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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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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. Chávez 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 Chávez. In his office in Valencia he keeps a painting of Chávez, 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 Chávez 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 Chávez'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.

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