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.
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.
What a moment for Luis Diaz after the week he has had 🙏
On as a second half substitute, he equalises for Liverpool in stoppage time against Luton.
FT: Luton 1-1 Liverpool#LUTLIV
— The Athletic | Football (@TheAthleticFC) November 5, 2023
“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 himself transferred to the ELN. It is unclear whether the ELN intercepted the convoy, or whether the original kidnappers took him to the guerrilla force in the hope of receiving their own reward.
A government delegation has said it had “official knowledge” that the kidnapping had been carried out by “a unit belonging to the ELN”, but Josher offers a different version of events.
“When he had been kidnapped for about three days, the ELN intercepted him and took him away from them (the common criminals); that is, they gave him to the ELN,” he said. “When he was handed over to the ELN, they treated him better. He never felt badly treated by them.”
The ELN, active since the 1960s, has been embroiled in an armed struggle against the Colombian government for decades. With the country generally led by right-wing presidents — although Petro, its current leader, is a leftist — the group wants to implement an ideology based on communism and liberation theology across the country.
Petro, a former member of another left-wing guerrilla movement, the M-19, came to power in August last year with a promise to end the bloodshed. A six-month truce was agreed this July, with hopes of a more lasting ceasefire ongoing.
According to Josher, the ELN did not initially realise the identity of its captive.
“When the ELN issued the communique, we were reassured because we said, ‘They have him, there may be a quick release because of the peace process’,” Josher says.
“They said they were going to release him (his uncle) because first, they asked, ‘What is his name?’. They realised it had been a mistake to kidnap him, that he was Luis Diaz’s father, and that they were going to start the process to free him, but that it would take time.
“(The original captors) wanted to ask for money for him, taking advantage of the elections, but after the ELN grabbed him, thank God they didn’t give any money for that.”
The Colombian government also says no ransom demands for Luis Manuel were made.
Then began a process of slow negotiation.
The ELN confirmed it had Luis Manuel, and that it wanted to release him, but demanded safety guarantees. In response, around 200 soldiers searching for him close to the border with Venezuela retreated to Barrancas.
“I was always keeping an eye on the process, how it was going, talking to the authorities,” says Josher. “When the next communication came out, the issue of the release, we were more patient. We were still anxious because we didn’t have him, but we were more patient — we waited, we had to wait and the process took time. But it was quite difficult.
“My mother, my other aunts and his sister also suffered, but they were attached to God, so that everything would go well, always in prayer, praying everything would go well.”
Once an agreement was reached, the practicalities came next.
A remote location in the mountains was chosen for a handover, and Luis Manuel was left there by the ELN. Bishops from the Colombian church formed a humanitarian commission in charge of facilitating the release between the government and the devout ELN.
¡Damos gracias a Dios por la liberación del Sr. Luis Díaz! 🙏🏽Con él ya se encuentran Mons. Francisco Ceballos, obispo de Riohacha y Mons. Héctor Henao, delegado para las relaciones Iglesia-Estado, quienes conformaron la comisión humanitaria encargada de facilitar su liberación. pic.twitter.com/KK6SOvcyca
— Conferencia Episcopal de Colombia (@episcopadocol) November 9, 2023
“It took several days of walking to get to the place where the helicopter picked him up,” says Josher. “When he was released, we were at the UN (United Nations) office in Valledupar (a city near the border with Venezuela) and he was on a video conference so that when he got there, we could see him there right away.
“The moment was one of happiness and joy, short words: ‘I love you’. ‘Thank you, Son’. ‘Here we are’.”
Last weekend was too soon for Diaz’s parents to travel to England to watch their son play against Brentford at Anfield. Instead, Luis Manuel recovered at home, watching as Diaz entered as a late substitute in the 3-0 home victory. They will travel to Merseyside after the international break.
This meant the meeting took place on Colombian soil, in Barranquilla, at Diaz’s first professional club. Both father and son were in tears as they met at Colombia’s training camp on Monday evening, with Diaz also embracing Francisco Ceballos, one of the bishops integral to the rescue.
Gracias Dios 🙏🏻 por permitirnos estar juntos de nuevo en familia ❤️ pic.twitter.com/3bIl4YUHga
— Luis Fernando Díaz (@LuisFDiaz19) November 14, 2023
“My dad is my hero,” Diaz said a few years ago. “He taught me how to play.”
For almost two weeks, Luis Manuel, rather than his world-famous child, became the story.
The relief is he can now step back out of the spotlight, and continue to watch the son he inspired.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson for The Athletic)