CARACAS Venezuelan police hunted on Thursday for a gang who kidnapped Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos at gunpoint from a family home, in a case highlighting the country's appalling crime problem.
The 24-year-old catcher for the Washington Nationals, who was preparing to play for Venezuela's Aragua Tigers during the U.S. off-season, was snatched on Wednesday from a house in the city of Valencia night.
Four armed men in a stolen sports utility vehicle seized Ramos while he chatted with friends and relatives at about 7 p.m., colleagues and police said. The vehicle was later found abandoned and there was no word on any ransom demand.
Tigers' fans and teammates were distraught.
"The kidnappers have still not been in touch with the family," said Kathe Vilera, a spokeswoman for the team, which is based in the city of Maracay, not far from Valencia.
"We need to be patient and to pray."
Venezuela's CICPC investigative police said its experts had produced artists impressions of two of the suspects.
Most kidnappings in Venezuela are for financial motives, with gangs demanding large ransoms and mostly preying on local businessmen and landowners. Security experts say only northern Mexico, where drug gangs wreak havoc, rivals Venezuela for abductions in Latin America.
Major League Baseball said its Department of Investigations was working with "the appropriate authorities".
"Our foremost concern is with Wilson Ramos and his family and our thoughts are with them at this time," it said in a statement.
ANGER OVER CRIME
Fans in this baseball-crazy nation are immensely proud of Venezuelans who make it into the U.S. big leagues. They expressed despair over Ramos' disappearance and some called for a halt to the Venezuelan baseball season.
"Carrying on as if nothing had happened would be to ignore the crime in our country," one fan said via Twitter.
The head of the Venezuelan baseball league said, however, that was not under consideration and that the focus should be on freeing Ramos as fast as possible.
"Suspending play is like turning the lights out, and turning the lights out does not help Wilson Ramos," Jose Grasso Vecchio told local radio.
Venezuelans have little faith in police to solve kidnappings because officers have sometimes been in league with the gangs. But the high profile nature of this case will put extra pressure on authorities to find him.
One fan of the Nationals wrote on the team's website that it was time to pull players out of Venezuela. "The place is a cesspool. They are not safe," the fan wrote.
Crime levels on a par with some war zones invariably top Venezuelans' list of major worries, and insecurity is a key issue ahead of a 2012 presidential vote when President Hugo Chavez is seeking re-election.
On Major League opening day last spring there were 62 players born in Venezuela on club rosters.
Baseball was brought to the country by U.S. oil workers early last century. Local TV brims with games broadcast from the United States, and Chavez himself is a keen player who once dreamed of pitching in the Majors.
Ramos had a .267 batting average with 15 home runs and 52 runs batted in for the Nationals during the 2011 season.
Venezuela's baseball league condemned the kidnapping and urged quick resolution. "We join the clamor of society in general ... to stop events of this nature and criminal acts of any type from happening in the country."
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Marianna Parraga in Caracas, and Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Philip Barbara and Kieran Murray)