SI Vault
 
UNDER SIEGE
THOMAS LAKE
February 06, 2012
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
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February 06, 2012

Under Siege

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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 Sánchez.

Sánchez 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, Sánchez says he was approached by a man with chestnut-colored hair and a Colombian accent. The man called himself Williams. He persuaded Sánchez to show him the ranch, on which Sánchez 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 Sánchez if he could bring a worker up there in the meantime and "get started on some projects." Sánchez 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.

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