CARACAS Gunmen have kidnapped a Costa Rican diplomat and are holding him for ransom in the latest high-profile abduction to rock crime-plagued Venezuela during an election year, officials said on Monday.
The diplomatic community in the South American nation has been targeted in several attacks in recent months, underlining rampant insecurity that mostly affects Venezuelans and which voters say is their biggest concern as President Hugo Chavez campaigns for a new six-year term.
Guillermo Cholele, a trade attaché at the Costa Rican Embassy in Caracas, was seized on Sunday night as he returned to his home in La Urbina, a middle-class neighborhood in the eastern part of the capital.
"A telephone call to the diplomat's home mentioned a ransom request and added that he was in a good state of health," Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Private TV station Globovision said that, in connection with the kidnapping, security officials were searching floor-by-floor through two half-finished city skyscrapers late on Monday that have been occupied by poor families for several years.
Venezuelan media said the kidnappers had jumped from a green Ford Explorer and forced Cholele into their vehicle while one of them stole his gray Mini Cooper, which had diplomatic plates.
Local media said the trade attaché was 55 and had lived in Venezuela with his wife and two children for the last six years.
Murders, armed robberies and abductions are rife in Venezuela, which has huge oil wealth alongside deep poverty. Notably, so-called "express kidnappings" have become common - usually short and motivated purely by money.
There has been a worrisome surge in violence against diplomats in the country during the past year.
Mexico's ambassador and his wife were briefly kidnapped in January, and last year a consul from Chile was shot and beaten during an abduction in Caracas that lasted several hours.
A diplomat from Belarus was also kidnapped last year. Last month, the teenage daughter of a Chilean diplomat was shot dead by police after the car she was in failed to stop at a roadblock in the western city of Maracaibo.
Venezuelan's favorite sport has also been hit: U.S. Major League Baseball star Wilson Ramos was kidnapped while visiting his parents last November. He was held in the mountains for two days before being rescued by security forces.
The country's opposition, which hopes to topple Chavez in the October 7 election and end his 13 years in power, says his government only shows any urgency in its fight against crime when foreign or high-profile victims are involved.
Seeking to counter that impression, the government quickly arrested 12 members of the CICPC investigative police over the killing of the consul's daughter, and four people - including a former policeman - for the Mexican ambassador's abduction.
Last week, Chavez's socialist administration also launched two new organizations to combat criminality.
While voters appear not to hold the president personally responsible for one of the world's highest crime rates, his government is under growing pressure - and the latest diplomatic kidnapping quickly became politicized.
Some Chavez supporters suggest the violence against diplomats may be an opposition plot to discredit the government and tarnish the achievements of his self-styled "revolution."
Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly boss and a staunch ally of the president, said he hoped the recent attacks were just a "coincidence" and nothing more sinister, while pro-Chavez talk show host Mario Silva said the opposition was following the violent playbook of a brief coup against Chavez a decade ago.
"What better way to show the international community that Venezuela doesn't even have the capacity to protect diplomats," Silva said on Monday. "They're following the exact same script."
(Additional reporting by Isabella Cota in San Jose; editing by Paul Simao and Todd Eastham)