At least one abductor killed in rescue mission

Updated: February 19, 2005, 3:08 AM ET
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan police stormed a mountain camp and rescued the mother of Detroit Tigers pitcher Ugueth Urbina from kidnappers who demanded $6 million in ransom, ending an ordeal that lasted more than five months.

Ugueth Urbina
Urbina

The raid Friday left at least one of the abductors dead, but 54-year-old Maura Villarreal was unharmed, police said.

Urbina was reunited with his mother late Friday at a police station in Caracas, where he hurriedly slipped past reporters to go inside, saying only: "I'm happy. Excuse me, but now I just want to see her."

Officers from a special anti-kidnapping unit rescued Villarreal hours earlier from a remote mountainous area in the southern state of Bolivar, said Joel Rengifo, the chief officer in the division.

"It was a clean and well-planned operation," said Rengifo, who added that Villarreal was unharmed.

The major leaguer's mother, who had been missing since she was kidnapped from her home Sept. 1, told reporters the experience was "unexpected -- I never thought they would kidnap me."

"You can't say they treated me either well or poorly. The most hurtful thing was having to bear them saying that my son didn't love me because he didn't pay," Villarreal said.

Rengifo said the kidnappers had demanded $6 million in ransom, but that the family didn't pay. He said the rescue operation began early Friday and lasted eight hours in an area near the Guaniamo River, some 340 miles southwest of Caracas.

Thirty officers carried out the raid, Rengifo said. "We had to take a boat to arrive on the river by surprise."

He said Villarreal was being held at an abandoned tourist camp called "Las Nieves," or the snows. The kidnappers, after seeing the police, were mostly able to flee in heavy exchanges of gunfire, Rengifo said. One of the abductors was killed.

Weapons and explosives were found at the site.

Villarreal was kidnapped from the town of Ocumare del Tuy in the southeastern outskirts of Caracas, where her home stands out as the most expensive on the block, fringed with trees and adjacent to the family's construction supply business. Police say witnesses told them the men who came for Urbina's mother more than five months ago were wearing police uniforms.

The abduction of Villarreal highlighted an apparent rise in kidnappings in the South American country, the homeland of dozens of major league players who at times have become targets for criminals.

About three quarters of the world's kidnappings occur in Latin America, according to experts, with the bulk in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. The insurance industry estimates there are more than 7,500 kidnappings a year in Latin America, but analysts say those statistics understate the problem because few kidnappings are reported.

Venezuelan police say the number of reported kidnappings in the country rose from 51 in 1995 to 201 in 2002, the last year for which official figures have been released.

Many cases are never reported because victims' families quietly pay the kidnappers.

Urbina isn't the only U.S. major leaguer to have been a victim of crime in Venezuela. Richard Hidalgo, a right fielder for the Texas Rangers, was shot in the left forearm during a 2002 carjacking attempt.

Nevertheless, many of the dozens of Venezuelan players in the U.S. major leagues return to their homeland in the winter to play in the Venezuelan league and spend time with their families and friends -- regularly in the poor neighborhoods where they grew up.

Crime has touched Urbina's family before. His father, Juan, died a decade ago while resisting a robbery attempt in Caracas.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE