3. Pre­pare to Im­pro­vise

In many cases, car­ry­ing pur­pose-built tools isn’t an op­tion. Per­haps the search is ex­tremely thor­ough, or the con­se­quences of get­ting caught are too se­vere to risk car­ry­ing them. In these cases, you’ll have to im­pro­vise once you’ve cleared se­cu­rity.

One key point stuck with us: You don’t have to carry what you need — you just have to get the ma­te­ri­als to make what you need. Knives might be banned where you’re go­ing, but there are count­less un­re­stricted items you can carry to craft a deadly shiv in a few min­utes. A tooth­brush can be sharp­ened into a point on sand­pa­per or con­crete; rub­bing a clear plas­tic BIC pen rapidly against car­pet makes a sy­ringe-like “ven­ti­la­tor” weapon in less than 10 sec­onds. A ba­sic metal hair clip or the tweez­ers from a Swiss Army Knife serve as sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive hand­cuff shims.

Ed de­scribes this mind­set as “soft­ware over hard­ware.” De­spite the un­de­ni­able value of tools, knowl­edge and re­source­ful­ness are far more valu­able.

4. The Clock is Tick­ing

In gen­eral, cap­tiv­ity sit­u­a­tions don’t get eas­ier as time passes. They get more dif­fi­cult and more dan­ger­ous.

Min­utes af­ter you’re taken pris­oner, you may still have your shoes, clothes, and con­cealed tools. Af­ter a few hours or days, it’s likely that these items will be found and stripped away. The last thing you want is to end up naked, blind­folded, and hogtied. On top of this, abuse and mal­nu­tri­tion will grad­u­ally weaken your body and dull your senses, or your as­sailants may de­cide you’re a li­a­bil­ity and ex­e­cute you. Calderon tells us many of those ab­ducted by the car­tels are never found. They’re killed, the flesh is melted in caus­tic soda, and the bones are dumped in mass graves.

The point is sim­ple: The best time to es­cape is im­me­di­ately. Look for the first pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity and seize it like your life de­pends on it — it prob­a­bly does.

5. Fight for Your Life

Es­cape isn’t al­ways as sim­ple as break­ing your re­straints and sneak­ing past a distracted guard. In many cases, you may have to fight your way through an armed in­di­vid­ual to cre­ate an open­ing. In these cases, you’ll need to use the el­e­ment of sur­prise and at­tack with deadly force.

Since it’s un­likely you’ll have ac­cess to a gun, knife, or any other pur­pose-built weapon in these sce­nar­ios, start think­ing like a pris­oner — make a shiv. A slim and solid pierc­ing weapon that reaches the length of your out­stretched thumb is enough to kill. Re­peated “sewing ma­chine” strikes with a ham­mer-fist mo­tion are pow­er­ful, es­pe­cially when tar­get­ing vi­tal ar­eas like the sub­cla­vian artery (be­hind the col­lar­bone) or the heart (two fin­ger widths below the left nip­ple). Even sim­ple items such as a screw­driver or sharp piece of plas­tic can be deadly in this ca­pac­ity, and lit­tle to no ex­pe­ri­ence is needed to wield them. Calderon re­in­forced this point by show­ing the class sev­eral graphic Live Leak videos of stab­bing in­ci­dents, and let­ting stu­dents watch as the vic­tims bled out in min­utes. These un­for­tu­nate in­di­vid­u­als are of­ten fa­tally wounded be­fore they even re­al­ize they’re be­ing stabbed.

When you’re fac­ing cap­tiv­ity, tor­ture, or worse, fight­ing fair is off the ta­ble. Us­ing deadly force with an im­pro­vised weapon may be your only way to sur­vive.


For many of us, the like­li­hood of be­ing kid­napped or held pris­oner is rel­a­tively low. But as any pre­pared in­di­vid­ual should know, we must weigh the like­li­hood of an event with the sever­ity of its con­se­quences. These sce­nar­ios are some of the most dan­ger­ous you could ever face, since they place you al­most en­tirely at the mercy of cap­tors who are likely to be mer­ci­less. But by lever­ag­ing these five prin­ci­ples, you’ll be bet­ter pre­pared for cap­tiv­ity and give your­self a fight­ing chance at be­com­ing the one who got away.

Right: Hand­cuffs, scraps of cord, and duct tape were com­bined to make mul­tistage re­straints that se­lec­tively restricted move­ment.

You may have seen videos de­pict­ing how to break out of zip ties us­ing a swift down­ward mo­tion of the arms. Car­tel mem­bers saw them too, and de­vel­oped these “vam­pire” cuffs to cut open the wrists of cap­tives who try to break free.

Top left: Stu­dents were blind­folded, doused in aerosol body spray, and ex­posed to con­tin­u­ous loud mu­sic as a form of sen­sory de­pri­va­tion.

Calderon based the cap­tiv­ity sce­nar­ios on tech­niques he saw used by the car­tels in Mexico.

Stu­dents were told to con­ceal es­cape tools for each sce­nario, and were then thor­oughly searched be­fore be­ing re­strained. In the fi­nal test, pants and shoes were also con­fis­cated.

Stu­dents craftedcon­ceal­able shivs from wood, plas­tic, and metal. One par­tic­u­larly vi­cious weapon even in­cludedbreak­away cac­tus spines at­tached with elec­tri­cal tape.

A length of braided Kevlar cord (sold in bulk as com­pe­ti­tion kite string) can eas­ily be wo­venthrough the waist­band or in­seam. Loop­ing it around each foot and mov­ing in a ped­al­ing mo­tion can cut through many re­straintsin sec­onds.

Ed Calderon showed us a shim re­tained in the stitch­ing on thein­side of his belt loop, and a hid­den cuff keyslipped into the waist­band ofhis jeans.

The fi­nal sce­nario tested all the skills taught dur­ing the two­day course, and threw in some un­ex­pected curve­balls to break stu­dents’ com­po­sure and chal­lenge their re­solve.

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