Murder of former Miss Venezuela a rallying cry against violence

Monica Spear, ex-husband killed in front of daughter

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter

MIAMI - The murder of former beauty queen and soap opera star Monica Spear has become a symbol of Venezuela's years-long surge in homicides, a rally cry for change.

By all estimates Venezuela is one of the world's most violent countries. Jerry Haar, a Latin American specialist and professor of management and international business at FIU, said he would feel safer attending a conference in Afghanistan than Caracas.

"Venezuela is the crime capital of the world," said Haar, "the country itself in murder rate ranks No. 2 only behind Honduras. You have a quasi-anarchist state" where no Venezuelan is safe.

In a country grown accustomed to grizzly crimes, Spear's murder during a robbery attempt on a road leading to Caracas tops newscasts and the front page of every major Venezuelan newspaper.

Schoolchildren are pictured drawing signs of support for Spear. Haar said that is in part because she is a celebrity, a soap opera star and 2004 Miss Venezuela; but also due to the horrific nature of the crime.

According to reports, Spear and her ex-husband Thomas Berry were gunned down in front of their five-year-old daughter who was also shot but survived. Local media is reporting that little Maya now represents the countless other children who have lost their parents to gun violence there.

The family's tragedy a symbol of a national epidemic.

The deadly homicide surge began after former leftist leader Hugo Chavez took office. Accurate statistics are difficult given that the country stopped reporting crime information more than a decade ago.

Current estimates come from nonprofits that do their best to pool and tally police reports. It is believed there have been more civilian deaths in Venezuela in 2009 then there were in Iraq, or during the on-going violent crackdown on drug cartels in Mexico.

Some say years of economic inequality, a proliferation of guns, week judicial system and rampant corruption have all contributed to the soaring murder rate.

"You don't have a rule of law anymore," said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director for the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy, "Hugo Chavez encouraged his followers to do what they think they needed to do to keep the opposition in line."

Purcell also said guns are much more widely distributed than ever before, in part, because Chavez would arm his supporters. She said Spear's death is symbolic of a society that is getting much more violent and the regime has not really cracked down on it."

After Chavez's death last March, his successor Nicolas Maduro took office vowing to tackle the country's public safety crisis. On Wednesday he held an emergency security meeting and said he wanted "justice" for Spear's family and to go after criminals with "an iron fist."

The BBC reports that Maduro invited opposition leader and defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles to that meeting after he posted a message on Twitter "calling for a nationwide drive against violence." Capriles also tweeted condolences to Spear's family.

But Haar believes any changes Maduro may make will just be cosmetic. He believes it could take decades for Venezuela to return to the civil society it once had.

The Associated Press is reporting five arrests have been made in connection with the murders of Spear and her ex-husband and that most may be under the age of 18.

In an article published by Venezuela's Globalvision Wednesday, criminologist and attorney Fermin Marmol Leon said the country was seeing a new breed of young, violent criminals he has labeled "dry coconuts."

"Fermin said that this new breed of young offenders are entering gangs, use drugs and do not hesitate to use weapons when the boss orders them to shoot. The specialist said that public safety is in crisis in the country and this will continue as long as there is institutional weakness. Fernin recommends that people restrict their individual freedoms, prevent nocturnal outings, take the main roads instead of shortcuts and practice common sense to preserve life."

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