Abducted as they bought melons by gun-toting Colombian terrorists, the ongoing hunt for Luis Diaz’s father is being led by specialist commandos in the jungle.
It is a brazen, shocking kidnap that has stunned the world. Last Saturday night, as he was resting ahead of Liverpool‘s game against Nottingham Forest, Luis Diaz — the brilliant Colombian forward and darling of the Kop — got a call that changed everything.
The 26-year-old learned the news from home that his parents had been snatched at gunpoint and bundled on to stolen motorbikes as they stopped to pick up watermelons at a petrol station.
They were in their Kia car — red, of course — at 5.10pm local time when the gang struck.
Amid widespread outrage, a nationwide manhunt was launched. Diaz’s mother, Cilenis Marulanda, was rapidly located in what was described as a ‘padlock operation’ which saw roads closed and checkpoints set up.
She was abandoned by her captors, who kept hold of Diaz’s father. Helicopters were scrambled, with infrared heat-seeking detectors activated. Squadrons of specialist commandos and sniffer dogs were deployed and fingertip searches of six kilometres of jungle commenced.
A reward of 200 million pesos (£40,500) was offered for information and 250 police and military were scrambled. The president immediately ordered the director general of police to the scene.
On Merseyside, the story has been one of agonising frustration and human compassion. Diaz was immediately desperate to race home — only for family to tell him his return would increase the risk.
In impossible circumstances, his club rallied round him. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who may have thought he had seen it all, was left to reflect on new territory beyond his comprehension. ‘This was the most difficult (pre-match preparation) of my life,’ he said following the 3-0 win over Forest.
In emotional scenes at Anfield, Diogo Jota held Diaz’s No 7 shirt up after giving the Reds the lead.
Days passed. Diaz was forced to sit out another game, Wednesday’s Carabao Cup win at Bournemouth, as the ordeal continued. Back home, in the parish church of San Jose, dozens — including family and friends — gathered for a candlelit vigil and Mass. Thousands attended prayer chains in squares across the country.
Then came another twist in a stomach-churning week. On Thursday a statement was released by the Colombian government which announced that the kidnap had been carried out by ELN (translated as National Liberation Army), a left-wing group of anti-government guerillas considered terrorists by the US and EU.
The swoop is said to have been overseen by a 40-year-old woman known only as Patricia, a veteran agitator said to have spent half her life at war with the government.
Later reports claimed that Luis Manuel Diaz would be released ‘within hours’. But as of last that had not transpired and Colombia’s president Gustavo Petro said the kidnappers have not come good on their promise to release him and his situation is becoming ‘very dangerous’.
Speaking from Washington during an official visit to the US, Mr Petro said: ‘The ELN is responsible for the life of the father of Luis Diaz. It has committed an act that contravenes the peace process”.
‘I have to express my most profound rejection because they have not been able to free him”.
‘There is an expressed wish on the part of the ELN leaders to free him as soon as possible. But the hours are passing, and as this goes on, the situation in which Mr Diaz is in becomes very dangerous.’
However, late on Friday night ELN released a statement reiterating their desire to release Luis Manuel and confirming the process had already started.
‘We salute Colombia and the Caribbean,’ the group said in a statement released to El Colombiano. ‘We are in solidarity with the families who experience pain and tragedies due to unemployment, the criminal violence of paramilitarism and the abandonment of the State. The corruption of political clans is the main threat to the stability of the region”.
‘The Northern War Front has commands with economic missions and one of them carries out a privation of freedom, which, after being reported and verified that it is the priest of Lucho Diaz, is guided by his release because he is a family member of the great sportsman that we all love as Colombians”.
‘From that moment on, the release process begins and we want to avoid any incident. Firm in the search for the paths of peace, with the necessary transformations that the country needs. From the Caribbean.’
Mr Petro revealed he had spoken to Luis Diaz personally to reassure him about the government’s efforts to free his father.
On Friday, Klopp said his player was back in training and in need of some good news and some sleep.
If it were not so real, it would read like the fast-paced plot of a Hollywood film. But this is not California. This is Colombia. And, to many in the country, although there is outrage, there is also a lack of the surprise felt elsewhere.
‘It’s difficult to say it but kidnap is normal here,’ one local explained. ‘It is a part of everyday life.’ According to the Colombian police’s Anti-Kidnapping Unit, abductions increased by 93 per cent this year.
Usually, a ransom is asked for. Often it is paid. Poverty is a motivation, as is funding for armed gangs and their illegal operations. In this case, the motive remains unclear. Many believe the likelihood of kidnap increased in January last year, when the man affectionately known as ‘Lucho’ signed a deal that could reach £50million to take him to Anfield from Porto, and his parents decided to stay in their impoverished hometown.
Barrancas, where almost half the population is from the Wayuu indigenous community, breeds tough people. Bordering the Caribbean Sea to the north west and Venezuela to the south east, it is home to around 38,000.
They feel the clock has been ticking since then. ‘When details of his move to Liverpool and what he was likely to earn were reported, he became the target of criminal networks,’ said one journalist who did not wish to be named.
One family member told local press there had been numerous threats before last Saturday night. Barrancas, where almost half the population is from the Wayuu indigenous community, breeds tough people. Bordering the Caribbean Sea to the north west and Venezuela to the south east, it is home to around 38,000.
Opportunities are few, other than working for the huge foreign companies extracting from the largest open-air coal mine in Latin America, in nearby El Cerrejon. Other jobs are available farming the land and raising cattle.
It is not a big town. It is hard to stay anonymous. Diaz Snr coached at the only football school and is a much-admired figure who likes football and dancing. He is known as a small man with a giant smile.
Diaz Snr, known by his nickname Mane, is a community leader. The family home has a mini sports centre where he coaches local kids.
It is not luxurious and typical of other homes on the Caribbean coast. There is plenty of colour — this is a patriotic family and there are many paintings in the yellow, blue and red of the Colombian flag, with portraits of ‘Lucho’. This week, the nearby streets have been desolate, with inhabitants sitting by televisions and radios.
Luis Jnr is a national hero, the beating heart and soul of this region and first indigenous Colombian to reach football’s elite.
When he arrived at his first club, Barranquilla, he was malnourished and put on a special diet. It is no wonder they are proud of him. Community ties run deep and locals have been assisting the specialist officers.
Diaz’s parents may have had every right to feel safe but that has proved not to be the case. Players who ‘make it’ in Colombia often move family to safer areas. Some increase security at their houses. Many drive armoured vehicles.
Given Diaz’s standing within Colombia, some believe this may have been a rogue ELN unit acting without authorisation from above. There is not thought to have been a ransom demand, which adds weight to that theory given they are usually quickly forthcoming.
On Thursday the ELN, founded in 1964 by radical Catholics inspired by Cuba’s Communist revolution, claimed they were not aware that their operatives had been behind the abduction and promised a release. It may be hard to take them at their word. This is the group that, in 2019, was behind a car bombing at a Bogota police academy which killed 21 people and injured another 68.
The kidnap comes less than three months after the ELN entered into a ceasefire agreement with Petro’s government. It is hardly a glowing endorsement of that deal. But if things go to plan — and Diaz Snr returns to his loved ones — it will do Petro no harm.
Usually, ELN kidnappings lead to resolution involvement from international bodies such as the United Nations. Elsewhere in politics, Colombia’s ambassador to the UK has called for his nation’s World Cup qualifier against Brazil on November 17 — due to be held in Barranquilla, where Diaz first dazzled — to be postponed should Diaz Snr not be released by then.
After Thursday’s announcement, the mood shifted to one of cautious optimism. Klopp struck a similar tone ahead of Liverpool’s trip to Luton on Saturday. The German said Diaz had returned to training but had clearly been suffering from sleep deprivation.
Liverpool’s Latin American group are said to have ‘stepped up’ as Diaz is not fluent in English. Visits from team-mates to his home, on the outskirts of the city, have been regular this week. At all times he has had support and those involved have worked hard to ensure he has at no point walked alone.
There is a tragic precedent of this kidnapping. In Honduras in 2007, Edwin Palacios, brother of former Tottenham, Birmingham and Stoke City midfielder Wilson, was abducted, along with the player’s parents. After a ransom demand, £125,000 was handed over. But Edwin never came home. Nineteen months later, his body was found.
Much of the responsibility to protect Diaz has have fallen on Klopp. ‘We have to see how he is and we go from there,’ he said. It is hard to imagine but Diaz could even play a part at Kenilworth Road. ‘It’s all about him,’ Klopp added. ‘I will not force anything.’
The post of Liverpool manager carries a statesmanlike burden which Klopp has carried with elegance this week. He may have been speaking for many when he added: ‘The news from Colombia gives us a little bit of hope. We are waiting for the really good news but that’s it, pretty much.
‘I cannot say what we will do. We just wait where we can pick up the boy from and go from there.’