- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2011

Venezuelan police confirmed Wilson Ramos still was alive Thursday, one day after the Washington Nationals catcher was kidnapped from his home in Valencia, Venezuela.

Authorities also found the vehicle used to abduct him and developed sketches of two of the four gunmen who seized the 24-year-old player in Santa Ines, just south of Valencia.

By 7 p.m. Thursday, though, there still had been no contact between Ramos‘ family and the kidnappers.
“They’re just waiting with all the telephones,” said a source in Venezuela who requested anonymity, “waiting for them to call.”

“Nothing,” another source said. “Not a phone call, not even a clue.”

The news of Ramos‘ abduction was met with an outpouring of sorrow and concern for the well-liked, soft-spoken catcher who is coming off a strong rookie season. But from those who know Venezuela well, either as natives of the country or frequent visitors, the incident wasn’t surprising.

One Venezuelan source, now living in Miami and involved in baseball, said there are companies in Venezuela that sell kidnapping insurance — and buying it only makes residents more of a target. It is an epidemic of sorts in the extremely violent country. Some non-governmental agencies have speculated that there are about two kidnappings per day across the country, usually for potential financial gain.

Violent crime is widespread in Venezuela, which is on pace for a reported 19,000 killings this year, according to projections by the non-governmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia. The State Department notes the capital city of Caracas “has been cited as having one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world.” Kidnappings, assaults and robberies also occur frequently. The State Department also details three different kinds of kidnappings that can happen to tourists to Venezuela.

They define them as “express kidnappings,” which are described like muggings on the street, “virtual kidnappings,” where tourists’ personal information is stolen and their family is then extorted for ransom even if their kin is not in captivity, and “inside kidnappings,” which involve domestic employees allowing kidnappers into the victims’ homes.

But Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luke Scott, who has played in the Venezuelan winter league twice and visited the country several other times for missionary work, believes none of the three is what happened with Ramos.

“Most of the time, they’re professional hits,” Scott told The Washington Times. “To my knowledge, what I’ve seen and heard, people are planning this out. They’re putting some thought and preparation into this, and they’re looking for their moment.”

Scott described a scene almost identical to what has been reported about the way Ramos was kidnapped Wednesday evening. Ramos was at home with some of his family when four men armed with machine guns got out of an SUV that had been circling the house and invaded the home. A CNN report said neighbors admitted to having seen the gunmen stake out Ramos‘ home on previous occasions. Ramos was the only one taken.

The SUV, identified as an orange 2007 Chevrolet Captiva that was reported stolen from an affluent Valencia neighborhood Tuesday evening, was found by Venezuelan authorities Thursday morning about 50 minutes away in Bejuma. It had been abandoned, but it was the first concrete clue investigators reported finding in the case. Police later confirmed that they also had developed sketches of two of the kidnappers and were using them in their search.

The Nationals, in conjunction with Major League Baseball, released a statement on the matter but said they were instructed not to comment further.

“Our foremost concern is with Wilson Ramos and his family and our thoughts are with them at this time. Major League Baseball’s Department of Investigations is working with the appropriate authorities on this matter.”

The U.S. embassy in Caracas also issued this statement to The Washington Times: “We are concerned by the news of Mr. Ramos‘ kidnapping and hope the situation is resolved as soon as possible. It is our understanding that Mr. Ramos is not a U.S. citizen. The United States condemns kidnappings of any kind. We have no further information at this time.”

MLB players have long been the target of kidnappings in Venezuela but more often it is a player’s family that is targeted. The Venezuelan police said in a statement that Ramos is the first player to be abducted. As of Thursday evening, MLB had not made any statements with regard to the other MLB players playing in the Venezuelan Winter League. One source in Venezuela said that the league narrowly averted a players’ strike earlier in the day, and signs were posted inside the league’s stadiums reading: “Liberen a Wilson,” which translates as “Free Wilson.”

There are several other Nationals playing in the league, including catcher Jesus Flores, pitcher Henry Rodriguez and prospects Sandy Leon and Adrian Sanchez. All are Venezuelan. American prospects Hector Nelo, Josh Wilkie and Ryan Tatusko are also playing in the league. The Nationals reportedly have told the players that the decision to stay or go is theirs.

Those familiar with the dangerous climate in Venezuela speculated that younger native Venezuelans who play in the major leagues are in the most danger — those who have not yet made enough money to afford mansions with armed guards and full security staffs.

“Even relatively modestly paid big leaguers or minor league ballplayers are still making sums of money that is hard for the poor in places like Venezuela even to imagine, former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duffy told MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM. “Which, of course, makes them targets. The president of the Venezuelan Winter League, Jose Grasso, said there were no plans for the league to shut down or suspend play even as Ramos remained captive, though they did announce plans to beef up the security in and around the players and the stadiums.

“Turning off the lights is not a solution,” he said in a statement.

Venezuelan major leaguer Melvin Mora said vehemently that the league should close down, telling Venezuelan reporters on Wednesday evening that play should stop “because Wilson is one of us and what is with one of us is with us all.” Scott, Mora’s former teammate in Baltimore, however, disagreed that the league should be prohibited from continuing.

“The Winter League in Venezuela is a great experience,” Scott said. “It really helps you get ready for the major leagues and there’s a lot of good that comes from it. The few bad instances where there is danger, though, it does grab your attention. I feel strongly that it is an issue that should be dealt with.

“I don’t think the league should be shut down [but] this is a serious problem. It’s a serious issue and it needs to be addressed. I believe the government should step in and pursue these people and bring them to justice.”

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