TIME Venezuela

Death of Former Beauty Queen Prompts Soul-Searching, Anger in Venezuela

Venezuela's President Maduro shakes hands with Opposition leader and Governor of Miranda state Capriles during a meeting with mayors and governors at Miraflores Palace in Caracas
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shakes hands with opposition leader and Governor of Miranda state Henrique Capriles during a meeting with mayors and governors at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, January 8, 2014. Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

The high-profile murder of a former Miss Venezuela and her husband in a roadside attack has shocked the nation and stoked anger in a country with one of the world's worst murder rates

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has publicly called Henrique Capriles, his chief political opponent, a fascist pig and a queer posh boy, out of touch with the people. In return he is lambasted by Capriles as incompetent and illegitimate, a bus driver unable to find his way out of this country’s economic and social ills. Yet, on Wednesday, the pair shook hands in the Miraflores presidential palace at a hastily arranged meeting of state governors, called in response to the murder of a 29-year-old former Miss Venezuela that has rocked the nation. It has reminded people here of their country’s horrific murder rates: last year saw some 70 people killed every day. News of the deaths bridged, briefly, the country’s deep political chasm. “Nicolás,” Capriles wrote on Twitter, which has become a key vehicle for political rhetoric in Venezuela, “I propose we put aside our profound differences and meet.”

Mónica Spear, 29, and her husband Henry Thomas Berry, 39, were driving with their 5-year-old daughter on holiday in Venezuela — they lived in the U.S. According to authorities, robbers on the highway between the town of Puerto Cabello and the central city of Valencia laid an obstacle on the dimly lit road, which punctured a tire of their Toyota Corolla. Forced to stop, the couple realized what was happening and locked their doors. Gunmen fired upon the vehicle, killing the pair while leaving a bullet wound in the leg of their daughter Maya, who survived.

“We’ve lost somebody that was in love with Venezuela and someone that was loved in Venezuela,” says Spear’s 61-year-old father Rafael Spear, at Caracas’ Eastern Cemetery in La Guairita, where his daughter’s body and that of her husband lay in state on Thursday. A private funeral was scheduled for the next day. Rafael Spear, who lives in Florida, had not seen news of the Maduro-Capriles handshake, a rapprochement spurred by his daughter’s death. “All parties here need to get together to work toward ending violence,” says the grieving father. His priority now is safeguarding Maya.

Venezuela is a nation obsessed by beauty and, as with crime, the Miss Venezuela pageant transcends the various strata of society here. Spear’s murder has hit a deep-rooted nerve in country’s psyche and galvanized a populace tired of being unable to enjoy their streets and parks without genuine fear of attack. “I can’t go out at night. I can’t live a normal life here,” said Devadip Diez, a 19-year-old student lining up to pay his respects.

On the streets, hundreds protested on Wednesday to demand change, railing against a murder rate that has risen every year since the socialist government of Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 and is now one of the highest in the world. “The government is responsible for what happened to Mónica Spear,” wrote opposition figurehead Leopoldo López on Twitter. Many in the crowds at the wake on Thursday shared López’s thoughts. “Thankfully, my children don’t live in this country,” says Nora Mazzoni, 60, lining up to see the slain couple, having seen Spear for years on television. “Venezuela is living through a horrible period. Maduro talks and talks and talks, and nothing happens.”

Maduro described the killing as a “massacre” on state television. “This is a slap in the face to all of us,” Maduro said, promising to take responsibility. Seven people have been arrested by authorities who, given the worldwide attention, appear to be pursuing the investigation thoroughly. This is not the case with the majority of murders here; more than 90% remain unsolved. The crime rate is fueled by easy access to weapons, an understaffed, undertrained and underequipped police force and a poorly controlled prison system that hardens inmates into more brutal criminals when they return to the streets.

Carlos Nieto Palma, a lawyer and university professor in Caracas specializing in human rights, says Venezuelans’ reaction to the death “will change the government’s agenda and force it to face the problem.” Though facing the problem is not always effective. Some 20 crime initiatives have been created here since Chávez came to power, including Plan Patria Segura (Plan Secure Fatherland) last year. Commentator Juan Nagel was not impressed on the Caracas Chronicles blog, writing that the government would form another initiative “full of smart logos, deceitful advertising and lots of fat men in uniform.”

David Smilde, a Caracas-based analyst, does not believe Maduro’s ideas, even if properly implemented, will have a positive impact. “The Maduro government has in mind a thoroughly militarized approach to citizen security,” he said. “In the past this has proved to be both ineffective and a threat to human rights.”

Meanwhile, the murder rate rises every year. Without serious figures from the government, which has for years refused TIME’s requests for data, NGOs like Roberto Briceño-León’s Venezuela Violence Observatory in Caracas are left to trawl through newspaper reports and public data. According to the organization, 24,763 people were killed in Venezuela last year. In contrast, Iraq saw fewer than 10,000 killings last year for a similar population of around 30 million people. “The government’s response seeks to reduce political costs,” Briceño-León says.

Support for Maduro has dropped dramatically since he came to power in April, in the wake of Chávez’s death. Severe problems including rampant inflation, shortages of the most basic goods and widespread power outages — coupled with a lack of the leadership qualities that made Chávez such a force to be reckoned with — have pushed him to appeal to the radicals within his own party. Luis Vicente León, a Caracas-based pollster, believes that Spear’s death is being used to shift that policy. “The murder of Spear is a good opportunity to avoid the radicals inside chavismo,” he said. “Maduro needs to moderate his government and take some unpopular economic decisions; radicals inside chavismo are a barrier for him.”

Spear won Miss Venezuela in 2004 before entering Miss Universe the following year. “The idea behind Monica going for Miss Venezuela was that it was a path into acting,” said Katty Pulido, Spear’s longtime manager. Indeed, Spear then acted in various telenovelas over the years and, even while living abroad, focused on furthering her career at home. “I always told her,” added Pulido, who last met with Spear in December, “that if she went to the U.S., she could work in Hollywood with her good looks and perfect English. Yet she loved this country. ‘My home is Venezuela,’ she told me, ‘I love my country.’”

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