CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan police hunted on Thursday for a gang who kidnapped Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos from a family home in a case highlighting the South American nation's appalling crime problem.
The 24-year-old catcher for the Washington Nationals, who was preparing to play for Venezuela's Aragua Tigers during the U.S. off-season, was snatched from a house in the city of Valencia on Wednesday night.
Armed men in a van took Ramos while he was chatting with friends and family at the home at around 7 p.m., colleagues and police said. There was no word on a ransom demand.
Fans and team-mates at the Tigers were distraught.
"They still have not made contact. The authorities are on the case," said Kathe Vilera, a spokeswoman for the team, which is based in the city of Maracay not far from Valencia.
"We need to be patient and to pray."
Most kidnappings in Venezuela are for financial motives, with gangs demanding large ransoms and mainly preying on local businessmen and landowners. Security experts say only northern Mexico, where drug gangs wreak havoc, rivals Venezuela for kidnappings in Latin America.
Fans in this baseball-crazy nation are immensely proud of Venezuelans who make it into the U.S. major leagues. They expressed despair over Ramos' disappearance and some called for a halt to the Venezuelan baseball season.
"Carrying on as if nothing had happened would be to ignore the crime in our country," one fan said via Twitter.
ANGER OVER CRIME
The head of the Venezuelan baseball league said, however, that was not under consideration and the focus should be on freeing Ramos as fast as possible.
"Suspending play is like turning the lights out, and turning the lights out does not help Wilson Ramos," Jose Grasso Vecchio told local radio.
Venezuelans have little faith in police to solve kidnappings as officers are sometimes shown to be in league with the gangs. But the high-profile nature of this case will put extra pressure on authorities to find him.
Crime levels on a par with some war zones invariably top Venezuelans' list of major worries, and insecurity is a key issue going into a 2012 presidential vote when President Hugo Chavez is seeking re-election.
Chavez himself is a huge fan of baseball.
Venezuela's baseball league condemning the kidnapping and urging quick resolution. "We join the clamor of society in general ... to stop events of this nature and criminal acts of any type from happening in the country."
Ramos had a .267 batting average with 15 home runs and 52 runs batted in for Washington in the 2011 season.
"This is so horrible. I can't imagine what he is going through right now. You are in our prayers Wilson!" wrote one Nationals fan on the U.S. team's web site.
Venezuela's Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami said the vehicle used to take Ramos was found on Thursday, but beyond that there were no clues or communication from the kidnappers.
"We are investigating and will spare no efforts," he said.