The British millionaire who was kidnapped in Ecuador is pictured in Lake Como with his Colombian girlfriend last year, as the police reveal the bomb vest she was made to wear by the crooks was fake.

Former honorary British Consul Colin Armstrong OBE was snatched by 15 men dressed in fake police uniforms when he was kidnapped a week ago, along with his ‘romantic partner,’ Katherine Paolo Santos.

While the 78-year-old has now been released safely, Ms Santos is said to have been quizzed by police about her alleged involvement in the millionaire’s kidnapping.

Photos taken in July last year show Mr Armstrong and Ms Santos at Lake Como in Italy at the luxury ‘historical and romantic’ Villa d’Este.

In the photos, the pair are shown smiling and laughing together light-heartedly, with Mr Armstrong dressed in black and white shorts.

His glamorous girlfriend is seen dressed in a purple bikini and gold earrings, drinking what seems to be a cocktail by the pool.

The duo are seen taking it in turns to take photos of each other, before drying off with matching blue towels and holding hands as they walk. 

The Villa d’Este is a five star ‘opulent hotel’ which overlooks Lake Como – boasting of a pool, tennis court and world-famous Italian Renaissance gardens.

Photos taken in July last year show Mr Armstrong and Ms Santos at Lake Como in Italy at the luxury ‘historical and romantic’ Villa d’Este

In the photos, the pair are shown smiling and laughing together light-heartedly, with Mr Armstrong dressed in black and white shorts as they take photos of one another

In the photos, the pair are shown smiling and laughing together light-heartedly, with Mr Armstrong dressed in black and white shorts as they take photos of one another

His glamorous girlfriend is seen dressed in a purple bikini and gold earrings as they hold hands

His glamorous girlfriend is seen dressed in a purple bikini and gold earrings as they hold hands

The duo are seen taking it in turns to take photos of each other, before drying off with towels

The duo are seen taking it in turns to take photos of each other, before drying off with towels

Bundled into his own black BMW at gunpoint, the millionaire businessman – formerly known as ‘Our Man in Guayaquil’ – was kidnapped last Saturday, along with Ms Santos, a Colombian model and pole dancer.

Just hours later, Ms Santos reappeared at a gated property – believed to belong to Mr Armstrong’s son Nick – wearing what she claimed was a bomb vest which would blow up if a ransom wasn’t paid for Mr Armstrong to the gang behind his kidnapping.

But when bomb disposal officers in protective gear removed the vest, they later revealed it to be a fake.

On Tuesday evening at around 11pm, three days after Ms Santos’ release, Mr Armstrong was picked up by police who found him wandering along a main road in the coastal province of Manabi, about 150 miles southwest of the capital, Quito.

But while the Policia Nacional del Ecuador have already made nine arrests and confiscated a huge haul of guns, grenades, detonators and drugs, serious questions remain for investigating officers including whether or not Mr Armstrong’s kidnappers had help from someone with insider knowledge.

And who is the mysterious Ms Santos who has been at Mr Armstrong’s side in recent years given that, just 18 months ago, Mr Armstrong was publicly paying tribute to his wife Cecilia, whom he married 49 years ago, at an event attended by hundreds of his employees?

With an ex-local MP publicly implicating Santos in the crime, she is said to have been quizzed by police about her alleged involvement in the kidnapping plot.

Father-of-three Mr Armstrong, meanwhile, is said to be ‘safe and healthy’ after police released a photograph of him, smiling for the camera in a police-issue baseball cap and long-sleeved t-shirt – remarkable, given everything he has been through in the past week.

The pair seemed to be enjoying their stay as they playfully posed beside the pool

The pair seemed to be enjoying their stay as they playfully posed beside the pool

Katherine Paola Santos even managed to persuade Mr Armstrong to take a swim in the sea

Katherine Paola Santos even managed to persuade Mr Armstrong to take a swim in the sea

But while the 78-year-old has now been released safely, Ms Santos is said to have been quizzed by police about her alleged involvement in the millionaire's kidnapping

But while the 78-year-old has now been released safely, Ms Santos is said to have been quizzed by police about her alleged involvement in the millionaire’s kidnapping

Ms Santos was pictured sipping what seems to be a cocktail as beside the Villa's pool

Ms Santos was pictured sipping what seems to be a cocktail as beside the Villa’s pool

The Villa d'Este is a five star 'opulent hotel' which overlooks Lake Como - boasting of a pool, tennis court and world-famous Italian Renaissance gardens

The Villa d’Este is a five star ‘opulent hotel’ which overlooks Lake Como – boasting of a pool, tennis court and world-famous Italian Renaissance gardens

The Villa d'Este is a 16th-century villa in Tivoli, near Rome, famous for its terraced hillside Italian Renaissance garden and especially for its profusion of fountains

The Villa d’Este is a 16th-century villa in Tivoli, near Rome, famous for its terraced hillside Italian Renaissance garden and especially for its profusion of fountains

Few gardens have been painted or drawn by as many artists than the Villa d'Este, particularly during the Renaissance and in the 19th century. As a result, features of the garden influenced other gardens across Europe, from England to Russia

Few gardens have been painted or drawn by as many artists than the Villa d’Este, particularly during the Renaissance and in the 19th century. As a result, features of the garden influenced other gardens across Europe, from England to Russia

Extortion is one of the charges which police have made against those arrested for his kidnap.

According to police sources, evidence found during raids this week suggest that last weekend’s kidnapping was planned in meticulous detail.

Gang members arrived at Rodeo Grande, where the Armstrong family crest hangs next to the gate along with the family motto ‘Trans Mare Video’ – ‘I see beyond the sea’ – in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Staff members who tried to stop them were beaten as they made their way to the room where ‘Mr Colin’, as he is known by his employees, was sleeping.

A short video made by a member of staff in the aftermath of the raid, showed blood stains on sheets and on the floor of one room.

Mr Armstrong was forced at gunpoint, along with Ms Santos, into his own black BMW which has diplomatic licence plates. After activating satellite tracking, police later found the car abandoned.

Within hours, news of the kidnapping was all over Ecuadorian media along with several photographs taken from Ms Santos’ social media accounts which suggest a close relationship between him and Ms Santos. In one they appear to be on safari in Africa; in another, visiting Egypt.

There are photographs of them in beachwear, with a delighted-looking and moustachioed Mr Armstrong in a Panama hat and shorts and bearing more than a passing similarity to the British actor Terry-Thomas as he wraps his arms around a seemingly devoted Ms Santos.

There is also video footage of Mr Armstrong at what appears to be Ms Santos’ 30th birthday on board a luxury yacht with dozens of other scantily-clad young women.

Pictures on TikTok show wealthy businessman Colin Armstrong and partner Ms Santos enjoying a jet-set lifestyle prior to their kidnapping on Saturday

Pictures on TikTok show wealthy businessman Colin Armstrong and partner Ms Santos enjoying a jet-set lifestyle prior to their kidnapping on Saturday

Colin Armstrong, 78, and partner Katherine Paola Santos are pictured on a yacht

Colin Armstrong, 78, and partner Katherine Paola Santos are pictured on a yacht

.Video footage has since emerged on social media apparently showing his glamourous girlfriend having an explosives vest removed by a bomb disposal expert

.Video footage has since emerged on social media apparently showing his glamourous girlfriend having an explosives vest removed by a bomb disposal expert

Video footage has since emerged on social media apparently showing his girlfriend having an explosives vest removed by a bomb disposal expert

On her LinkedIn page, Ms Santos, who is listed on the books of Ecuadorian modelling agency Studio Moda, says she has worked for Agripac since 2013.

The company, which sells everything from seeds, fertilisers to pet food, uses models, often dressed as cowgirls, for promotional work and Ms Santos appears in photographs with Mr Armstrong taken at Rodeo Grande as far back as 2014.

Given his high profile, it is perhaps not surprising that vast amounts of Ecuadorian police resources were devoted to ensuring Mr Armstrong’s safe return this week.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirmed that it had also supported the Ecuadorian authorities. British intelligence services are also said to have assisted the police operation.

So far, nine people, one foreign national and eight Ecuadorians have been arrested. It is not known if any ransom was paid.

But with the kidnapping shining a spotlight on the deteriorating security situation in the country, police authorities say that are still investigating this extraordinarily audacious kidnapping plot and following up several leads.

Speaking to the Mail this week, General Freddy Sarzosa Guerra, the police’s director of investigations, said: ‘This is being investigated as a kidnap for money and the motive was an economic one.’

On Wednesday Cesar Augusto Zapata Correa, Ecuador's police chief, tweeted that Mr Armstrong had been found on near Manabi not far from Los Rios where he was snatched

On Wednesday Cesar Augusto Zapata Correa, Ecuador’s police chief, tweeted that Mr Armstrong had been found on near Manabi not far from Los Rios where he was snatched

Police showed off the stash they had confiscated from the gang, which included five grenades

Police showed off the stash they had confiscated from the gang, which included five grenades

The gang thought to be behind the kidnapping of millionaire Colin Armstrong

The gang thought to be behind the kidnapping of millionaire Colin Armstrong

For now the Armstrong family have asked for privacy to recover from the shocking events of the past week.

‘All of the UK family, staff and friends are delighted with the outcome and look forward to a happier Christmas,’ said Leo Morris, who is director of Tupgill Park Estate where he grew up and is regarded as an ‘adopted son’ by Mr Armstrong.

The Manchester-born businessman, as the Mail can reveal, is no stranger to danger.

Having travelled the globe as a young man working for what was then British chemical company, ICI, he set up his own agricultural distribution company, Agripac, in Ecuador where he has lived for half a century.

Over the decades, his extraordinary life has been punctuated with more moments of high drama than most would people would expect to experience in their careers.

From devastating floods and military coups, to the murder of one of his former managers who died while trying to fend off armed robbers, Mr Armstrong has certainly seen more than his fair share of trouble over the past five decades.

Barely a year into his role as honorary consul and in the midst of the Falklands War, he was forced to fend off pro-Argentine sympathisers who turned up at the British Consulate in Guayaquil demanding a Union Jack to burn.

While rubbing shoulders with the likes of Princess Anne and entertaining former Tory Minister John Gummer and ex Tory MP David Mellor in his consular role, Mr Armstrong has also had to confront cattle rustlers and hired armed guards to patrol his ranch and sleep in the house when the property was unoccupied.

Reports from Ecuador this week claimed that Mr Armstrong had been abducted after he refused to pay monthly protection money.

His son, Nick, who took over his father’s consular role in 2016, has previously led the British-Ecuadorian chamber of industries and commerce.

He also works as a director of Ripon Race Company in North Yorkshire and helps his father run Agripac.

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