Kidnappers cross into Venezuela

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Kidnappings in Colombia are down. But the kidnappers are still busy. Colombian guerrillas and criminal gangs are now crossing the border into Venezuela to find new victims for ransom. John Otis reports from San Cristobal, Venezuela.

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp, this is The World. Colombia used to be Latin America's kidnapping leader. A government crackdown has led to a dramatic drop in abductions, but the good news in Colombia has spelled trouble in neighboring Venezuela. Colombian guerrillas and criminal gangs are increasingly crossing the border to snatch Venezuelans for ransom. Some of the victims are high profile, like the son of Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba. He was released recently, but average Venezuelans are also being targeted. John Otis sent us this report.


JON OTIS: One year after high school student Maria Jose Molina was kidnapped by Marxist rebels, friends and relatives march through the streets of the border city of San Cristobal to demand her freedom.


JON OTIS: 15-year-old Maria Jose was grabbed by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. They were looking for her father who wasn't at home. So, they took Maria Jose. But her mother, Carmen Molina, refused to let her daughter out of her sight.

CARMEN MOLINA: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH FROM SPANISH] I told them, if you're taking her, you're also taking me. So maybe to avoid getting into a loud shouting match, they kidnapped both of us.

JON OTIS: After four months in captivity, Carmen's husband agreed to pay a 325 thousand dollar ransom for his wife and daughter. Before he could turn over the cash, Venezuelan police rescued his wife. But there's been no word from the kidnappers about Maria Jose and now the Molina family wonders if she's still alive. Maria Jose was one of 373 Venezuelans kidnapped last year, a huge increase from a decade ago when the average was 50 abductions. And experts say the actual number is probably higher. Victims are reluctant to go public, not only is it illegal to pay ransoms in Venezuela, but relatives of hostages fear violent reprisals if they denounce the crime. Many of the kidnappings occur along the country's border with Colombia, an expanse of dense jungle and rugged mountains that the FARC has long used to escape from the Colombian Army, treat its wounded, and stock up on food and weapons. Even at the busiest border post, people can cross the international bridge without showing any ID.


JON OTIS: And because it's easy to bribe or evade border guards, the area is a smuggler's paradise. So-called contrabandistas move everything from weapons, cocaine, even gasoline, which costs less than bottled water in oil-rich Venezuela, but can be sold for a huge profit in Colombia.


JON OTIS: Juan Carlos Lopez, a moneychanger on the Colombian side, describes the border as a lawless land of opportunity.


JON OTIS: "Anyone can do whatever they want." Lopez says. He blames the high crime rate on Colombia's inability to control the border, and rein-in the guerrillas. Others point the finger at Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's left-wing president. They accuse him of turning a blind eye to kidnappings, while going out of his way to praise the FARC, and a smaller guerrilla organization called the ELN. Both rebel groups have been blacklisted by the US State Department as terrorists.


JON OTIS: "The FARC and the ELN are not terrorists. They are legitimate armies." Chavez said in speech last year that outraged the Colombian government.? They are insurgent forces." Chavez said. "They have a political project that's respected in Venezuela." But it's clear the FARC and ELN fund their war by trafficking drugs, kidnapping and extortion, and they don't seem to respect Venezuelan nationals. Joan Manuel Sulveran is an insurance broker in San Cristobal.

JOAN MANUEL SULVERAN: I'm driving my car and I see somebody behind me I just get nervous and you just want to run away, you know? 'Cause it's too much insecurity. You never know. Before was after rich people. Right now it's to everybody.

JON OTIS: Indeed, the family of hostage Maria Jose Molina is solidly middle class. Her father, Samuel Molina, runs a small construction business. But searching for his daughter has turned into a full-time job so he's laid off 11 of his 14 employees and sold most of his equipment. Along the way, he's met many Venezuelan families whose loved ones are kidnapped and he ticks off a half-dozen cases.


JON OTIS: In the past year, Samuel Molina has led four demonstrations on behalf of Maria Jose, but he doubts that the message is getting through to the kidnappers. He says they only understand money. So as the latest march for Maria Jose peters out amid a rainstorm, her father and the other protesters turn to a higher power.


JON OTIS: They crowd into a neighborhood church where a priest offers a special mass on behalf of Maria Jose, and all the other victims of Venezuela's kidnapping wave. For The World, I'm John Otis, San Cristobal, Venezuela. .

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