With over 65 homicides per day, and one of the most dangerous capitals in the world, Venezuelans are no strangers to violence. But the recent assault and murder of a cherished former Miss Venezuela and her companion on a busy highway west of Caracas has shaken this nation of 29 million like few others.
Monica Spear, a former beauty queen and soap opera star, and her English-born ex-husband, 39-year-old Henry Thomas Berry, were gunned down late Monday night on a roadside some 135 miles west of Caracas, where there car had been damaged. Both were slain in the attack, while the couple’s 5-year-old daughter sustained a flesh wound but is reportedly out of danger in a hospital.
Though details of the crime are still trickling in, officials in Caracas reported that Spear’s car had been forced to a stop after hitting a pothole or possibly “sharp objects” left on the asphalt. Police told reporters in Caracas they were holding five suspects for questioning in the case. Whether the result of an ambush or opportunism, savage crime was a quintessentially Venezuelan tragedy, where talent and grace fall prey to a land increasingly gripped by crime, chaos and malign neglect.
At age 29, Spear was a national idol. Crowned Miss Venezuela in 2004, she enjoyed a prosperous career playing the part of belles and femmes fatales in popular Latin telenovelas. Two of her best known titles were Forbidden Passion and Savage Flower, both hits on the Spanish language network Telemundo. With her cascade of dark hair, sensuous smile and schoolgirl eyes, Spear was a fitting icon for a country that has turned the beauty business into a signature industry and won more Miss Universe titles than any other nation.
Dividing her time between Venezuela and the United States, Spear kept close ties to her native country, where she had been vacationing at the time of her death. Spear’s family told reporters they had tried repeatedly but failed to persuade the former beauty queen to leave Venezuela, where she had been mugged several times before.
Though she had ended her marriage with Berry some two years ago, the pair remained good friends and traveling companions, sharing the company of their young daughter. Here she is on a home video from a few days ago, ziplining through the Venezuelan forest and blowing kisses to the camera on the open road.
The carefree image and scenic countryside are blunt contrasts to a society increasingly roiled by violence and spiraling into disarray. Conflicted politics and government mismanagement have taken their toll on this oil-rich nation, strafing the economy, stoking fear and destroying public confidence. In this land of unparalleled beauty, the beast always wins.
Along with corruption and desperate poverty, violent crime has long plagued Venezuela, but the bloodletting has spiked in the last decade. The crime rate has surged despite massive public investments in headline social programs known as Misiones, a centerpiece of the late president Hugo Chavez’s so-called Bolivarian revolution for “21st-Century Socialism.”
Only last August, President Nicolás Maduro launched The Safe Homeland Plan, a bold national operation to curb street crime. “We are working in absolute seriousness on the issue of public safety,” he announced, “and although the first stage of Plan Patria Segura has been successful, it is not yet sufficient.”
Few would argue the latter point. A visitor to Caracas is routinely warned to avoid walking the streets after dark, where kidnapping for cash is a thriving industry. The government, which stopped publishing crime statistics years ago, insists that violence has abated. But those claims clash with reports by independent groups that monitor data from morgues, emergency rooms and the police blotter.
In its latest bulletin, published last month, the noted watchdog group Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia found that 24,700 people were murdered nationwide in 2013—at the fevered clip of 79 per 100,000 inhabitants. That makes Venezuela, which is not at war, one of the five most violent countries in the world.
All this has created an outpouring of national sentiment and a predictable flurry of eleventh-hour government initiatives. Yesterday, government leaders and members of the opposition briefly paused their daily verbal slugfest to call for national effort to stop violent crime. “Nicolás Maduro, I propose to you that we put aside our profound differences and come together as a single bloc over the lack of public safety,” opposition standard bearer Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, posted on his Twitter feed Jan. 7.
But few in this hyper-politicized culture expect the truce to last. “Plan Patria Segura “is a total failure,” comments Argentine journalist and author Olga Wornat, who has spent years reporting from Venezuela. Writing in her Facebook page, she noted that murders have been escalating in Venezuela for over a decade. “What’s new is that Monica Spear was a famous and cherished woman, and her brutal murder sent a message that NO ONE is safe,” she added, “and life in Venezuela isn’t worth a penny.”