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Ballplayer’s Abduction Highlights Venezuela’s Growing Crime Rate

Wilson Ramos talks to reporters after his release. Photo by Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images.

The ordeal of Wilson Ramos, a Washington Nationals catcher who was kidnapped and then rescued in Venezuela last week, put a new spotlight on the Latin American country’s rising crime rates — and fortune hunters’ brazen attempts to extort ransom from the relatives of high-profile figures, including ballplayers.

Ramos, a Venezuelan citizen who was back in his home country to play for a winter league, was snatched at gunpoint outside his mother’s home in the central city of Valencia on Nov. 9.

In the midst of massive media coverage in North America, Venezuelan authorities said they hoped to resolve the case quickly. And two days later, police commandos rescued Ramos from his captors in a mountain cabin in Montalban — 40 miles from his home, and have since arrested several people linked to the case.

Ramos’ abduction underscores the growing crime problem in Venezuela, where 618 kidnappings were reported in 2009, up from a reported 52 in 1998, according to the Associated Press. Venezuelan Major League players’ families previously have been targeted in the country. In 2009, the son of catcher Yorvit Torrealba was abducted and former pitcher Victor Zambrano’s mother was kidnapped.

“Overall violent crimes have gone way up in the past decade, and kidnapping in particular has been on the rise in the past couple of years,” said John Walsh, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental organization.

Kidnappings in Venezuela can range from highly planned operations, when a target is captured and held for days before kidnappers demand a ransom, to “express kidnappings,” when a person is picked up, forced to withdraw money from the bank, and let go within hours.The outcomes vary as well: some victims are released after a ransom is paid, but in some cases abductees are killed. According to Walsh, many kidnappings go unresolved and some are never even reported.

The increase in crime can be attributed to a general lack of punishment, said Michael Shifter, president of the think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “There are lots of kidnappings, it has been off the charts and increased with a very little price to pay for a lot of these criminals. It encourages them to go to such a figure like Ramos.”

Because of its high-profile nature, the Ramos kidnapping garnered an immediate response from the government of President Hugo Chavez, who faces an election next October, said Shifter. “The government realized this could create significant political damage,” he said. “That’s why they moved to action quite quickly. It’s a departure from what we see in most cases.”

Even after the kidnapping, Ramos wants to continue to play in the Venezuelan Winter League. He is expected to play for his team, Tigres de Aragua, next week, according to MLB.com. Venezuela, a country of 27.6 million, is passionate about watching and playing baseball. About 270 Venezuelans have played in Major League Baseball since 1939.

“Teams are very sensitive to granting players’ desires to play back home,” said Jorge Ortiz, a sports reporter for USA Today. “For a lot of these guys, they grew up playing in front of friends and relatives and getting that support. Once they get to the major league they want to show them, ‘hey I haven’t forgotten my roots.'”

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