While many USF students were recovering from New Year’s parties and preparing for a new semester of school, senior Juan Barragan and his mother were being held captive at gunpoint in their native country of Ecuador.
On Jan. 5, Barragan, one of two seniors on the USF men’s tennis team, was spending winter vacation at home in Ecuador when he and his mother became victims of a heinous crime known as express kidnapping. This method of abduction is most commonly found in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and other urban areas of South America.
Victims of express kidnapping are held captive in their automobile and forced to drive from place to place while the kidnappers search for more victims to rob.
“I was coming out of a bank, out of the ATM machine, and my mother was in my car,” Barragan said. “I was in my car and we were driving one or two blocks, and probably (the kidnappers) knew or somebody told them that we withdrew a certain amount of money, and they stopped us a couple of blocks away from the bank.”
According to Barragan, a system sometimes exists between members of a respective bank and groups of kidnappers. These members tip off the groups when customers withdraw large sums of money, which allows the criminals to target the most profitable victims.
“It’s really scary,” Barragan said of the initial confrontation. “All of a sudden you have four or five guys, you know, pointing at your car asking you to stop, screaming at you, cursing at you, and you just have to sit there and do whatever they want you to do.”
After taking Barragan and his mother captive, the kidnappers proceeded to drive around Barragan’s native city of Guayaquil searching for other people to rob.
“I don’t remember which places we were going, I just remember it was like four or five hours probably. We were going to places and stopping, and I heard the kidnappers say other things to the others like, ‘Let’s rob this guy,’ or, ‘Let’s rob this other guy,'” Barragan said.
Eventually, the kidnappers released Barragan and his mother in a bad part of town after stripping them of their valuables. Included in the stolen items were Barragan’s wallet, car and shoes. After the kidnappers departed, Barragan and his mother were able to get back to their home with the help of a local taxi driver.
While Barragan and his mother were not physically harmed during the experience, Barragan knew how quickly things could have taken a turn for the worse.
“If you really cooperate, (the kidnappers) are nice to you,” he said. “I mean, they have automatic weapons, and you know that in just one second they can be shooting you with four or five bullets at a time, so it’s really scary.”
While the idea of express kidnapping might seem foreign to Americans, the citizens of many South American countries have to deal with such crimes on a regular basis. According to the Web site Ecuadorexplorer.com, in countries such as Ecuador, where 65 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line and 45 percent of children under 5 are considered malnourished, it’s common to see people who are so desperate for money that they will do almost anything if it promises cash.
“When you are from some of these countries where you know there’s a lot of corruption and poverty and people need money to survive, you know certain places are bad, and you are always aware of it,” Barragan said. “After something like this happens, you feel like, I mean – you were lucky, first of all, because you came out alive, and (you) also realize how desperate the people are, you know, just to get some cash or to supply for their families or just for themselves.”
Barragan made a phone call to men’s tennis coach Don Barr after the incident to inform him of the situation and let Barr know he would not be able to return to USF in time for the start of spring semester.
In Barragan’s wallet were military papers required for his return to the United States, and the kidnapping forced him to delay his departure until the papers could be replaced.After confirming the safety of Barragan and his mother, Barr said his first thoughts upon hearing the news were about how grateful he is to live in a country where such situations are the exception rather than the norm.
“Well, you know, I thought how blessed we are to live here in America,” Barr said. “I think that’s the No. 1 thing. A lot of the things that the international people face, we don’t even have a clue, and to see this happen close to home, it kind of (makes you) really appreciate America.”
Barr is aware of how serious the situation was and acknowledges it’s the type of event that can change a person’s outlook. However, he is also aware that growing up in a country where violent crimes are regular, if not frequent, has forced Barragan to mature faster than someone who was raised in America.
“I’m sure in Juan’s case, this isn’t new to him,” Barr said. “I mean, he knows what’s going on in his country, and I’d seen the maturity in him when he first came (to USF). You can tell that of course he was upset about the situation, but again, he faces that every day.”Federico Barton, Barragan’s long-time roommate and doubles partner on the team, agrees with Barr.
“I mean, he’s always been pretty mature and he’s always trying to be the leader of the team, you know, so that hasn’t changed too much,” Barton said. “But after something like this happens, you learn more and you appreciate more and you try not to take anything for granted. I think he’s closer to a lot of friends and family now.”
Since returning to the United States, Barragan has been eager to put the situation behind him, but he was also very happy when he was informed his car had been recovered and the police had taken the group of kidnappers into custody.
“I heard finally that they got the kidnappers. It was in the newspaper. I guess they committed several kidnappings to several people,” Barragan said. “I might have to go home in the future and testify to make sure that these were the robbers, but (it’s) something at least, and I feel like justice (was served).”