IN CRIME-RIDDEN VENEZUELA, EVERY CELEBRITY IS A POTENTIAL TARGET AND BASEBALL STARS HAVE BECOME AN INVITING MARK. NATIONALS CATCHER WILSON RAMOS IS ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES—HE SURVIVED HIS KIDNAPPING. BUT HE KNOWS THAT ESCAPING POVERTY AND FULFILLING MAJOR LEAGUE DREAMS CAN LAND YOU IN A DIFFERENT KIND OF PRISON
This is an article from the Feb. 6, 2012 issue
To the many levelheaded conspiracy theorists of Venezuela, at least this part of the story rings true: There was a kidnapping on Nov. 9 in a concrete slum of Valencia, a major city near the coast of a socialist republic whose 29 million citizens currently are as likely to be kidnapped or murdered as any population in the Western Hemisphere. Which is not to say that they don't enjoy themselves. At the moment of his abduction Wilson Ramos, the starting catcher for the Washington Nationals, sat in front of his childhood home with his father and brothers, drinking a Polar beer and reminiscing about his day at the beach by the Caribbean Sea. His mother was inside, thinking about dinner, which would have featured thick corn fritters, called arepas, with sausage and eggs, when a Chevrolet Captiva SUV pulled up and two strange men got out. They had guns.
The kidnappers had chosen a rare and dangerous target. It would not be unusual to snatch a Portuguese shopkeeper near Caracas and get away with it, because his friends would take up a collection for the ransom and no one would tell the police. You might even take the relative of a Venezuelan ballplayer, as other kidnappers had done at least five times in the past seven years. But to take the player himself in a nation that loves baseball even more than America does? You would have to be one crazy band of malandros.
But they recognized a narrow window of opportunity. They had found Ramos in the vulnerable space between making the major leagues and buying the security that his fame had suddenly necessitated. This is the devil's bargain of the Venezuelan major leaguer: Success comes with a terrible price. He has two main options. He can stay away from his country altogether, or he can build a fortress. High walls, razor wire, prisonlike security doors, private guards in watchtowers—these things signify realism, not paranoia. Ramos, who was getting ready to spend the off-season playing for the Tigres de Aragua of the Venezuelan winter league, earned $415,000 with the Nationals last season, but he still lived with his mother and five siblings in a small concrete box of a house with a corrugated metal roof and no sink in the bathroom.
A few days earlier he'd bought a new house in a safer neighborhood with seven bedrooms and a garden. But there was no hurry to leave the old place. Here young Wilson and his brothers had played baseball in the street with a broomstick bat and a ball of crumpled tape. Here Wilson had gone from the pudgy kid his family called Pipo to the man of the house after his parents' divorce. Long before he signed his first baseball contract, as a 16-year-old scooped up by the Minnesota Twins, he put food on his family's table. He found a horse wandering in the street and collected money from neighborhood children for rides. He caught tropical birds in a homemade trap baited with honey and sold them to a local pet store. A part of you dies when you start a new life. Wilson had not yet scheduled a moving day.
"Nobody move," one of the gunmen said, according to Wilson's younger brother David. "If anyone moves, they'll get shot."
At first Wilson thought the men were garden-variety thieves who wanted his jewelry and cellphone. He took off his gold chain and offered it up. That didn't help. One of the gunmen shoved him into the Captiva. From the kitchen his mother heard screaming.
"They took Pipo! They took Pipo!"
It happened that a family friend named Reinaldo was holding the keys to Wilson's Chevy Tahoe. Reinaldo and David and two other young men jumped in the Tahoe and sped off to chase the kidnappers. They had no gun and no plan, other than a vague notion of ramming the vehicle, and so it was probably best that they never caught up with the Captiva. Wilson was gone. And now his relatives had little choice but to put their faith in the Venezuelan authorities.
There's a joke in Caracas that goes something like this: "If you get robbed, don't shout. The police might come." The federal government, never known for its timely or reliable statistics, recently estimated that as many as one fifth of all crimes in Venezuela are committed by the police. The line between cops and criminals is further blurred by vigilantes who wear black ski masks and carry out summary executions with tacit approval from the authorities. This duality reaches the upper levels of government. A general might be supplying arms to Colombian drug smugglers. A prosecutor could be running an extortion racket, and the journalist who blows the whistle on him could be accused of plotting his murder. Conspiracy theories run wild, propagated by President Hugo Chàvez himself: He has implied that American operatives somehow gave him cancer, and he once exhumed the 179-year-old skeleton of his hero, 19th-century Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar, in a fruitless search for evidence of assassination.
Thus, when Wilson Ramos emerged from the jungle barely 48 hours after he was taken, the government's account of his rescue failed to convince everyone. In one private conversation after another, well-known members of Venezuela's baseball community cast doubt on the official version of events. The story described federal agents going bravely into the wilderness to rescue Ramos in a hail of bullets that apparently hit no one. The skeptics considered this a play by the Chàvez regime to remix the truth for its own benefit—to show the world that Venezuela wouldn't let the malandros snatch a baseball player and get away with it.
Well, something happened to bring Ramos home. The skeptics had their theories. And in a country where real life can imitate an overwrought spy novel, nothing was too strange to consider.
Here is Ramos's own account of the kidnapping.
The gunmen threw him upside down into the Captiva and covered his face with his own black T-shirt. Although he couldn't see his brother and friends giving chase, he could hear his captors talking about it.
Those guys are going to get someone killed, one of them said, or something to that effect.
Finally the Captiva shook its pursuer, and everyone calmed down. Wilson could hear them talking in code. Along with his gold chain they had his cellphone, which they soon realized was a bad idea. Throw it out, one of them said. Throw it out.
Don't hurt me, Wilson said.
Relax, the kidnappers said, we're not going to hurt you—we're just going to negotiate for money.
They uncovered his face as they switched him to another SUV, but they tied his hands. They led him into the mountains, deep into the wilderness, and when they reached a mud hut they untied his hands. Three men had taken him; now four other men watched him. He thought about trying to get away—in fact, he had more than one chance to flee—but decided against it out of fear that the kidnappers would harm him if he tried. They still had guns, after all. The kidnappers kept offering him food, arepas with sardines, but he was too anxious to eat much. He lost 10 pounds in those two days and nights.
It was dark in the hut on the lonely mountain, and the bed was hard, and Ramos thought of his mother. He believed she was crying and praying, crying and praying, which of course she was. That's all she did while he was gone, other than sleep. She was calling out to God.
The kidnappers made Ramos write and sign a proof-of-life letter to his family, but they held it for the time being. From what he could hear of their talk, they planned to wait four or five days before starting ransom negotiations. This part of their plan is still mysterious because the person who could have paid them—Ramos—was not in much of a position to deliver the cash.
Ramos's relatives say they never heard from the kidnappers, and the authorities told them nothing about the search. Investigators told his mother, Maria Campos, that the smallest detail released to the public could ruin the whole investigation.
So she waited and prayed, for a night and a day and a night and a day and another night, as Wilson's tropical birds sang occasional songs from the kitchen. Ever since Wilson's childhood his mother had called to him as he stood at home plate, "Patience, son. Take the first pitch." Now they both had to be patient, trusting in a God and a police force whose actions they could not see, for a length of time that could not be predicted. Venezuelan kidnappers are known for their excruciating patience. They can wait years for the ransom. An American expatriate tells the story of a friend who was kept in his underwear in a dark basement for so long that his own mother didn't recognize him when he finally escaped.
It was 75¬∫ in Valencia that Friday night, humid as usual, with clouds obscuring a full moon. It was 41¬∫ in Washington, D.C., where fans lit candles outside Nationals Park. Their signs said BRING HOME WILSON, and WE WANT RAMOS SAFE AT HOME. Under that same full moon, in Maracay, Venezuela, about 30 miles from Valencia, the Tigres played on without their catcher. Attendance was heavier than usual, more than 9,000, and stadium officials played soft music between innings to fit the mood. In the little house in the concrete slum Wilson's mother stood in a circle with perhaps 20 other people. They were singing.
Everything is possible, everything is possible
When I lift my hands
The phone rang, and Wilson's younger sister Milanyela answered. It was Wilson's friend Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers superstar, calling to check on them. After a brief conversation Milanyela hung up. The phone rang again. One of Chàvez's ministers.
"I have good news," he said.
Hard evidence remains elusive in this case. Police and court documents are not widely available in Venezuela, and the remoteness of the supposed rescue location—so deep in the mountains west of Valencia that gunfire could have gone unheard by independent witnesses—makes it hard to prove or disprove anything. Nevertheless, interviews in Venezuela with about a dozen people close to the case allow for a close examination of the government's story. It matches the story from Ramos and his family.
The government came after the kidnappers with its full force. The National Guard moved into action. The Corps of Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations—something like Venezuela's FBI, known as the CICPC—deployed its top detectives. Nearly 200 officers joined the search.
They cracked the case by triangulating cellphone signals. Agents compared the phone numbers transmitting in the area where Ramos was taken with the numbers transmitting where they found the abandoned Chevy Captiva, in a mountain town called Bejuma, a winding 33-mile drive from the Ramos home. Investigators found a phone number that had been used in another kidnapping case in the previous month. This connection helped lead the investigators deeper into the mountains, to the tiny and primitive settlement of Agua Clara and the home of an old farmer named Arístides Sànchez.
Sànchez once had a 110-acre ranch even deeper in the mountains, inaccessible by road, and he says he advertised it for sale because he was 77 years old and needed a rest. Two weeks before Ramos was taken, Sànchez says he was approached by a man with chestnut-colored hair and a Colombian accent. The man called himself Williams. He persuaded Sànchez to show him the ranch, on which Sànchez had built a three-room structure of wood and mud. The man liked what he saw. He said he wanted to buy the ranch but not right away, and he asked Sànchez if he could bring a worker up there in the meantime and "get started on some projects." Sànchez says he agreed, which was a very bad decision. The mud hut was a pretty good place to hide someone, unless finding that someone had suddenly become the top priority of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Back in Agua Clara, about 10 miles away, residents heard the roar of the helicopters two days after Ramos was taken. One of them thought a war was starting. But the terrain was so rough that rescuers had to approach the mud hut on foot. Marco Vivas, the CICPC's national coordinator of criminal investigations, says he was among 15 agents who walked an hour through the dark in the rain to find the hideout. They reached a river and hid in the brush for about half an hour, staking out the hut on the other side. Five of them crossed the river, he says. This seemed to arouse suspicion inside the hut. Someone shone a light on the river, forcing the other 10 agents to remain on the far side. Vivas says he was hiding in the brush when one of the kidnappers came outside with a white dog. The dog barked, he said, and then the kidnappers opened fire.
The agents fired back. Apparently no one was hit. He said the kidnappers fired as they retreated on foot into the woods, and the agents inched closer to the hut. They called to Ramos. He didn't answer. They called again.
"I'm here," he said.
The agents moved in with great caution, afraid the kidnappers might still be around. But they had disappeared into the heavy rain. The agents entered the hut and found Wilson Ramos on the bedroom floor. They told him he was safe.
By this account, the agents had just overcome terrible weather, dangerous terrain and whistling bullets to carry out a tremendous rescue. The kidnapping had been foiled so swiftly that the kidnappers never had a chance to demand a ransom.
As the conspiracy theorists worked on their stories, Ramos appeared on television to elaborate on the official one. "I am very happy for the rescue operation they carried out—very thankful to the government and the national army," he said at a news conference. "Look at these guys, they risked their lives to save mine." He flew to Washington a few days later, where the Nationals' doctors gave him a clean bill of health. Gradually the media uproar died down. He moved his family to its new seven-bedroom house in Valencia, and the government provided an armed, eight-man security detail to protect him.
On Nov. 22 he began playing catcher for the Tigres, whose officials gave him a plaque to commemorate his good character. He had an up-and-down season, batting a disappointing .218 with just one home run in 25 games, but helping the team reach the Venezuelan league's championship series against the Tiburones de La Guaira. Ramos played well in the series, with nine hits in 20 at bats, and on Sunday the Tigres won the title in six games.
Meanwhile, in an atmosphere of general mistrust brought on by years of governmental smoke and mirrors, the skeptics proposed several alternatives to the gunfight-and-rescue tale. One theory says Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera secretly paid the ransom to bring Ramos home. Like all good rumors, this one springs from certain established facts. The majority of Venezuelan kidnappings play out this way, with a private business transaction. Ramos and Cabrera, who is from Maracay, are close friends—"almost brothers," Ramos has said—so it would have made sense for Cabrera to offer his help. After all, he has earned more than $70 million in his major league career.
But SPORTS ILLUSTRATED could find no direct evidence to support this theory. (Cabrera did not respond to interview requests.) It could be a misinterpretation of Cabrera's honest attempts to find out what was happening, since he had frequent conversations with both the family and the police while Ramos was missing.
Another theory blames Ramos for his own misfortune. It says he chased the wrong woman—perhaps she belonged to a police officer or perhaps a judge—and was kidnapped not for ransom but for punishment, a way of scaring him straight. Ramos has heard this rumor, and he dismisses it: "Thank God, I've never had a problem with women here in Venezuela. I don't know who is saying this, but I've never had a problem with anyone because of a girlfriend."
It seems the authorities considered this possibility. According to Joel Rengifo, a former law-enforcement executive in Venezuela who now works for Major League Baseball's department of investigations, police called in several of Ramos's former girlfriends for questioning after the kidnapping. "It was put out there," Rengifo says, referring to the dangerous-woman theory, "but it's a lie."
There is one more theory worth examining. It does not contradict Wilson Ramos's story, nor does it clash with the government account of the gunfight and rescue. It begins where those stories end, at the hideout on the mountain.
Remember two things about that moment. One, the agents were under unimaginable pressure to close the case. Chàvez himself had been calling the CICPC director to demand updates. And two, despite all their men, guns and helicopters, they had let the kidnappers slip away.
The agents moved quickly. The day after Ramos was rescued, Venezuela's minister of justice held a news conference to announce that six people had been arrested. Journalists at the police station in Valencia saw the suspects being led past. Their heads were covered with black hoods.
The most enigmatic figure in this case is a weathered man with a thin gray mustache and an eye condition that makes his brown irises appear to be ringed with blue fire. By appearances he is a man on fire for truth and justice, and he also seems to love Hugo Chàvez. In his office in Valencia he keeps a painting of Chàvez, shadowed by Bolívar's ghost, handing poor children the gift of the Venezuelan constitution. The blue-fire man was a poor child himself, usually hungry, working odd jobs at a graveyard or the mouth of a river, and he worked his way out of desperate poverty like a man climbing out of a pit. When Chàvez talks about the elevation of the poor in Venezuela, he is talking about fiery men like Víctor Barreto, former police officer, graduate of the school of law at the University of Carabobo, defense lawyer and now pro bono legal counsel for four of the people accused in the Wilson Ramos kidnapping.
"This could cause a lot of problems for me," he said one Saturday morning in December, before leading two reporters and a photographer on a drive through the mountains. "But with the truth, one never offends nor fears. They can take away my life but not my freedom to speak the truth, and this is an expression I've taken from William Wallace [of Braveheart]. Remember William Wallace. He spoke these words. They take our lives but not our liberty. And in my case, my liberty to speak the truth."
You have to walk a narrow path to make a speech like that when you worship a man whose government has an international reputation for crushing freedom of speech. Barreto reconciles this contradiction by blaming the transgressions of Chàvez's government on "people working for him who have tricked him." Well. To live in Venezuela is to get comfortable with certain paradoxes. That morning he drove into another one, in an old borrowed Land Cruiser, on the highway west of Valencia, where he bought 14½ gallons of state-subsidized gasoline for the equivalent of a dollar. When anyone with a car can afford to drive anywhere, anytime, the highway begins to resemble a parking lot.
Barreto guided the Land Cruiser through a diesel-choked traffic jam, north toward the Caribbean, west past an oil refinery and across a plain toward the mountains. He stopped at the pale-blue cinder-block house where the old farmer was living under house arrest.
"This is an injustice," Arístides Sànchez said, sitting in a plastic chair in the backyard, as a carnivorous lizard stalked the chickens in the rising heat.
The minister of justice had accused Sànchez and his wife, 60-year-old Lesbia Quezada, of being accomplices to the kidnapping. The minister told reporters that the two let the kidnappers use their home—about 10 miles from the actual hideout—as a logistical base. He said they provided food for the kidnappers. The apparent connection between the couple and the kidnappers was strengthened by the fact that the mysterious man with the Colombian accent left a wine-colored Nissan Xterra parked in front of the couple's house for several days while the kidnapping unfolded. The charge was more serious for the couple's 27-year-old son, Alexander Gregorio Sànchez. The authorities listed his name among those of the kidnappers.
Their prior records probably did no favors for father or son. Arístides admits he served 19 months in prison in the 1970s for shooting a man to death in what he says was self-defense. ("This guy showed up at my house to kill me, and I had to defend myself," he said.) According to his mother, Alexander was visiting a relative's house to borrow cooking oil several years ago when the police burst in and charged everyone with drug distribution. The mother says Alexander had nothing to do with drugs.
In any event, Arístides Sànchez denies that he knowingly helped the kidnappers. As for his wife, multiple witnesses say she was out of town visiting her paralyzed 86-year-old mother when the kidnapping took place. As for their son, Arístides says he was fishing at the time. Alexander has tuberculosis, and his mother says he's lost 100 pounds and has been unable to work for two years. He has two small children of his own, and until Nov. 11 they all lived together in Agua Clara in a house of wood and mud.
"Alexander was fishing," Arístides said from his plastic chair. "I saw the ruckus the government was making, and I went out to find my son because I didn't know what was happening. There was the national guard, the helicopter....
"One of the army comes up and says, 'Where's the skinny one?'
"'What skinny one?'
"'Your son. We're looking for him.'"
Sànchez continued with the story.
"Here they have the wrong man, a 77-year-old man, and there they go looking for a sick young man. Who is also innocent.
"Look, I'm not sure I've told you about the torture me, my wife and my son experienced and in front of two children. They have no compassion, is what I'm trying to say. One of those kids was six years old and the other, younger. The grandkids. They were screaming when they were torturing [Lesbia] inside.
"They grabbed her by the neck. They yanked her hair. They hit her in the head. That woman was tortured. So was I. Those things happen in life.
"In this country, human rights don't exist."
This is the word of just one man, but the notion of police brutality is a plausible one. In a December 2009 report on Venezuela, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said torture is a common practice within the state's security forces. Suspects are beaten, kicked, thrown down stairs and against walls, shocked with electricity, asphyxiated with plastic bags. The report named the CICPC—the lead investigating agency in the Ramos case—as the most frequent offender.
Barreto said goodbye to his client, got back in the Land Cruiser and whistled a merry tune as he careered up a winding mountain road through rich, green jungle. He had sampled some local moonshine back at the house, and he seemed to accelerate on the curves. He parked the Land Cruiser on the shoulder and walked up a narrow dirt trail to a boxy concrete house on a small plateau. This is where a 22-year-old farmer named Anyuli Tarazona lived before he was taken.
"They arrived about midnight," said Tarazona's sister, Jenideth, a 24-year-old law student. "We were all here sleeping, my mom, my brother, my son. Then they came, they busted through the door and came in and took four of my brothers. I asked them to show me an order to enter the house and make the arrests. One of them said, 'No, the order issued by Chàvez.' Then I told him, 'It's my understanding that Chàvez issued an order to rescue the ballplayer, not to arrest people like that.' Then one of them yells, 'Shut up!'
"I told him again, 'Show me the search warrant.' Then he responded by yelling, 'Shut up,' and hit me in the face. I had my baby in my arms. I fell down over my baby."
(Asked about the Sànchez and Tarazona allegations later, Roger Méndez, the CICPC station chief in Valencia, said, "The delinquents always say that. I'd have to investigate, but at this point I say that's false. We treat everyone with respect.")
One of the arrested brothers, Adian Tarazona, age 32, says the CICPC officers took them to a police station: "When we got there, I overheard one of the police say, 'There are so many, so many. Why did you bring too many? There are a lot.'" Three of the four brothers were eventually released without explanation or charges, although Adian says that when the police gave him back his wallet, it no longer contained the cash he'd earned from a week of painting. The fourth brother was Anyuli Tarazona, born with a defect in his voice box and unable to speak clearly. He was charged with aggravated kidnapping. His relatives say there is no way he could have been involved. They keep a picture of Jesus on the wall in the living room, and they pray every night that Anyuli will come home.
Barreto climbed into the Land Cruiser for the trip back down the mountain. All the jostling seemed to shake something loose in the undercarriage, and the vehicle filled with exhaust fumes. The engine sounded like popping corn. A hard evening rain came down, and Barreto, unable to get the wipers to work, reached out the window and manually wiped the windshield. Approaching a national guard checkpoint, he put on a red baseball cap with a logo of Chàvez raising his fist. The cap was battery-powered, with flashing red lights that outlined Chàvez's image, and Barreto turned it on. But the strategy seemed to backfire. The guardsman told him to pull over. These checkpoints are well-known for bribery and extortion. It took Barreto nearly an hour to talk his way out.
Barreto visited a prison in the town of Tocuyito the next morning, bringing the reporters along. Women and children pressed against the front gate, waiting to get in and see their relatives. Barreto waded through the crowd. Loud Colombian music came from the men's prison, which Barreto walked past to reach the women's annex. Inside he found Lesbia Quezada, who was only 60 and therefore not old enough to join her husband in the pretrial house arrest typically granted to the elderly. She was one of 11 women in a room with three beds.
Quezada held out her small hands and spread her fingers.
"I had nothing to do with this," she said. "I'm innocent."
Barreto and the reporters walked past the men's prison again on the way out. Large black birds sifted through piles of garbage, and tropical foliage sprouted from the rooftops. The reporters asked Barreto if they could go in, and Barreto said no, definitely not. It was far too dangerous. Somewhere inside was Alexander Sànchez, tuberculosis and all, and Anyuli Tarazona with his garbled speech. It was tempting to believe, as Barreto did, that after the kidnappers got away, the agents had fanned out and rounded up anyone they could, old, sick or disabled, just to say they had someone in custody. This was the third conspiracy theory. Also inside were four other men not represented by Barreto. The government said two of them had already pleaded guilty. It was unclear who had supposedly done what in the kidnapping. The government story kept evolving. By January there would be nine people charged in the case, including Nelsybeth Martínez, a female cousin and neighbor of Wilson Ramos who was said to have given the kidnappers inside information about him.
Was all of it true? Was none of it? In a country without effective separation of powers, it seemed to make little difference. A judge who displeased Chàvez could go to prison. A mayor who displeased Chàvez could be superseded by a new super-mayor appointed by Chàvez. If Chàvez decided these nine were guilty, then they were, and if he forgot about them, the outcome might be the same. Most of the estimated 44,000 inmates in Venezuela's horribly overcrowded prisons were there without actually having been sentenced. They would do whatever they could for attention. The Venezuelan Prisons Observatory reported that in 2008 alone, 61 prisoners sewed their own mouths shut.
"Justice is like light," Víctor Barreto said one morning in his office, as he fought one more battle with the forces of the president he claimed to love. "Nobody knows what light consists of, but when it's gone, you feel its absence."
It was dark on the mountain that Friday night, and the kidnappers had vanished.
"Let's go!" Wilson Ramos told the federal agents. He was still afraid.
The MALANDROS were relentless. They had scared several Venezuelan players out of the country altogether. They took Víctor Zambrano's mother, Ugueth Urbina's mother, Yorvit Torrealba's son. They killed Melvin Mora's brother. They robbed Francisco Rodriguez's brother and mother three times in a week. They took Henry Blanco's brother and filled his body with bullets. They found Chico Carrasquel, the great patriarch of Venezuelan shortstops, and they beat him in a carjacking when he was 74. This all happened in the last 10 years. They found another shortstop named Gus Polidor in 1995 and they tried to take his baby son and when he tried to stop them they killed Gus Polidor. Those were only the famous cases. Nearly 20,000 people were murdered in Venezuela last year, the highest per capita rate in South America. No one could say how many others remained in the hands of kidnappers.
Justice is like light. Ramos could see nothing in the jungle night. A cop could be a criminal, a prisoner blameless, an arrest one more kind of kidnapping. A government known for deception would be disbelieved even when it was telling the truth. Across Venezuela, an unknown number of mothers waited for an unknown number of sons.
"Let's go!" Ramos said again. The agents lit the path with their flashlights, and he followed them down the mountain. Soon he would have eight bodyguards. The kidnappers had opened the door to his new life. He was no longer Pipo from the slums of Valencia. He was Wilson Ramos, major league baseball player, and now he would be watched by men with guns.