CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Officials said Thursday they have found the vehicle used by armed men who abducted Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, a case that highlights a sharp rise in kidnappings for ransom in Venezuela.
Police found the kidnappers' vehicle abandoned in a nearby town Thursday morning and were gathering evidence, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami told reporters.
"It's a very important find," he said, vowing to rescue Ramos and capture his abductors. He said anti-kidnapping units led by "the best investigators we have" were dispatched to the area in central Carabobo state.
The 24-year-old Venezuelan player, who had just finished his rookie season, was seized from his home in the town of Santa Ines by kidnappers on Wednesday night.
"The abductors haven't made contact with the family or with anyone," said Domingo Alvarez, vice president of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, in a telephone interview. "We're worried."
Ramos was taken away in an SUV by four armed men from his home, spokeswoman Katherine Vilera of his Venezuelan team, the Aragua Tigers, said on her official Twitter account.
Police last year said that 618 kidnappings were reported in 2009, and the numbers have grown rapidly in recent years. In 1998, when President Hugo Chavez was elected, just 52 kidnappings were reported. Security experts say the real number of kidnappings today is much higher because many cases aren't reported to authorities.
The wealthy in Venezuela have taken steps to protect themselves; sales of armored cars have soared in the past several years. Bodyguards typically shadow Major League Baseball players when they return to their homeland to play in the winter league.
"Every Major League player has his own security, but we don't know if at that time he had his security there," Alvarez said. He said it's the first time a Major League player has been abducted in the country, though other players' relatives have been held for ransom in the past.
A person close to Ramos' family, who asked not to be identified by name due to safety concerns, said the catcher was at home with his father and brothers when several men "entered the house and took him away."
Drew Storen, a relief pitcher for the Nationals, tweeted his concerns: "Extremely upsetting news about Ramo. Thoughts and prayers with him. Scary situation."
Ramos is considered one of the key young players for the Nationals as they try to become a contender in the National League East. As a rookie in 2011, he hit .267 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs in 113 games. He also threw out 19 of 67 runners attempting to steal a base, a 28 percent success rate that ranked third among qualifying catchers in the National League.
Washington acquired Ramos from the Minnesota Twins in a trade for All-Star relief pitcher Matt Capps in July 2010.
Venezuela is home to dozens of major league players and Alvarez said they are increasingly worried about the rise in kidnappings. Relatives of several players already have been seized.
In November 2009, the 56-year-old mother of Victor Zambrano, who retired after a seven-year Major League career, was rescued in a commando-style operation three days after she was kidnapped. The former pitcher's cousin, Richard Mendez Zambrano, had been kidnapped a few days earlier, and was later killed.
In June 2009, Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba's 11-year-old son and brother-in-law were kidnapped and released a day later.
The mother of former player Ugueth Urbina, who was a two-time All-Star pitcher while playing for six teams, spent more than five months in captivity until she was rescued in early 2005.
Ramos' abduction "makes us worry, makes us stay alert facing a situation that is truly dramatic and unfortunate," Alvarez said.
Venezuela has one of Latin America's highest murder rates, and violent crime has worsened in recent years. As ransom kidnapping has soared, the government passed a revised law in 2009 that stiffened prison sentences for kidnapping and also allows authorities to freeze the banks accounts of victims' families to prevent them from paying ransom.
Former Boston Red Sox slugger Tony Armas, who lives in Venezuela, said young players have been taking additional security measures due to the risk of kidnappings.
"But many of them are careless sometimes. No one seriously thinks that this can happen to us, and much less in a country like ours where people love baseball," Armas said in a telephone interview.
"Most of us came from humble families. We still have relatives who live in poor areas, we frequent those places and unfortunately the criminals are getting more soulless all the time," he said.
Ramos had been training before next week's season opener with his Venezuelan team and Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Melvin Mora, also a Venezuelan, proposed that the Venezuelan league ought to call off its games "until he appears."
But league president Jose Grasso said that won't happen. "Turning out the stadium lights isn't a solution," Grasso said, calling Ramos' abduction "an isolated event."
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington, AP writer Jorge Rueda and AP freelance writer Billy Russo in Caracas contributed to this report.