Friday, July 24, 2009

A State in Grip of Kidnappers and the Family of Hugo Chávez - The New York Times

Scott Dalton for The New York Times
"This is what anarchy looks like, at least the type of anarchy where the family of Chávez accumulates wealth and power," said Ángel Santamaría, a Barinas cattleman whose 8-year-old son, Kusto, was held for ransom for 29 days.
By SIMON ROMERO
Published: July 20, 2009
BARINAS, Venezuela — Stretching over vast cattle estates at the foothills of the Andes, Barinas is known for two things: as the bastion of the family of President Hugo Chávez and as the setting for a terrifying surge in abductions, making it a contender for Latin America’s most likely place to get kidnapped.

The New York Times
Barinas is the home region of the family of Hugo Chávez.

An intensifying nationwide crime wave over the past decade has pushed the kidnapping rate in Venezuela past Colombia’s and Mexico’s, with about 2 abductions per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Interior Ministry.

But nowhere in Venezuela comes close in abductions to Barinas, with 7.2 kidnappings per 100,000 inhabitants, as armed gangs thrive off the disarray here while Mr. Chávez’s family tightens its grip on the state. Seizures of cattle ranches and crumbling infrastructure also contribute to the sense of low-intensity chaos.

Barinas offers a unique microcosm of Mr. Chávez’s rule. Many poor residents still revere the president, born here into poverty in 1954. But polarization in Barinas is growing more severe, with others chafing at his newly prosperous parents and siblings, who have governed the state since the 1990s. While Barinas is a laboratory for projects like land reform, urgent problems like violent crime go unmentioned in the many billboards here extolling the Chávez family’s ascendancy.

“This is what anarchy looks like, at least the type of anarchy where the family of Chávez accumulates wealth and power as the rest of us fear for our lives,” said Ángel Santamaría, 57, a cattleman in the town of Nueva Bolivia whose son, Kusto, 8, was kidnapped while walking to school in May. He was held for 29 days, until Mr. Santamaría gathered a small ransom to free him.

The governor of Barinas, Adán Chávez, the president’s eldest brother and a former ambassador to Cuba, said this month that many of the kidnappings might have been a result of destabilization efforts by the opposition or so-called self-kidnappings: orchestrated abductions to reveal weaknesses among security forces, or to extort money from one’s own family.

“With each day that passes,” the governor said recently, “Barinas is safer than before.”

Through a spokeswoman, he declined to be interviewed.

In an election last year marred by accusations of fraud, Adán Chávez succeeded his own father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, a former schoolteacher who had governed Barinas for a decade with the president’s brother, Argenis, the former secretary of state in Barinas.

Another brother, Aníbal, is mayor of nearby Sabaneta, and another brother, Adelis, is a top banker at Banco Sofitasa, which does business with Adán’s government. Yet another brother, Narciso, was put in charge of cooperation projects with Cuba. The president’s cousin Asdrúbal holds a top post at the national oil company.

Politicians once loyal to the president who have broken with him and his family here contend that Mr. Chávez’s family has amassed wealth and landholdings through a series of deals carried out by front men.

One opposition leader, Wilmer Azuaje, detailed to prosecutors and legislators what he said was more than $20 million in illegal gains by the family since the president’s father was elected governor in 1998. But in a brief review of those claims, National Assembly, under the control of Chávez loyalists, cleared the family of charges of illicit enrichment.

“In the meantime, while the family wraps itself in the rhetoric of socialism, we are descending into a neo-capitalist chaos where all that matters is money,” said Alberto Santelíz, the publisher of La Prensa, a small opposition newspaper.

One reason for the rise in kidnappings is the injection of oil money into the local economy, with some families reaping quick fortunes because of ties to large infrastructure projects.

A new soccer stadium, built under the supervision of Adelis Chávez’s at a cost of more than $50 million, is still unfinished two years after its first game in 2007, joining other white elephants dotting Barinas’s landscape. Nearby lies the unfinished Museum of the Plains, intended to celebrate the culture of the president’s birthplace. A sprawling shopping mall stands half-completed after its backers fled a shakedown by construction unions.

More than a decade into the Chávez family’s rule in Barinas, the state remains Venezuela’s poorest, with average monthly household income of about $800, according to the National Statistics Institute. Kidnapping, once feared only by the wealthy, has spread in Barinas to include the poor. In one case this year of a 3-year-old girl kidnapped in the slum of Mi Jardín, the abductor, when told that the only thing of value owned by the girl’s mother was a refrigerator, instructed her to sell it to pay the ransom.

Kidnapping specialists here said the abductors were drawn from two Colombian rebel groups, a small Venezuelan guerrilla faction called the Bolivarian Liberation Front, other criminal gangs and corrupt police officers. Just a fraction of the kidnappings result in prison sentences.

“With impunity rampant in Barinas, how can our governor say with a straight face that people are kidnapping themselves?” asked Lucy Montoya, 38, a hardware store owner whose sister, Doris, a 41-year-old mother of three, was kidnapped in March.

Doris Montoya’s abductors have not freed her or communicated with her family since receiving ransom money in May, Lucy Montoya said, adding, “The government’s handling of this crisis is an affront to our dignity as human beings.”

Meanwhile, new figures show kidnappings climbing to 454 known cases in the first six months of 2009, including about 66 in Barinas, compared with a nationwide 2008 estimate of between 537 and 612. But officials acknowledge that the true figures are probably higher because many cases are never reported.

Here in Barinas, victims seethe over the inaction of the president and his family. “Our ruling dynasty is effectively telling us we are expendable,” said Rodolfo Peña, 38, a businessman who was abducted here last year. “The only other plausible theory,” he said, “is that they are too inebriated by power to notice the emergency at their feet.”

Sign in to Recommend A version of this article appeared in print on July 21, 2009, on page A4 of the New York edition.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Torrealba's son accompanies him to ballpark

For those of you that aren't familiar with baseball, Yorvit Torrealba is a Venezuelan catcher for the Colorado Rockies. His son was kidnapped in Venezuela like many other people.

Torrealba's son accompanies him to ballpark
By PAT GRAHAM


DENVER (AP) — Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba brought his 11-year-old son to the ballpark Tuesday night, nearly two weeks after the boy was kidnapped in Venezuela while on his way to school.

Yorvit Eduardo followed his father all over the diamond before the game, stopping to greet Rockies players eager to shake his hand. He also threw the ball around and then sat in the dugout as his dad trotted into the outfield during batting practice.

It's been a harrowing ordeal for the family since Torrealba's son and brother-in-law were snatched by kidnappers earlier this month.

They were abducted while driving to the boy's school and the kidnappers demanded nearly $500,000 in ransom, but none was paid.

Torrealba left the team in Houston on June 2 to join his wife in Venezuela, listening as she negotiated with the kidnappers. He was told it was best if he did not do the talking.

A day later, they were left along a highway outside Caracas.

After spending time with his family in Miami, Torrealba returned to the team Sunday.

The Rockies aren't in any rush to get Torrealba back behind the plate, urging him to take his time.

"He's been through living hell, as you well know," manager Jim Tracy said. "When I saw him on Sunday, he looked exhausted. He looked like he'd been put through the wringer, that's how tired he looked. What you worry about is jumping in too quick and then run the risk of injury to the player because he's so fatigued."

Torrealba remains on the restricted list. Once he feels comfortable, the Rockies will send him on a minor league assignment to get his timing back.

"We want to make sure he's ready to go about it the way he was going about it before he had to leave and get his family," Tracy said. "We'll take it day to day."

Torrealba is hitting .230 this season with two homers and seven RBIs

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Rescue boosts Uribe's standing

Good for Uribe. He has been intelligent enough not negotiating with the terrorist of Las FARCs. Congratulations President Uribe and Colombian people for this rescue....... was perfect.
vdebate reporter
Rescue boosts Uribe's standing
By Jeremy McDermott BBC News, Medellin

Ms Betancourt described her treatment in the jungle as cruel
The successful rescue of 15 hostages from the clutches of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) has had a massive political impact, nationally and internationally.
It has boosted President Alvaro Uribe and his tough stance against the Marxist rebels and silenced demands that the government make concessions to the guerrillas.
Now the perception is that the military defeat of the Farc is not only possible but inevitable, something that seven years ago would have been unthinkable, when the guerrilla army numbered more than 16,000 fighters and held sway in over a third of the country.
"We are at the end of the end of the Farc," said Admiral Guillermo Barrera, the head of the Colombian Navy.
Praise for president
The latest operation has shown what total disarray the Farc are in and how there appears to be little, if any, reliable contact between the ruling body and the commanders on the ground.
The rescue has vindicated Mr Uribe's uncompromising position with respect to negotiating with the Farc and justified his refusal to make concessions in order to gain the release of hostages.
He had been under pressure from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to secure the release of Ingrid Betancourt - and in a rather more outspoken manner by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who called Mr Uribe, among others things, a "mafioso" and a "warmonger" for his refusal to sit down with the guerrillas.

Two Farc rebels were captured by soldiers during the hostage release
Now both leaders have softened their positions. The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, who accompanied Ms Betancourt's children as they travelled from Paris to meet up with their mother, spoke for President Sarkozy and said that France "admired what had been done".
President Chavez said he was "delighted" and "jubilant" at the successful rescue and was looking forward to welcoming Mr Uribe for a planned visit in the near future admitting that "we said some hard things. Between brothers such things happen".
In January, the Venezuelan leader called for the Farc to be taken off international terrorist lists and insisted the rebels be recognised as a legitimate belligerent force.
He has since backtracked on that, condemning the guerrillas for their policy of kidnapping and telling them that it was time to end the fighting.
Consummate politician
The successful rescue of the hostages will no doubt boost Mr Uribe's already staggering approval ratings, which hover at around 80%.
It will also perhaps secure any re-election plans he might have. President Uribe has already changed the constitution once, which allowed him to stand again as a candidate in the 2006 elections.
He has not ruled out tampering with the constitution once more and indeed one of the political parties that support him, Partido de la U, is currently working on collecting enough signatures to trigger a referendum on the matter.
Ms Betancourt also supported any potential re-election bid by Mr Uribe, when she said that the 2006 re-election of Mr Uribe, with his hard-line policies, was seen by the guerrillas as a great blow. When asked about a third Uribe term she said:

Ms Betancourt will fight for the liberation of the remaining hostages
"Why not? It is interesting. That does not mean to say that I would necessarily vote for him as perhaps I have more affinity with other candidates."
And what now for Ingrid Betancourt?
She looks set to pick up where she left off in February 2002 when she was kidnapped by the Farc at a rebel road block.
Then, she was campaigning for the Colombian presidency and since her release she has acted like the consummate politician she is, talking exhaustively with the media, praising the military, the government and the foreign nations that worked so hard on behalf of the kidnap victims.
She already has her new mission mapped out, fighting for the liberation of the hostages still in Farc hands.
"We need to fight for the freedom of the others, who are still in the jungle, still held by Farc," she said.
"There are a lot of people round the world who want to help us - fighting for the liberty of other Colombians."
The former presidential candidate, now with a profile and status the envy of politicians the world over, is in a very strong position to act as ambassador and activist for the release of the remaining hostages and the search for an end to the country's 44-year civil conflict.
Ingrid Betancourt will now no doubt be a permanent fixture on Colombia's political stage.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chavez: Little chance FARC will free high-profile hostage

(CNN) --There is little chance Colombia rebels will free one-time Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt after that country's March 1 attack on a rebel camp inside Ecuador, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Tuesday.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez discussed FARC hostages in Caracas on Tuesday.

The 44-year-old, who holds dual French citizenship, has been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia for more than six years.

In January, FARC rebels in southern Colombia handed over two hostages to representatives of the Red Cross and Venezuela.

And in February, FARC released four others.

Those released prisoners who had seen Betancourt said she was in poor health.

Last year, Chavez helped mediate a proposed exchange of jailed guerrillas for FARC hostages.

But Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ended the talks in November after accusing Chavez of exceeding his authority.

"Before the attack on Ecuador, we were giving a high probability of the liberation of Ingrid," Chavez said during a news conference at his palace in Caracas. "After that, the probability fell," Chavez told reporters.

Also on Tuesday, the Ecuadoran government asked the Organization of American States to help smooth over relations with Colombia over the rebel camp attack. The request was made after Colombia's minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos, declared that his country had committed "a legitimate act of war" inside Ecuador.

The attack killed about two dozen people, including Raul Reyes, the second-in-command of FARC, as well as an Ecuadoran and several Mexicans. Colombia said it found laptop computers belonging to FARC that indicated Venezuela was funding the guerrillas.

Venezuela denied the charge, and Ecuador and Venezuela promptly severed diplomatic relations with Colombia. Ecuador called the move an attack on its territorial sovereignty.

Ecuadoran OAS representative Maria Isabel Salvador called Santos' remarks "almost a declaration of war that, obviously, has to be rejected."

On Wednesday, relatives of the dead Ecuadoran, 38-year-old Franklin Aisalia, will travel to Bogota, Colombia, to repatriate his body.

Colombia has accused him of collaborating with the FARC, a claim that his father on Monday rejected.

Chavez also denounced the accusation, noting that Colombia originally identified the dead man as a Colombian.

"Now [Colombia] says, yes, it's an Ecuadoran, but a terrorist," Chavez said Tuesday. "And if the father comes to reclaim his son, he's a terrorist, too."

In comments directed at Santos, Chavez said, "Tell the truth instead of talking garbage about this supposed computer from Raul Reyes."

An end to the conflict between Ecuador and Colombia would be a good first step in securing Betancourt's freedom, Chavez said.

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