The Back Story to the Kidnapping of Wilson Ramos

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman and this is The World, the co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Three months ago, police in Venezuela found themselves with a high profile kidnapping case on their hands. The victim was Wilson Ramos. He's a promising 24 year old catcher from major league baseball's Washington Nationals. Ramos is from Venezuela and had returned home to play winter ball with the Venezuelan pro team. His kidnapping alarmed many in the baseball world, but relief came relatively quickly as Ramos was freed barely 48 hours after his abduction. Still, many questions remain. Melissa Segura co-wrote an in-depth article about Ramos' kidnapping and release in Sports Illustrated. Melissa, briefly remind us what happened to Wilson Ramos.

Melissa Segura: Wilson Ramos was sitting outside his home on the evening of Wednesday, November 9, when a group of kidnappers in a Chevy Captiva pulled up outside his home, put a gun to his head and forced him into the back of the car.

Werman: Wilson Ramos was found and released pretty quickly, as we said, and the government takes credit for that, but there's a sense that maybe the Venezuelan authorities hyped their role in his rescue. Why the skepticism?

Segura: Skepticism seems to be a part of life; it is as inherent as Miss Universe titles, I think, in Venezuelan culture. What we're seeing here is a lot of rumor mongering; everything ranging from the police being involved which is not a far-fetched theory seeing that the Venezuelan government itself estimates that its own officers are involved in at least 1 in 5 crimes in Venezuela. There is also a sense that perhaps a major league power with a lot of money paid off the ransom instead of this dramatic rescue as we paint in this story. However, as I wasn't able to corroborate any of these events, it sounds like at least the government rescue did indeed happen. However, there are other questions that remained in the aftermath of that rescue.

Werman: What are some of the big questions that remained?

Segura: Some of the biggest questions…of course we know that the Venezuelan government itself was under tremendous pressure to solve the case and to bring the kidnappers to justice as quickly as possible. There have been 8 total charged in the kidnapping. However, through witness accounts and testimony from other people that we were able to record, at least 6 of those people were nowhere near the kidnapping site. A lot of them are poor, marginalized farmers who were just living a rural existence when police came knocking at their door. So there is some question about the role of those who have been accused.

Werman: Right. Well indeed. The attorney, a Victor Barreto represents a motley crew of suspects on whom there seems to be little evidence. Describe the challenge Victor Barreto has.

Segura: Victor Barreto has a great challenge ahead of him as President Hugo Chavez had his thumbprints all over the judicial system for quite some time. He's been criticized for removing judges from their post if they seem to cross him in some way. So the justice system in the Venezuelan community is not necessarily the most trusted, and therefore the perception is that the government wants to make its case. These poor campesinos are not necessarily going to get a fair shake in the courts.

Werman: How big a problem is this kidnapping business for successful baseball players in Venezuela? It seems high-risk, but is it a growing trend?

Segura: What was most significant about Wilson's kidnapping is it's the first time that we know that the player himself has been kidnapped. There have been at least 5 other cases of high profile major leaguers in which family members have either been abducted or killed. What we were told by one law enforcement authority who now is a consultant for major league baseball is he thought that, based on a lot of the evidence that he'd seen, this is a vanguard moment in the Wilson Ramos case, in that the target for the ransom was not necessarily the player's family as we've seen in previous cases but he posits that perhaps the target was the Washington Nationals themselves from whom to obtain the money. That, he thought was a red flag for a lot of major league teams.

Werman: President Hugo Chavez is kind of baseball's 'fan numero uno' in Venezuela. How important was that in the government really aggressively finding Ramos?

Segura: It was crucial. We spoke to various law enforcement authorities in Venezuela, not necessarily all of them on record, but the general sense that we were told is that Hugo Chavez realized that this was sort of a critical moment for him because they didn't want to perpetuate the idea that baseball players could be taken, especially because it's a major industry for Venezuela, and increasingly so. We saw a record number of Venezuelans on major league rosters this year. It's a huge international public relations crisis should their players be targets and Hugo Chavez realized that. What we also saw from him was he increased… I think the staff normally on this case would have been 6 to 7 agents; that number increased to 200. I think that that's just reflective of the importance of this case played in Venezuela.

Werman: Melissa Segura, a staff writer for Sports Illustrated. She and Thomas Lake co-wrote an article in the magazine this month about the kidnapping and release of catcher Wilson Ramos in Venezuela. Melissa, nice to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Segura: Thank you.