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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Colombia mobilizes troops to search for kidnapped father of Liverpool player

The Colombian authorities announced a reward of 200 million pesos, about $48,000, for any information that would help locate Luis Díaz’s father, Luis Manuel Díaz.

By James Wagner

Authorities in Colombia have mobilized the national police and the military to look for the father of soccer star Luis Díaz, a Colombian standout for the English club Liverpool whose parents were kidnapped in his hometown Saturday. Given soccer’s popularity here, the incident captured the South American country’s attention, but it also stoked fears of increasing insecurity in a nation where such kidnappings were becoming less common until a surge in recent years.

Díaz’s mother, Cilenis Marulanda, was rescued hours after she was abducted, President Gustavo Petro of Colombia said Saturday night. Colombian national police, the military and a unit that specializes in kidnapping dispatched officers, soldiers, cars and aircraft to find his father, Luis Manuel Díaz.

The parents of Díaz, who is known as Lucho, had been in a car at a gas station in Barrancas — a town in La Guajira, a region of northern Colombia along the Caribbean Sea and bordering Venezuela — when they were kidnapped by armed men Saturday afternoon, according to local reports and authorities.

Colombian authorities on Sunday morning announced a reward of 200 million pesos (roughly $48,000) for any information that would help locate the elder Díaz.

They said they were in a rush to find him because they feared that he might be taken to neighboring Venezuela, a country marred by years of political, economic and social unrest. Luis Fernando Velasco, the Colombian minister of the interior, told reporters Sunday authorities were trying to block the suspects’ path to Venezuela because their traveling there was “one hypothesis” they were operating under.

“It’s not the only one, to cover all sides,” he continued. “But we’re doing a gigantic operation, and I ask all people in La Guajira that might be in the area to help us and turn in all the information that they can. What they’ve done with Lucho Díaz is not just to Lucho Díaz but to all of Colombia, and all of Colombia needs to react.”

While details of Marulanda’s rescue were not immediately known, she was safe as of Saturday night, said William René Salamanca, head of the Colombian national police. In a video posted Saturday night on X, formerly known as Twitter, Salamanca spoke briefly on the phone with Marulanda.

In another video, posted by Salamanca on Sunday morning, he spoke on the phone with the younger Díaz via the Colombian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Roy Barreras. Salamanca told Díaz, 26, that Colombian authorities were sparing no effort in trying to find his father and that the situation had moved the country. He also told Díaz that he was in La Guajira and was headed to his hometown soon to help lead the operation.

Díaz is reportedly earning more than $3 million a year, and thus may have been a target for extortion, said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy, based in the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

“I’m presuming it’s an extortion kidnapping, which wouldn’t necessarily be out of the norm, because Luis Díaz is not politically connected or an important player politically, and neither are his parents,” Guzmán said. “But his notoriety, his rise to fame and perceived wealth could be more for that kind of hostage taking.”

Although kidnappings have dropped dramatically since Colombia’s peace treaty with rebels in 2016, Guzmán said the practice had surged over the past two years. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, used extortion kidnapping to fund their operations. But in recent years, Guzmán said, other criminal groups have been battling for territory previously held by the demobilized FARC, and thus more extortions, kidnappings and ransoms have been happening.

“I think it feeds into the existing pessimism about the country’s security situation,” Guzmán said of the kidnapping of Díaz’s parents. He also noted that Colombians were voting Sunday in regional elections. “If you look at the latest polls, the majority of Colombians feel dissatisfied with the overall direction of the country, but also citizens feel less safe than they have previously,” he said.

Soccer is the most popular sport in the country of nearly 52 million, and Díaz has shined for his country’s national team, winning the Golden Boot award, alongside Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, for being the top scorer during the 2021 Copa América tournament.

Díaz’s father was a gifted amateur player in Barrancas and trained his son. The younger Díaz, who is of Wayúu descent and comes from an area often overlooked for soccer talent, rose from playing for his local Indigenous team to larger clubs in Colombia before eventually landing in Europe and then last year at Liverpool, one of the biggest clubs in the world, in the Premier League in England.

Díaz, who has scored twice in nine appearances for Liverpool this season, was not in the lineup Sunday against Nottingham Forest after a last-minute change by Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp. He told reporters Sunday that what was happening to Díaz and his family was “a worrying situation for all of us and it was a pretty tough night.”

After Liverpool player Diogo Jota scored during Sunday’s 3-0 win, he ran to the sideline and held up Díaz’s jersey.

“It is our fervent hope that the matter is resolved safely and at the earliest possible opportunity,” Liverpool said in a statement Sunday morning. “In the meantime, the player’s welfare will continue to be our immediate priority.”

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