In the crosshairs of crime

Originally Published: February 22, 2005
By Kevin Baxter | Special to ESPN.com

MARACAY, Venezuela -- It's more a fortress than a house, with razor-sharp spikes and eight strands of electric wire topping the fences. And you could cover a Super Bowl with the number of security cameras ringing the immaculate three-story home.

Carlos Guillen's home
Gregorio MarreroWith a guard standing sentinel over a stone wall topped by razor wire, Carlos Guillen's home looks more like a prison.
"You know you have to be careful where you can," said the home's owner, Alex Gonzalez, the Florida Marlins shortstop.

If a man's home is truly his castle, then the only thing missing from Gonzalez's spired domicile is a moat. Still, in the provincial capital of Maracay, about 90 minutes down Venezuela's Central Highway from Caracas, Gonzalez could be accused of taking a lax approach to security in comparison to some of his ball-playing neighbors.

Detroit Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillen's house, which is also rung with electric wire, has an armed guard stationed in an elevated tower near the main entrance. Gonzalez's Marlins teammate Miguel Cabrera lives on the eighth floor of a high-security apartment complex even his family can't enter without his permission. And Bobby Abreu of the Philadelphia Phillies wouldn't take batting practice before winter league games without a bodyguard nearby.

Welcome to Venezuela, where a falling economy and rising crime rate have taught a growing legion of big-league stars they're not safe even when they're coming home. Though most of those players are now back in Florida or Arizona for spring training, the danger hasn't passed since they're all leaving family members behind.

A record 66 Venezuelans played last summer in the major leagues, where the average contract was worth more than $2.3 million. But even the 800 Venezuelans making just a fraction of that in baseball's minor leagues are considered rich by South American standards. That's made them and their families targets back home, where the economy has plunged in the five years since President Hugo Chavez came to power.

Nearly a fifth of the country's workforce is unemployed and more than half its population has fallen below the poverty line. Violent crimes have skyrocketed, too, with homicides up 124 percent and kidnappings increased sixfold -- to more than 300 -- since 1999. Now tension among Venezuela's "nuevo rico" has been ratcheted up even further this offseason by what Gonzalez calls "the Urbina situation."

Maura Josefina Villareal, the 54-year-old mother of Tigers closer Ugueth Urbina, was kidnapped last September by four gunmen wearing police uniforms and badges who stormed her farm just south of Caracas in broad daylight. It took an eight-hour gunfight with police that left one kidnapper dead before Villareal was finally reunited Friday with her family.

Police needed a helicopter and a boat to navigate the rugged southern range of the Andes to reach Villareal, who was held in a drug-traffickers' mountain hideout. Even if she had been able to elude her heavily armed captors and navigate a minefield that ringed the camp, the nearest village was an eight-hour drive.

Urbina remained tight-lipped throughout the five-month ordeal, but other Venezuelan major leaguers talked openly about fear for their own safety.

Venezuelans celebrate
Johan Santana's Cy Young Award ignited Venezuelans in celebration.
"Everybody's concerned about it, all the players," said Minnesota Twins pitcher Johan Santana, who was assigned five government bodyguards after winning the American League Cy Young award last November. "We all look out for each other."

Which is one reason friends of Urbina say the pitcher felt pressure not to give in to ransom demands that reportedly ranged from $3 million to $6 million. If he did, the reasoning goes, then players and their families could find themselves in the crosshairs of everyone from organized crime to street thugs looking for a quick buck.

Urbina played sparingly with the Caracas Lions during the offseason, though he did work out regularly with teammates. While friends and teammates gave Urbina some space to deal with the situation, they did so well aware that space is a luxury for Venezuelan ballplayers, who seemingly can't go anywhere alone. In addition to the personal bodyguards hired by Abreu and those awarded to Santana, most winter-league teams provided armed, on-field security personnel this season, stationed guards in the dugouts and provided police escorts to and from ballparks.

Many players also changed their personal habits in an effort to avoid becoming targets. They rarely ventured out at night and always left jewelry, credit cards and large amounts of cash at home. Some traveled by taxi or drove rundown cars instead of high-profile luxury vehicles and SUVs. Often they circled the block once or twice, watchful for suspicious activity, before opening the gates of their homes.

But even those measures could only curb the attacks. Earlier this winter Montreal minor leaguer Alejandro Machado was robbed at gunpoint outside Caracas' downtown stadium.

"It's a real threat," said Jose Elias Escalone, who works on the security detail hired by the Caracas team. "There's a lot of people hungry out there. They need money and they're going to go for the people they know who have money."

Maura Villareal
Gregorio MarreroMaura Villareal was finally reunited with family members after five months in captivity.
And though the kidnapping of Urbina's mother had drawn international attention to the situation in Venezuela, major league players and their families have been frequent targets of violent crime the past three years. Texas Rangers outfielder Richard Hidalgo was shot in the arm during a carjacking. Detroit's Magglio Ordonez was attacked by armed thugs. And the Baltimore Orioles' Melvin Mora was robbed at gunpoint after his brother was gunned down near their mother's home in Valencia.

Career minor leaguer Lipso Nava gave himself up for dead when a gun was pressed against his temple by a thief who demanded Nava's new Hyundai Elantra. Even Venezuelan legend Chico Carrasquel had his car stolen by vandals who put a gun to the head of the former All-Star's 3-year-old granddaughter.

"You always think about your family," said Twins pitcher Juan Rincon, who was pistol whipped by robbers who attacked him as he sat in traffic in his hometown of Maracaibo.

Rich Garces, the former Boston Red Sox reliever, was feared to have become a kidnap victim in January. It wasn't until after hearing about news reports that his family had filed a missing person's report that Garces finally surfaced at a police station in La Guaria, on the outskirts of Caracas, six days after he disappeared. Word soon spread that Garces "wasn't dead, he was partying," as online newspaper El Meridiano reported.

Venezuelan athletes aren't the only ones being targeted.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, nearly 100 kidnappings were reported last year, the most spectacular of which was the November abduction of Marina Lima de Souza, the mother of soccer star Robinho. De Souza was released, unharmed, 41 days later after a ransom was reportedly paid.

Across the border in Argentina, soccer players and their families have been targeted in at least 20 kidnappings over the past two years. Another was prevented in July when police spoiled a plot to abduct the brother of Manu Ginobili, the San Antonio Spurs' All-Star guard, the day before the basketball player signed a $52 million contract with the team.

In Venezuela, however, baseball players say it's hard to escape the notion that their sport is under attack as much as the players themselves. In the past three years, seven major league teams have closed training academies in Venezuela after armed gangs attacked facilities run by the Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies and Seattle Mariners.

The Phillies and Mariners, two teams that have stayed, responded by upgrading security, but even that wouldn't have prevented the robbery that took place at the Mariners' isolated academy when armed men burst into the facility, holding players and staff at gunpoint. No one was seriously hurt, and a Seattle scout said authorities believe it was an inside job.

You can't trust nobody. Police, national guard, nobody.
Twins pitcher Juan Rincon
"You can't trust nobody," Rincon said. "Police, national guard, nobody."

But the players still return home each winter, for a variety of reasons. Their families are there for one, and with U.S. visas harder to come by in the post-9/11 world, few players hold out hope of moving all their relatives out of Venezuela. Plus some players feel an obligation to play before the hometown fans each winter, something two-thirds of Venezuela's major leaguers did this year, by far the highest percentage of the four Caribbean series countries.

"It's like an appreciation of all the support they've been giving me in my career," Abreu said. "I have the opportunity to show them appreciation back."

And then there's just the love of their native land, despite its problems.

"I've got my friends here, my family's here," said Santana, who was raised in Tovar, a small town high in the Andes near Venezuela's border with Colombia. "I'm really proud to be a Venezuelan."

Besides, some players and team officials admit, it's not like robberies and kidnappings are unheard of in the U.S. Fifteen months ago in Arizona, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Dernell Stenson was kidnapped during a carjacking, then killed while trying to escape.

"It's just like everywhere else. Just like if you went to New York or if you went to Chicago," said Houston Astros superscout Andres Reiner, who founded the first developmental academy in Venezuela in 1989. "I would not tell you it's the safest place in the world, but it's not the unsafest either."

Kevin Baxter is a reporter for the Miami Herald and a contributor to ESPN.com. Gordon Wittenmyer of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press contributed to this report.

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