CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelans kill each other by the tens of thousands every year, making this South American nation one of the world’s most violent.
But the slaying of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear at the hands of roadside bandits Monday night has shaken this country like no other recent crime. Beauty queens are as revered here as top athletes and movie stars, and the government of President Nicolás Maduro is scrambling to contain the public outrage.
Disgusted Venezuelans berated the government on social media and in street protests Wednesday, while Maduro summoned the country’s governors and big-city mayors to an emergency meeting in the capital.
“This is a blow to all of us,” he said on state television. “I share the pain, sadness and condolences that the nation feels,” he added, warning that the killers would be dealt with “an iron hand.”
Security, like almost everything else in Venezuela, is heavily politicized. Although the government says crime is falling, an independent group, the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, said killings rose to 24,763 last year, leaving the oil-rich nation (population 30 million) with one of the world’s highest murder rates.
By comparison, the United States has about 14,000 homicides a year, despite a population 10 times that of Venezuela.
“It is a lack of basic law enforcement,” said Roberto Briceo León, director of the Violence Observatory. He said that during the 15 years that Hugo Chávez ruled the country before his death last March, crime and violence “were viewed as the product of capitalism and poverty,” which Chávez’s socialist revolution would eliminate through preventative measures and social spending.
Instead, high crime rates and killings only worsened.
Most of the dead are poor Venezuelans living in the slums of Caracas and other cities. But Spear, 29, was someone with a special status here, a “Miss.”
She was fatally shot in an apparent robbery attempt Monday night on a dark stretch of highway along with her ex-husband, Thomas Henry Berry, 39, as their 5-year-old daughter looked on. The child was shot in the leg but survived.
Spear, who was crowned Miss Venezuela in 2004 and competed the following year in the Miss Universe pageant, didn’t even live in Venezuela. She left the country for Florida in 2011 and worked as a soap opera actress on the Telemundo network, according to media accounts.
Spear returned to Venezuela for the holidays to vacation with her daughter and ex-husband, posting family photos and videos to Twitter and Instagram of horseback rides and sunsets.
On Monday night, during the drive back to Caracas, the family’s car blew a tire, possibly because the assailants placed puncturing objects in the road to disable the vehicle and carry out the robbery.
The attack began as a tow truck arrived. The family locked the vehicle doors, but the assailants opened fire, blasting through the windows and door panels. Maduro said Wednesday that one suspect was in custody and that police were searching for others.
The news agency AFP reported Thursday that Venezuela’s Public Prosecutor’s Office had arrested seven suspects.
Other high-profile crimes have brought similar pledges to improve security, with few results. In 2006, three brothers from Canada, ages 17, 13, and 12 were abducted along with their driver and found dead in a ditch a month later.
In 2011, Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped during a trip back home. He was later freed, unharmed.
© 2013, The Washington Post