By Daniel Wallis
CARACAS (Reuters) - Found wandering injured in a small town before dawn, the Costa Rican attaché was the latest victim of kidnappers who have seized several diplomats and underscored the scale of Venezuela's crime problem.
As President Hugo Chavez seeks re-election in October, the debate about who is blame for the unusual wave of attacks - at least four foreign envoys have been abducted in Caracas in less than sixth months - has quickly escalated to serious allegations.
As tempers flared around the emotive tenth anniversary on Wednesday of a brief coup against Chavez, some of his supporters even suggested the kidnappings could be an opposition plot to discredit the government and his "21st Century Socialism."
But for most Venezuelans, they highlight the stark security situation in a nation with one of the highest crime rates in the world, where armed robberies, abductions and murder are common.
So-called "express kidnappings," where targets are dragged off city streets or from their cars and taken to cash machines, or held for a few hours until a ransom is paid, happen often.
"The media focuses on high profile cases such as the diplomats, but kidnapping is so prevalent in Venezuela that it is difficult to say much about the victims except they give off a perception of wealth," said one international security expert who works on kidnapping and extortion cases in the region.
The Costa Rican trade attaché, Guillermo Cholele, may have been seized simply because he drove a relatively rare car for Venezuela - a silver Mini Cooper - his family lived in a middle-class area, and he had no bodyguards, the expert said.
In an interview with private Globovision TV, the attaché said his captors had not known he was a diplomat until he told them: they had threatened to kill him and he asked to call his wife and his boss, the ambassador, to say goodbye.
"They told me, 'Why didn't you say? We didn't know you were an important person. Your name's known all over the world!"
Cholele was beaten and kidnapped as he returned to his home in the La Urbina area of Caracas late on Sunday.
He was freed early Tuesday morning in Charallave, a poor town 15 miles away. A newspaper vendor recognized him from a press photo and took him to a police patrol car.
HIGH PROFILE VICTIMS
The Venezuelan government denied any money changed hands to secure his release. It said the gang who grabbed him had been identified and that arrests would follow soon.
While voters have not held Chavez personally responsible for the high crime rate in the past, his administration is under pressure to crack down after a string of embarrassing headlines.
Late last year, a diplomat from Belarus was kidnapped off a street in a wealthier part of Caracas, and a consul from Chile was shot and beaten during another brief abduction.
In January, the Mexican ambassador and his wife were briefly kidnapped as they left a reception in the capital's richest neighborhood, Country Club. There have been other big cases.
Baseball-mad Venezuelans were outraged when Wilson Ramos, a catcher for the Major League Washington Nationals, was seized at gunpoint in November during a visit to his parents. He was held in the mountains for two days before being rescued in a shootout when troops stormed the gang's hideout.
Then last month, the teenage daughter of another Chilean consul was shot dead by police after the car she was in failed to stop at a roadblock. The consul said his son, who was driving, was scared they were being pulled over by kidnappers.
The public debate about who is to blame for crime has taken on a fiercely partisan tone, fueled in part by the April 11 tenth anniversary of a short coup against Chavez that saw him placed under arrest on a Caribbean island military base.
Growing pressure from huge crowds of demonstrators, and allies in the military, swept him back to power two days later.
It is an emotional time for many involved: the president's supporters still fume at the illegality of how he was briefly ousted from office, while some in the opposition got a taste of what a post-Chavez era might feel like, if only for 48 hours.
All this week Venezuelan state TV has been showing footage from the days of the coup, when shots rang out and some 20 people were killed as large marches by both camps clashed in the streets around the ornate Miraflores presidential palace.
After playing video of the opposition's candidate for the October 7 election - state governor Henrique Capriles speaking in support of a peaceful "transition" during the coup - pro-Chavez commentator Mario Silva accused the opposition of being set on causing chaos and destabilizing the government again.
"What better way to show the international community that Venezuela doesn't even have the capacity to protect diplomats?" Silva said, suggesting the opposition could have had a role in the last kidnapping. "They're following the exact same script."
Chavez, who is flying back and forth for cancer treatment in Cuba, often says his rivals have a violent plan to seize power.
Diosdado Cabello, a former army buddy of Chavez who in his one act has temporary leader sent special forces to rescue the president in 2002, said he hoped the string of attacks on diplomats was just a coincidence.
"We hope ... it's not turned into a plan by some sectors of the opposition looking for small events to help lift them up in the polls," said Cabello, who now heads the National Assembly.
Stung by the charges that criminality is out of control, Chavez's administration is revamping its main investigative police unit, has created new public safety organizations, and says it has cut the Caracas murder rate by 10 percent this year.
By contrast, the government says, serious crime in Capriles' state Miranda, which includes some of the capital, has risen.
Many Venezuelans are skeptical of figures from either side, especially during a bitter election campaign. Many also prefer to stay indoors after dark, rather than risk the streets.
Given the attacks on the diplomatic community, foreign envoys are taking even fewer chances. One senior Western diplomat told Reuters the focus on his security had recently been ramped up from an already high level of vigilance.
He has to call his security team much more often, and can no longer visit parts of the Avila, the mountain crisscrossed with popular hiking trails and picnic sites that towers over Caracas.
"We are all really, really worried," the diplomat said. "No area is safe. There is nowhere off-limits to the criminals."
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Vicki Allen)