An Israeli Chabad rabbi working in Quito, Ecuador was kidnapped last week and held for four days by a gang of criminals who demanded $500,000 in ransom. The local police tracked the kidnappers down, freed the rabbi and arrested the gang’s Israeli leader.
Rabbi Tomer Rotem, Chabad’s envoy in Quito, and his wife Rivka are known to thousands of Israeli backpackers who have visited the city’s Chabad house over the past eight years.
Rotem also performs circumcisions and weddings and gives Torah lessons throughout Ecuador.
On Monday last week, he left for Quito’s airport, as his services were needed in a city half an hour’s flight away. When he did not return as scheduled, his worried wife tried to contact him, and when this failed, she called the Israeli embassy, which referred her to the local police.
Shortly after that, she received a telephone call from the kidnappers, who threatened to harm Rotem unless she did as they told her. They later demanded a $500,000 ransom for freeing him.
The Ecuadorian authorities slapped a gag order on the affair. They also asked Chabad members who wanted to go to Ecuador to help the family not to do so, since the kidnappers might be watching the house, and the show of concern could lead them to raise their demands.
The special police unit conducting the investigation tracked the gang down with the help of intelligence tips and discovered that the kidnappers’ leader was an Israeli who lives in Ecuador. He had visited the Chabad house in the past and knew Rotem and his wife.
The police then overpowered the kidnappers, who surrendered and released Rotem. The gang leader, whose identity has not been released, was arrested.
During the four days he spent in captivity, the kidnappers abused him physically and mentally, Rotem said afterward.
“The Israeli kidnapper was one of our guests,” he said. “We took care of him, fed him, helped him, and [that’s why] what he did is so painful. I thank the Lord for the miracle of changing the kidnappers’ heart and bringing about my release.”
Rotem said he and his wife intend to remain in Ecuador and serve the Jewish community and Israeli travelers, but will ask for additional security around the Chabad center.
Rotem’s abduction shocked Chabad envoys around the world, but Chabad sources said he probably wasn’t kidnapped because he was a Chabad envoy. They noted the recent abduction of a Solel Boneh construction company employee in Ecuador, as well as the country’s high crime rate.
This was not the Rotems’ first brush with violence. A few months ago, shots were fired outside the Chabad house during an attempted robbery of an Israeli tourist. A few years ago, burglars broke into the Rotems’ house and stole all their belongings.
Rotem and his family left for Ecuador eight years ago without the movement’s support. Only a few years later did he obtain the sponsorship of Chabad’s education center.
His father-in-law, Gidi Sharon, is a combat pilot who became religious, joined Chabad and is a well-known figure in Chabad circles. In recent years, Sharon set up a website with all the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s lectures.
Rotem and his family were due to arrive in Israel for a vacation this week.
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