Connect to share and comment

Colombian guerrillas behind kidnappings in Venezuela

With a law enforcement crackdown in Colombia, guerrillas are working across the border.

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela — Samuel Molina thought he’d struck a life-saving deal.

After months of negotiations, the Venezuelan carpenter agreed to pay a $325,000 ransom for his wife and daughter, who were kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas.

Shortly before Molina was to hand over the cash in February, Venezuelan police rescued his wife. But his relief turned to anguish when he learned that the kidnappers still held his daughter, 16-year-old Maria Jose.

Since then, the kidnappers have cut off communications with the family and now Molina wonders if Maria Jose is still alive.

Amid a military and police crackdown in Colombia, Marxist guerrillas — as well as criminal gangs — are increasingly crossing into Venezuela to grab ranchers, businesspeople, foreigners and children.

Venezuelan authorities reported 373 kidnappings last year compared to 50 in 1998. Some of the more high-profile victims include the 11-year-old son of Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba and Dayana Mendoza, a Venezuelan beauty queen who survived the ordeal and last year was crowned Miss Universe.

“It’s very easy to kidnap people in Venezuela,” Molina said recently as he led a protest march through the streets of San Cristobal, a city near the Colombian border, on the one-year anniversary of his daughter’s abduction. “The government doesn’t pay any attention.”

By contrast, kidnappings in Colombia have fallen from a high of 3,572 in 2000 to 437 last year, according to government figures.

Analysts describe the Colombian-Venezuelan border region as custom-made for kidnappings and other criminal ventures. Much of the area consists of dense jungle that’s largely unpopulated and unguarded. Even at the busiest checkpoint between the cities of Cucuta in Colombia and San Antonio del Tachira in Venezuela, people can cross the international bridge without showing identification.

“There’s no control,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, a money changer who works on the Colombian side of the bridge. “Anyone can do anything they want.”