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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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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 Chávez raising his fist. The cap was battery-powered, with flashing red lights that outlined Chávez'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 Sánchez, 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 Chávez could go to prison. A mayor who displeased Chávez could be superseded by a new super-mayor appointed by Chávez. If Chávez 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.

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