CARACAS (Reuters) - A Costa Rican diplomat kidnapped last weekend and held for ransom in the latest attack on foreign envoys in Venezuela was released on Tuesday and is in good health despite having suffered a blow to the head, authorities said.
Several abductions in the past few months have worried the diplomatic community and underlined Venezuela’s high crime rate - the top concern of voters during an election year.
Guillermo Cholele, a trade attache at the Costa Rican Embassy in Caracas, was seized by gunmen late on Sunday as he returned to his home in La Urbina, a middle-class neighborhood in the eastern part of the capital.
“My captors had the sense to return me alive. In other cases, kidnappings don’t end that way,” Cholele told Venezuelan state TV. “I‘m very happy to be back.”
A police patrol found the diplomat before dawn, disoriented from a head injury and walking the streets of Charallave, a poor town in Miranda state about 15 miles south of Caracas.
“He was wandering in an unsuitable area, where people generally don’t go at that hour. They asked him who he was and he began to tell his story,” Elisio Guzman, the director of Miranda police, told private TV station Globovision.
Cholele told the officers he had been blindfolded and could give few details of his ordeal.
“He was a bit disoriented ... . He had a small contusion to his skull, but it seems he is all right,” Guzman said.
Venezuelan Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said the attache was freed “thanks to police investigation and pressure.”
“No payment was made at all,” Aissami told a news conference. “The perpetrators of this kidnapping are clearly identified ... . Don’t rule out arrests in the coming hours.”
In Costa Rica, Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo said he had also been told by the Venezuelans that no money changed hands.
Officials from both countries said the kidnappers had demanded payment in a phone call to his family on Sunday.
Several diplomats based in Venezuela have been victims of robberies and “express” kidnappings - usually short-lived abductions motivated by money - in recent months.
Last month the teenage daughter of a Chilean diplomat was shot and killed by police after the car she was in failed to stop at a roadblock in the western city of Maracaibo.
Murders, armed robberies and abductions are rife in Venezuela, which has huge oil wealth alongside deep poverty.
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.
Venezuelans’ favorite sport has been hit too. U.S. baseball player Wilson Ramos, a catcher for the Washington Nationals, was kidnapped at gunpoint while visiting his parents last November. He was held in the mountains for two days before being rescued by security forces.
Venezuela’s opposition, which hopes to defeat President Hugo Chavez at an October 7 election and end his 13 years in power, says his government makes a point of fighting crime energetically only when foreign or high-profile victims are involved.
Seeking to counter that impression, Chavez’s socialist administration last week launched two new organizations to fight crime.
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 incident quickly became politicized.
Some Chavez supporters suggested 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 chief and a close ally of the president, said he hoped the recent incidents were unrelated and nothing sinister.
Pro-Chavez talk-show host Mario Silva accused the opposition of planning to destabilize the country - the same way he said it did during 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. “They’re following the exact same script.”
Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga, Andrew Cawthorne and Eyanir Chinea in Caracas, and Isabella Cota in San Jose; Editing by Xavier Briand