Wilson Ramos, catcher for the Washington Nationals baseball team, was freed Saturday after being held by kidnappers for two days in the mountains outside the city of Valencia in north-central Venezuela.  Ramos, a Venezuelan citizen, had been visiting his family in an upscale neighborhood when he was taken by masked gunmen and held, ostensibly for ransom.

This painfully public kidnapping has highlighted an endemic problem for Venezuelans, rich and poor alike.  

An extensive victimization survey carried out by the Government of Venezuela’s National Institute of Statistics revealed that almost 17,000 people were kidnapped between July 2008 and July 2009, for an average of 46 per day.  According to the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (OVV), this number could be even higher, reaching as many as 70 per day. 

Accurate statistics are hard to come by, since most Venezuelan kidnappings go unreported to police.  They are carried out by any of 18,000 criminal bands that operate with impunity throughout a country just slightly larger than Texas. As Venezuelan Congressman William Ojeda put it, “Venezuela has become the kidnap capital of Latin America.” 

Kidnapping is only one piece of a significant criminal problem. In 2010, the OVV, an independent think tank that monitors violence in Venezuela reported that Venezuela registered approximately 17,600 murders – or 57 per 100,000 population  

This year, the estimate is 60 per 100,000, or three times the rate when President Hugo Chavez took power in 1999.  By comparison, the murder rate in Mexico is 18 per 100,000 and in the U.S., just 4.8.  The answer for Chavez has been to sweep the problem under the rug: since 2005 the Venezuelan Government’s Interior Ministry has stopped reporting its own statistics, making groups like OVV even more important. 

The  efficiency of the Ramos rescue was a surprise – only 20 percent of kidnapping cases are resolved using police. The swiftness is probably related to one issue: President Chavez knows that crime in Venezuela has become a major obstacle to his re-election plans.  

Going into the 2012 presidential campaign, a majority of Venezuelans identify violent crime as one of the worst problems in the country and one of the worst failings of the Chavez administration.  There are, of course, other failings that trouble and enrage Venezuelans, such as their shortages of basic goods like milk and sugar; and the frequent power outages that plague the country. 

Contrary to Chavez’s intent, Ramos’s rapid rescue could serve to highlight that problem even more by bringing up the obvious question, “Why is a famous ballplayer rescued so quickly when ordinary Venezuelans are abandoned to their fate?”  

This situation has President Chavez in a tough spot.  Since he expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, Venezuela has become one of the most significant routes for transporting cocaine to Central America and West Africa.  Along with the drugs have come petty criminals, small-time distribution rings and the peripheral crimes which accompany the drug trade.  Chavez, however, is unable to act – even if he wanted to – because high level government officials, including his Joint Chiefs, his Director of Military Intelligence, his former Interior Minister, and others are themselves involved in the drug network, according to designations of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control.     

While Chavez facilitates the organized crime emanating from the highest levels of his government; ordinary Venezuelans will have to cope with rising violence and crime as best they can.  Unlike Ramos, most Venezuelans aren’t professional ballplayers.  They are likely to remind him of this fact come election day.

Joel D. Hirst is a Human Freedom Fellow with the George W. Bush Institute.  You can reach him at jhirst@bushcenter.com, his twitter account www.twitter.com/joelhirstor his public facebook profile.