Venezuelan police are hunting for a gang that abducted Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos at gunpoint in a case that has highlighted the country’s serious crime problem.
Baseball fans held a candlelight vigil on Thursday in his hometown, Valencia, holding posters outside the local baseball stadium.
The 24-year-old catcher for the Washington Nationals, who was preparing to play for Venezuela’s Aragua Tigers during the US off-season, was kidnapped on Wednesday from his family home.
Four armed men in a stolen 4×4 vehicle seized Ramos while he chatted with friends and relatives, colleagues and police said. The vehicle was later found abandoned and there was no word on any ransom demand.
Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s justice minister, said anti-kidnapping units led by “the best investigators we have” were dispatched to the area in central Carabobo state.
He pledged to rescue Ramos and capture his abductors, saying: “We’re taking on this investigation with everything we’ve got.”
Venezuela’s CICPC investigative police said its experts had produced artists impressions of two suspects.
Most kidnappings in Venezuela are for financial motives, with gangs demanding large ransoms and mostly preying on local businessmen and landowners. Security experts say only northern Mexico, where drug gangs wreak havoc, rivals Venezuela for abductions in Latin America.
The wealthy have taken steps to protect themselves. Sales of armoured cars have jumped in the past several years.
Insecurity is a major issue in the run-up to the 2012 presidential vote when Hugo Chavez will seek re-election.
Venezuelan police said 618 kidnappings were reported in 2009, and the numbers have grown rapidly in recent years. In 1998, when Chavez was elected, just 52 kidnappings were reported.
Security experts say the real number of kidnappings today is much higher because many cases are not reported to authorities.
The government passed a revised law in 2009 that stiffened prison sentences for kidnapping and also allows authorities to freeze the banks accounts of victims’ families to prevent them from paying ransom.
Bodyguards typically shadow major leaguers when they return to their homeland to play in the winter league.
“Every major league player has his own security, but we don’t know if he had his security there at that time,” Domingo Alvarez, vice-president of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, said.
In November 2009, the mother of Victor Zambrano, who retired after a seven-year Major League career, was rescued in a commando-style operation three days after she was kidnapped. The former pitcher’s cousin, Richard Mendez Zambrano, had been kidnapped a few days earlier, and was later killed.
In June 2009, Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba’s 11-year-old son and brother-in-law were kidnapped and released a day later.
The mother of former player Ugueth Urbina, who was a two-time All-Star pitcher, spent more than five months in captivity until she was rescued in early 2005.