San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

As violent crime rises in Venezuela, Tico becomes latest kidnapping victim

From the print edition

In a pale-blue polo shirt and black-rimmed glasses, and suffering from a minor head wound, Guillermo Cholele, made his first public comments at a press conference Tuesday in Venezuela about his kidnapping. 

The 55-year-old trade attaché at the Costa Rican Embassy in Caracas had a message he wanted to send those who held him prisoner for the previous 30 hours. Cholele wanted to express his gratitude. 

“I would like to thank the noble treatment, if you will, by my captors, and that they had the wisdom of returning me alive. In other situations, these cases do not come to the same conclusion,” Cholele said. 

With little else known about what occurred, and how Cholele found himself free and bewildered in a poor town south of Caracas, the thank-you makes sense. In a country where the crime rate is soaring and perpetrators act without fear of punishment, one perhaps ought to be appreciative when people with guns, masks and ransom demands keep their victims alive.

The scourge of kidnappings haunts Venezuelan residents in the crime-ridden capital of Caracas. Between July 2008 and July 2010, 23 kidnappings per day were reported, according to the National Institute of Statistics. In 2009, 16,917 kidnappings were registered in Venezuela, although estimates by some nongovernmental organizations are higher.

The details of the case remain vague. Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami said Cholele was released due to “police pressure” once the kidnappers realized the victim was a diplomat.  

“No payment was made at all,” El Aissami said at the press conference. “The perpetrators of this kidnapping are clearly identified.”

Still, the kidnappers have not been located, according to Venezuela’s investigative police agency, but four people linked to the kidnapping have been detained.

El Aissami praised authorities for solving the case. At a press conference, he gave the police’s official version of events: Gunmen kidnapped the Argentine-born and Costa Rica-naturalized diplomat Sunday night, forcing him into his own vehicle outside his home in the upper-class neighborhood of La Urbina. Reports said Cholele was blindfolded and transported in several vehicles, and perpetrators made repeated death threats toward him.

A man delivering newspapers found a disoriented Cholele before dawn Tuesday and took him to police. The diplomat was wandering around the impoverished city of Charallave, in the state of Miranda, about 24 kilometers south of the capital. Authorities found Cholele’s vehicle abandoned in Caracas. 

Costa Rican Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Roverssi said he learned Cholele was liberated at 4 a.m. Tuesday. He said Cholele seemed to be in “good health” although traumatized, and his wife was with him in Caracas. He also commented that no ransom was paid.

The Venezuelan government discourages paying kidnappers. In an effort to thwart kidnappings, lawmakers passed legislation in 2009 that made it possible to freeze the bank accounts of family members of kidnap victims. 

The government also has lengthened possible prison terms for kidnappers and accomplices. Nevertheless, abductions continue, proving a major embarrassment for the oil-rich South American country. 

Almost a dozen diplomats have been kidnapped recently. Cholele’s seizure happened  three months after Mexico’s ambassador to Venezuela and his wife were kidnapped in the Venezuelan capital. The couple was freed unharmed less than 24 hours later.

Bolivia’s military attaché also was briefly kidnapped, as was the son of the Vietnamese ambassador. Chile’s consul general was shot and beaten in November, the victim of a two-hour-long “express kidnapping.” And in one high-profile abduction, kidnappers late last year seized U.S. professional baseball player Wilson Ramos of the Washington Nationals, who ultimately was rescued by security forces.

Kidnappings in Venezuela are a lucrative business and more often than not go unpunished. They are usually resolved after relatives pay a ransom to captors. 

In the case of Ramos, the Washington Nationals catcher, a recent investigative article by Sports Illustrated showed Venezuelan residents do not believe the circumstances given by authorities about the kidnapping. Evidence against suspects in the case appears flimsy. 

Like Cholele, Ramos was kidnapped near his home, blindfolded and passed between multiple vehicles before reaching a hideout. The truth about the liberation of both men might never be known.

Roverssi said he appreciated the help of the Venezuelan government, but also called on authorities to do more to prevent these incidents in the future.

“We request that the Venezuelan government improve security measures for diplomatic personnel and the embassy,” Roverssi said in a San José press conference this week.

During an election year in Venezuela, crime has become the top issue. In November, President Hugo Chávez deployed a new crime unit called the People’s National Guard. However, members of the political opposition claim Chávez only takes seriously high-profile criminal cases and kidnappings, and in addition, widespread corruption among police is major part of the problem.

Costa Rica’s ambassador to Venezuela, Nazareth Avendaño, told the daily La Nación Cholele has not stated whether he would remain at the embassy. 

The diplomat plans to return home to visit his daughters in Costa Rica and relax far from the ordeal that he was fortunate to have escaped. 

Said Cholele: “The support of all the people at the mission, my family, etc., has strengthened me so that we could reach this positive outcome.”

AFP contributed to this story.

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