Monday, July 15, 2024

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Josher Jesus Brito Diaz thought nothing of it when his phone began to ring.As the man in charge of his cousin’s charity — the Luis Diaz Esperanza Foundation — and part of the Liverpool winger’s immediate circle, life is always busy. Such is the reality of being in the first family of La Guajira, the remote region in northern Colombia that calls Diaz its most famous son.

On Sunday, October 29, Josher’s uncle Gaby was up for election to a council seat in Barrancas, a town dominated by the Cerrejon open-cast coal mine where both Josher and his footballer cousin were born. The Saturday had been a day of frantic activity for Josher — driving, carrying and fetching. Diaz’s parents, Luis Manuel Diaz and Cilenis Marulanda, had also been assisting.

“We were preparing for the elections the next day,” Josher tells The Athletic. “Organising the logistics, transporting people to the polling station. My phone kept ringing, but I had no idea why.“I picked up 30 minutes later. That’s when they told me: ‘Your uncle Luis has been kidnapped’.”

Over the next 12 days, Josher took on the responsibility of becoming the intermediary between police and the Diaz family at the heart of the biggest story in Colombia and world football.

These stories do not always end happily — but, last Thursday, November 9, Luis Manuel was released by the ELN (National Liberation Army/Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional), a left-wing guerrilla group described as a terrorist organisation by Colombia, the United States and the United Nations.

This week, Diaz returns to Colombia for the first time since the kidnapping as his national team hosts Brazil in a World Cup qualifying tie in the northern city of Barranquilla on Thursday. Diaz’s father, nicknamed Mane, once sold street food to pay for his son to travel for trials in that city — he would eventually join Atletico Junior, Barranquilla’s biggest club, at 17.

Even after his son’s success, Luis Manuel continued to live in Barrancas, where he had founded a small soccer school for the children of workers at the imposing Cerrejon mine — one of the largest in the world. That one school has evolved into around 15 different programs. After his son, Luis Manuel is one of the most popular and high-profile figures in the region, and the community united in the search for him and rejoiced at his rescue. Luis Manuel disembarks from a helicopter after his release (Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

Last Friday, Luis Manuel gave a short, tearful press conference in which the 58-year-old briefly described his order as “a very difficult time” in which he was made to walk “too much”.Now, for the first time, the family reveals the full details of the kidnap and the release — of being carried deep into the jungle on mules and stolen motorbikes, and tense negotiations.

Luis Manuel and Cilenis were abducted near a petrol station, where they were forced into a car by a small group of men and driven towards the nearby border with Venezuela. When Josher arrived at the scene of the crime, the pursuit sprang into action.

“I went out with the car to the place where it happened,” says Josher. “My uncle’s daughter was there, she explained to me and we immediately activated: ‘Let’s go to such and such a place, some to this side, some to that side, some to that side’.“We left (to search). The police were already in contact, but I called some acquaintances and friends, who contacted the captain in Barranquilla, who then called the Guajira Seccional (armed unit) here. They immediately activated the ‘padlock plan’ to follow up and pursue the captors.”

Ninety minutes later, the police located the kidnappers’ car — abandoned, with Cilenis inside. But Luis Manuel was still missing. According to Josher, the group who initially took Diaz’s parents were not ELN, but “common criminals”

Kidnappings have been on the rise across Colombia in recent years. According to the nation’s police, the number of abductions spiked by 93 per cent in the first half of 2023.

La Guajira is particularly at risk. It is an isolated region of a highly centralised country, with a long and forested border with Venezuela that provides a perfect escape route for criminal gangs. This geography is why guerrilla groups, such as the ELN and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as far-right and drug-affiliated paramilitaries, have been active in the area for so long.

In 2004, when Diaz was seven years old, the right-wing Northern Bloc group killed 60 Wayuu people — the indigenous tribe to which the Diaz family belongs — in the nearby village of El Salado. According to statistics from 2019, La Guajira was the most violent region of Colombia, with a homicide rate of 73.1 per 100,000 people.

“My aunt (Cilenis) said that they (their abductors) were not people from Colombia but that they were foreigners, Venezuelans, and they spoke in a Venezuelan dialect,” says Josher. “They threatened them, and told them to keep their heads down so they wouldn’t see where they were going with the car.”

After parking the car in a remote area, the kidnappers flagged down a passing local, stealing his motorcycle so they could take Luis Manuel deeper into the mountains.

Josher travelled in convoy with the police until they found the motorbike, also abandoned even deeper into the forests of the Perija mountains. From there, the journey had to be on foot — and only specialists could continue the search. The operation was handed over to the military, with the family no longer able to be involved in actively looking for Luis Manuel. It was one of the most dispiriting moments of the entire 12 days.

“The days of waiting, of anxiety, of anguish began,” says Josher. “The first two days were quite horrible because we didn’t know anything, (the police) were still looking for him and the family was in agony. “We didn’t know who had him and where they were taking him.”

By this point, news had spread internationally.

With eyes already on Colombia due to the elections, political figures raced to condemn the kidnap. President Gustavo Petro provided live updates on his Twitter feed, while a reward of around $48,000 (£40,000) was offered as hundreds of police and military personnel were drafted into La Guajira.

Five thousand miles across the Atlantic, a worried Diaz was receiving updates from relatives. Liverpool had a home match against Nottingham Forest that Sunday — it was still early morning in the UK as Diaz followed proceedings, praying for good news. It fell to Josher to keep him informed about the police’s updates.

“Because he was far away, he couldn’t do much, but he did help to communicate with the high hands of the government so that they would activate a strong plan to be able to recover his father,” Josher explains. “But at the time, we were all just ‘Run! Run!’ to get my uncle back.”

Diaz was warned against travelling back to Colombia by police, and did not play against Forest that day, instead returning to his home in Crosby, around five miles north of Anfield.

He was supported by Liverpool extensively throughout the 12 days, feeling comfortable enough to return to the squad for a match against Luton Town on November 5. After scoring a late equaliser off the bench in that 1-1 draw, he lifted up his team jersey to reveal a T-shirt underneath.

“Libertad Para Papa,” was printed on it — Freedom for Dad.

“He had all the help he needed,” said Josher. “Also the fans, they supported Luis so much, the moral support, the support he needed at that moment… he noticed that he never walked alone.”

In the borderlands between Colombia and Venezuela, Luis Manuel’s captors led him deeper into the forest. He was blindfolded, travelling on scarcely-defined paths, up and down huge elevations. At one point, his captors found a mule to relieve some burden.

“He was doing badly,” says Josher. “He was under orders: ‘Walk! Walk! Walk!’.”

Exhausted, he was able to eat regular food. The most pressing medical issue was dehydration, exacerbated by the vast travel distances.

But three days into his order, things changed, with Luis Manuel finding…

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