- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 12, 2005

CARACAS, Venezuela — The mother of Detroit Tigers pitcher Ugueth Urbina vanished from her home five months ago when four men dressed like police arrived at the door and left with her as their hostage. Police say kidnappers have demanded a $3 million ransom.

The abduction of Maura Villarreal, 54, highlights an apparent rise in kidnappings in the South American country, the homeland of dozens of major league players who at times have become targets for criminals.

“If the situation gets worse than it already is, then really we’re going to have to take some additional security measures, but I truly love to play in Venezuela,” said Bobby Abreu, an outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies who also has played in previous offseasons with Urbina for the Caracas Lions.

Venezuelan police say the number of reported kidnappings in the country rose from 51 in 1995 to 201 in 2002, the last year for which official figures have been released. Between last January and August alone, there were 163 kidnappings reported in the country, according to the Venezuelan Program of Education and Action in Human Rights (PROVEA).

“That is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Jose Luis Betancourt, a leader of the National Association of Cattlemen, whose wealthy members repeatedly have been kidnapped for ransom.

Many cases are never reported because victims’ families quietly pay the kidnappers. PROVEA estimates 79 percent of kidnappings in Venezuela end in a ransom payment, while roughly 8 percent of victims are freed by authorities and 8 percent are killed either by their captors or in a rescue attempt.

“I live in the United States, and many players are doing the same because of these things,” said Ramon Hernandez, a catcher for the San Diego Padres who played with Venezuela’s Aragua Tigers in the Caribbean Series in Mexico. “It makes you angry that these things happen in such a beautiful country. Because of one incident, people get scared and they leave.”

The whereabouts of Villarreal remain a mystery. Urbina has declined to comment on the case, as have his relatives.

Villarreal was kidnapped from the town of Ocumare del Tuy in the southeastern outskirts of Caracas, where her home stands out as the most expensive on the block, fringed with trees and adjacent to the family’s construction supply business. Police say witnesses told them the men who came for Urbina’s mother Sept. 1 were wearing police uniforms.

Relatives initially told Venezuelan journalists that several of Villarreal’s relatives and employees were ordered into a room while the kidnappers took her away. Police say they believe a mechanic who happened to be working on a motorcycle at the house also was abducted by the men.

Ten detectives in an anti-kidnapping unit are on the case and think Villarreal is still being held hostage, police say.

Urbina isn’t the only U.S. major leaguer to have been a victim of crime in Venezuela. Richard Hidalgo, a right fielder for the Texas Rangers, was shot in the left forearm during a 2002 carjacking attempt.

Nevertheless, many of the dozens of Venezuelan players in the U.S. major leagues return to their homeland in the winter to play in the Venezuelan league and spend time with their families and friends.

Abreu said he sometimes passes through the poor neighborhood where he grew up in the city of Maracay to spend time with relatives and friends.

“Every time I go there, they receive me really well, and it makes me very happy,” he said.

Homicides and robberies are frequent in many parts of Venezuela but particularly in Caracas, where the poor live in barrios ringing the city and the wealthy live in buildings enclosed in fences, iron bars, and walls topped with broken glass or spikes.

Crime has touched Urbina’s family before. His father, Juan, died a decade ago while resisting a robbery attempt in Caracas.

Despite his mother’s kidnapping, Urbina is said to be gearing up for the coming U.S. baseball season. Tigers president Dave Dombrowski said last month Urbina will be ready to pitch when the season begins in April.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide