SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela — Samuel Molina thought he’d struck a life-saving deal.
After months of negotiations, the Venezuelan carpenter agreed to pay a $325,000 ransom for his wife and daughter, who were kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas.
Shortly before Molina was to hand over the cash in February, Venezuelan police rescued his wife. But his relief turned to anguish when he learned that the kidnappers still held his daughter, 16-year-old Maria Jose.
Since then, the kidnappers have cut off communications with the family and now Molina wonders if Maria Jose is still alive.
Amid a military and police crackdown in Colombia, Marxist guerrillas — as well as criminal gangs — are increasingly crossing into Venezuela to grab ranchers, businesspeople, foreigners and children.
Venezuelan authorities reported 373 kidnappings last year compared to 50 in 1998. Some of the more high-profile victims include the 11-year-old son of Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba and Dayana Mendoza, a Venezuelan beauty queen who survived the ordeal and last year was crowned Miss Universe.
“It’s very easy to kidnap people in Venezuela,” Molina said recently as he led a protest march through the streets of San Cristobal, a city near the Colombian border, on the one-year anniversary of his daughter’s abduction. “The government doesn’t pay any attention.”
By contrast, kidnappings in Colombia have fallen from a high of 3,572 in 2000 to 437 last year, according to government figures.
Analysts describe the Colombian-Venezuelan border region as custom-made for kidnappings and other criminal ventures. Much of the area consists of dense jungle that’s largely unpopulated and unguarded. Even at the busiest checkpoint between the cities of Cucuta in Colombia and San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela, people can cross the international bridge without showing identification.
“There’s no control,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, a money changer who works on the Colombian side of the bridge. “Anyone can do anything they want.”
As a result, the zone is a haven for contrabandistas, who smuggle everything from powdered milk to cocaine. There’s even a booming trade in contraband gasoline. Cyclists strap containers of cheap Venezuelan gasoline to their racks, then walk their bikes across a river into Colombia to sell the fuel on the streets at a huge mark-up.
“If you have the money, you can buy anything on the border,” said Wilfredo Canizares, who runs a human rights organization in Cucuta. “You can purchase 100 rifles, a ton of cocaine, or precursor chemicals to make drugs.”
The Venezuelan side has long been used by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest rebel group known as the FARC, as well as a smaller guerrilla group called the ELN, to escape from army troops, treat their wounded and buy provisions.
Adding to the mayhem is a lack of cooperation between the right-wing Colombian government and Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s left-wing president who openly admires the Colombian guerrillas. As tensions flared last year, Chavez dispatched thousands of troops to the Colombian border, sparking fears of war.
“The FARC and the ELN are not terrorists,” Chavez said at the time. “They are legitimate armies. They occupy territory. We must recognize them.”
Not surprisingly, relations between the security forces of both countries are chilly. They rarely exchange information or conduct joint operations to combat rebels and criminals, according to a recent report by the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogota think tank.
With Colombian Army operations squeezing the FARC’s ability to kidnap and run drugs in their own territory, the guerrillas often find it easier to prey on Venezuelans.
But unlike Colombia, where kidnapping is part of the national fabric and many people have become hard-nosed negotiators, Venezuelans are more likely to panic and quickly turn over huge ransom payments, said Canizares, the human rights advocate.
“If I’m driving my car and see somebody behind me I just get nervous and want to run away," said Joan Manuel Sulveran, an insurance broker in San Cristobal. “There’s just too much insecurity. Before, (the kidnappers) went after rich people but now they go after everyone.”
Indeed, the family of Maria Jose Molina is solidly middle class.
Samuel Molina, who runs a small construction company, lived with Maria Jose and his wife, Carmen, on the outskirts of San Cristobal, an area with few police patrols.
On the night of June 26, 2008, two gunmen burst into their home. They were looking for Samuel but he was gone so they grabbed Maria Jose. Her mother insisted on going with her daughter.
“I said: ‘If you’re going to take her, you’re taking me too,'” Carmen said. “So they took my truck and drove away with both of us.”
After taking their hostages to a mountain encampment, the kidnappers changed into camouflage uniforms. They spoke with Colombian accents and listened to Colombian radio stations. “They were guerrillas,” Carmen said.
At first, the kidnappers called Samuel with a demand for $2.3 million. They lowered their price tag to $1.4 million, then $700,000. After four months of negotiations, Samuel Molina talked them down to $325,000.
He scraped together the money by taking out a bank loan and borrowing from relatives and selling construction equipment. But working on a tip, Venezuelan police raided the border camp where the rebels were holding his wife.
By then, however, the rebels had moved Maria Jose to a separate encampment. Angry about the rescue of Carmen, the rebels upped their demand for Maria Jose to $700,000. But since late February, there have been no more phone calls from the kidnappers.
Now, all the Molina family can do is plea for her feedom on the TV news and hold demonstrations, like the recent march, in which about 100 friends and relatives carried a 100-meter-long banner emblazoned with Maria Jose’s name and image through the streets of San Cristobal.
But Samuel Molina doubts their message is getting through.
“I think the kidnappers just laugh about the marches,” he said. “What they want is money.”
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