BUENOS AIRES–Two Japanese were snatched from their car by armed men disguised as police officers east of the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, Sunday afternoon, local police said.
Local media reported that the kidnappers are demanding $150,000 (about 18 million yen) in ransom for the two Japanese: Hirokazu Ota, 62, president of land management company Victoria, and his secretary, Sawako Yamaguchi, 37.
A Paraguayan police officer and an acquaintance were also kidnapped.
Police said they have caught and questioned several people who may have been involved in the kidnapping, which occurred on Monday Japan time. However, the whereabouts of Ota and Yamaguchi remain unknown, police said.
According to Victoria employees and local media, Ota and Yamaguchi had been attending a gathering of the Unification Church in the bordertown of Ciudad del Este in eastern Paraguay at around 2 p.m. Sunday.
Victoria manages large landholdings for the Korean cult, whose members are known as Moonies.
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The pair were headed back to Asuncion by car when they were stopped by an armed group on the highway at around 4 p.m. in the province of Caaguaze.
The kidnappers were dressed as officers and carried guns and other weapons.
A 33-year-old real police officer and his acquaintance, who happened to be near the scene, were also kidnapped.
Using his cellphone, Ota called Victoria employees several times before 4 a.m. Monday, telling them that he was being held for ransom.
He said he had not been injured.
Ota was made president of Victoria in October last year, and has since lived in Asuncion.
According to Japanese people living there, Ota has lived in Paraguay for about 10 years.
Victoria manages about 600,000 hectares of land owned by the Unification Church in Paraguay, according to company employees.
Victoria is considering paying the ransom with money from a Unification Church-affiliated foundation in South Korea, they said.
Some observers blamed the kidnapping on friction caused by land deals carried out by Victoria for the Unification Church.
Ciudad del Este, near the Brazilian border, is known for drug smuggling and lawlessness.
In and around the town, smugglers have murdered customs officials and kidnapped rich people for ransom.
The Unification Church began buying large tracts of land in Paraguay around 2000, and is currently raising about 15,000 head of livestock on 600,000 hectares of land.
Among South American countries, Paraguay once had a reputation for being relatively safe.
That situation changed after the country formed a common market with its two big neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, in 1995. Since then, cheap products have flowed into Paraguay, causing widespread economic upheavals for the country’s poorest.
Per capita income has dropped, and Paraguay has been in a recession in recent years.
Japanese immigrated to Paraguay for the first time in 1936. At present, about 7,000 Japanese live there, many of whom are descendants of immigrants.
Japanese farmers first cultivated soybeans in Paraguay, which are now one of the country’s main agricultural exports.