CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces rescued kidnapped Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos on Friday, two days after he was abducted in a case that underlined the country’s dire security problems.
The 24-year-old catcher for the Washington Nationals was abducted by armed men on Wednesday evening while he chatted with friends and relatives outside his mother’s home in the Venezuelan city of Valencia.
“This morning President Hugo Chavez authorized an air rescue with support from the national guard,” Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said in a phone call to state TV.
Ramos was found in the mountainous Montalban area of Carabobo state, about 20 miles west of Valencia, and was taken back to the city.
“I just spoke to him. He is in very good health, thank God. Congratulations to our brave police and national guard.”
Three people were arrested during the operation, Aissami added, including a Colombian national linked to paramilitary and kidnapping groups. He gave no further details.
Ramos had been due to play for the local Aragua Tigers during the U.S. off-season. Teammates, friends and neighbors had flocked to his mother’s house to pray for his safe return.
A minute’s silence had been held at each local league baseball game, and players wore green armbands in solidarity.
“Thank God for the reappearance of Wilson Ramos … We are hearing new prayers!” said Tigers spokeswoman Kathe Vilera.
She posted a picture on her Twitter of a slightly disoriented-looking Ramos just after he was returned to his family, clad in a black police bulletproof vest.
Kidnappings, robberies and murders are common in Venezuela, where worries about personal security routinely top surveys of voters’ concerns before a presidential election next October.
Ramos’ case particularly shocked this baseball-mad nation, putting huge pressure on the authorities to find him. He is one of many Venezuelan players who have found stardom and wealth playing baseball in the United States.
Ramos is considered one of the more highly regarded catching prospects in the sport. He had a .267 batting average with 15 home runs and 52 runs batted in for the Nationals during the 2011 season, his first in the major leagues.
Abductions in Venezuela typically target wealthy local businessmen and landowners, although relatives of Major League Baseball players have also been targeted here in the past.
In many cases, victims are taken to cash machines in so-called “express kidnappings” that last a few hours or less. In others, gangs demand big ransoms from relatives. Experts say the majority of cases are never reported to the police.
The abduction of Ramos had been especially distressing for Venezuelan baseball fans, who are hugely proud of local players who make it into the U.S. big leagues.
Baseball was brought to the country by U.S. oil workers early last century. Local TV is packed with games broadcast from the United States, and Chavez himself is a player who once dreamed of pitching in the major leagues.
Seizing on public outrage at the case, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition had said it was more evidence of the “overwhelming insecurity” that Venezuelans were suffering due to the negligence of the government.
(Editing by Peter Cooney, Kieran Murray and Eric Walsh)
Mochila insert follows.