CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuela's government said Thursday it has sent its top investigators to solve the kidnapping of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, a case that has shaken the nation's elite athletes and focused attention on the country's sharp rise in kidnappings for ransom.
Police found the kidnappers' vehicle abandoned in a nearby town Thursday morning, said Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami, who called it "a very important find."
He said anti-kidnapping units led by "the best investigators we have" were dispatched to the area in central Carabobo state and he vowed to rescue Ramos and capture his abductors.
"We're taking on this investigation with everything we've got," El Aissami said.
'This is unheard of'
"There have been relatives kidnapped... This is a first, unheard of," said Venezuelan-American Jose Ruiz.
A native Venezuelan, Ruiz picked up his first baseball bat when he was 6 years old. He knows most of his countryman playing in the MLB. He says they are all extremely worried about this crime.
"All he talks about is his family... Hanging around his neighborhood," Ruiz said.
The 24-year-old player, who had just finished his rookie season, was just outside the front door at his home in the town of Santa Ines on Wednesday night when an SUV approached, armed men got out "and they took him away," said Ramos' agent, Gustavo Marcano.
"The abductors haven't made contact with the family or with anyone," said Domingo Alvarez, vice president of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, in a telephone interview. "We're worried."
Major League Baseball and the Nationals issued a joint statement that the league's Department of Investigations was working with authorities.
"Our foremost concern is with Wilson Ramos and his family and our thoughts are with them at this time," the statement said, adding there would be no further comment.
Ramos is a key young player for the Nationals. As a rookie in 2011, he hit .267 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs in 113 games. He also threw out 19 of 67 runners attempting to steal a base, a 28 percent success rate that ranked third among qualifying catchers in the National League.
Washington acquired Ramos from the Minnesota Twins in a trade for All-Star relief pitcher Matt Capps in July 2010.
He is one of dozens of Venezuelans in the major leagues, and some of their families already have been targeted in a rising wave of kidnappings affecting the wealthy.
Venezuelan police said that 618 kidnappings were reported in 2009, and the numbers have grown rapidly in recent years. In 1998, when President Hugo Chavez was elected, just 52 kidnappings were reported. Security experts say the real number of kidnappings today is much higher because many cases aren't reported to authorities.
The wealthy have taken steps to protect themselves; sales of armored cars have soared in the past several years. Bodyguards typically shadow major leaguers when they return to their homeland to play in the winter league.
"Every major league player has his own security, but we don't know if he had his security there at that time," Alvarez said. He said it's the first time a major league player has been abducted in the country, though other players' relatives have been held for ransom in the past.
Former Boston Red Sox slugger Tony Armas, who lives in Venezuela, said young players have been taking additional security measures due to the risk of kidnappings.
"But many of them are careless sometimes. No one seriously thinks that this can happen to us, and much less in a country like ours where people love baseball," Armas said in a telephone interview.
"Most of us came from humble families. We still have relatives who live in poor areas, we frequent those places and unfortunately the criminals are getting more soulless all the time," he said.
In November 2009, the 56-year-old mother of Victor Zambrano, who retired after a seven-year Major League career, was rescued in a commando-style operation three days after she was kidnapped. The former pitcher's cousin, Richard Mendez Zambrano, had been kidnapped a few days earlier, and was later killed.
In June 2009, Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba's 11-year-old son and brother-in-law were kidnapped and released a day later.
The mother of former player Ugueth Urbina, who was a two-time All-Star pitcher, spent more than five months in captivity until she was rescued in early 2005.
Venezuela has one of Latin America's highest murder rates, and violent crime has worsened in recent years. As ransom kidnapping has soared, the government passed a revised law in 2009 that stiffened prison sentences for kidnapping and also allows authorities to freeze the banks accounts of victims' families to prevent them from paying ransom.