CARACAS (Reuters) - Major League Baseball star Wilson Ramos described his fear on Saturday as Venezuelan security forces swooped onto a mountain hide-out to rescue him from kidnappers in a hail of bullets.
The 24-year-old Washington Nationals catcher had been seized by gunmen from outside his mother’s home on Wednesday evening during an off-season visit to central Venezuela.
His abduction shocked this baseball-crazy country and underlined the high crime rate here. But his rescue by airborne troops late on Friday was a major success for the government of President Hugo Chavez.
Ramos’s kidnappers held him in the mountainous Montalban area of Carabobo state, 20 miles west of his family’s house in the central Venezuelan city of Valencia.
“I lay there and it was pretty hard for me, to think about getting out of this alive first of all, about how my family were doing, about my mother,” Ramos told reporters after his safe return home.
“I was always asking God, and thanks to Him, he gave me the miracle of sending me back to these marvelous people. Thanks to God, I am alive for them again,” he said.
“I didn’t expect to be rescued. The place where they had me was well hidden, in the mountains, practically in the jungle.”
Ramos is one of many Venezuelans who have found fame and fortune playing baseball in the U.S. big leagues.
“The truth is, at the moment they came to get me I was very nervous. There were many gunshots ... thanks to God, those guys did a tremendous job. I‘m super grateful to them,” he said.
“I‘m still a bit nervous,” he added, thronged by friends and relatives and wearing a black police bulletproof vest.
Kidnappings, armed robberies and murders are common in Venezuela, which has enormous oil wealth alongside a yawning gap between rich and poor.
Ramos’ abduction stunned the country, putting huge pressure on the authorities to find him.
Ramos is one of the more highly regarded catching prospects in baseball. He had a .267 batting average with 15 home runs and 52 runs batted in for the Nationals during the 2011 season, his first in the major leagues.
Fans at local games had waved placards demanding his immediate release, and some called for the Venezuelan season to be abandoned. Players wore green armbands in solidarity.
Chavez himself is a big baseball fan and once dreamed of pitching in the U.S. league. Boasting a new mustache, he congratulated the armed forces and invited Ramos to join him for friendly game.
“Get your glove ready, because not even Wilson can catch the curve ball that I throw,” he chuckled.
Details of the airborne rescue remained sketchy, but Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said six people had been arrested, including a Colombian national linked to paramilitary groups and kidnapping gangs.
Ramos said his captors told him little during his ordeal.
“The truth is that I don’t know who they were. I know they were Colombians because of their accent,” the ballplayer said.
“Basically, three guys grabbed me here at my house, they transferred me to another truck and then they took me and put me up in the mountains,” he added.
“They didn’t say anything to me, only that they were going to ask for a lot of money for me. But the truth is they told me absolutely nothing else ... They didn’t do me any physical harm, but a great deal of psychological damage.”
Fears about personal security routinely top surveys of Venezuelans’ concerns ahead of a presidential election next October when Chavez has vowed to win another six-year term.
Seizing on public outrage at Ramos’s kidnapping, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition had said it was more proof of the “overwhelming insecurity” voters were suffering due to the negligence of the government.
Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Sandra Maler