Saturday, January 11, 2014

Venezuelan actress Mónica Spear's murder becomes a national political shock

Venezuelan politics had a surprising shock this week that came in the form of the murder of a Venezuelan actress, model and former beauty queen, Mónica Spear. Her (ex?) husband was also killed, and their five-year-old daughter was wounded in one leg:

Venezuelans were stunned by the murders of actress Mónica Spear, a former Miss Venezuela, and her Irish ex-husband Thomas Henry Berry, on a highway between Puerto Cabello and Valencia. The crime happened on Monday night, as the couple was returning to Caracas from the Andean city of Mérida with their five-year-old daughter. After two of their Toyota vehicle’s tires blew out, a tow truck came to collect the car. At that moment five armed men arrived on the scene and tried to rob them.

Police said that 29-year-old Spear, Berry and their daughter ran inside their vehicle to escape the gunmen, who began firing. The actress and her former husband, who owned a travel agency, died at the scene, according to José Gregorio Sierralta, director of Venezuela’s forensic police unit. Their young daughter was wounded in the leg but survived the incident. Five suspects, including two juveniles, have been arrested in the case.
Mónica Spear 1984-2014

None of the initial reports I saw suggested that the couple were in any way targeted based on their identities. Their car broke down on a stretch of freeway in which a number of such incidents have occurred, in which motorists stranded by a flat tire or other car problem are attacked by a band of robbers who frequently murder their victims just for the hell of it. The gangs reportedly often spread heavy tacks in the road to produce a flat tire, which could very well be what happened here if two tires blew simultaneously. (Apuntan a la banda de los 'Los cocos secos' La Opinión 10.01.2014; Carlos Flores, Bienvenidos al kilómetro 194, el sitio donde asesinaron a Mónica Spear Huffpost Voces 10/01/2014). Four grown men, a woman and two adolescents have been arrested in connections with the crime.

However, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has reportedly suggested this could have been a contract hit: Nicolás Maduro dice que el asesinato de Mónica Spear podría ser un atentado de sicario Huffpost Voces 08.01.2014.

Criminal violence has been a major theme in Venezuelan life in recent years, though Maduro has apparently not much emphasized it until now. The level of violence in the US is the highest among advanced countries. But Venezuela is even more violent than the US, as Mariano Castillo and Catherine Shoichet report for CNN (Beauty queen's killers nabbed, Venezuela says 01/10/2014:

Venezuela is one of the world's most violent countries, according to a United Nations ranking.

One person is killed roughly every 21 minutes in Venezuela. And there were 24,700 violent deaths last year in the oil-rich country of roughly 30 million people, according to the nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

The observatory says the country's murder rate has soared to nearly 80 deaths per 100,000 people. Government statistics put the figure significantly lower, at 39 deaths per 100,000.
Alfredo Mesa describes Maduro's reaction this way (Venezuelan beauty queen’s murder triggers crackdown on crime El País 08.01.2014):

The wide coverage of the tragedy in both local and international media early Tuesday, and shocked and angry reactions from Spear’s fans and citizens on the social networks throughout the day, took the Maduro government by surprise and spurred it into action.

By midday, state broadcaster Venezolana de Television (VTV) — which has not covered crime stories for years now — showed Maduro meeting with a group from government-supporting platform Actors Movement for Life and Peace. One of those meeting with the president was actor Manuel Sosa, who had at one time been Spear’s boyfriend.

Maduro, who usually speaks in a thundering voice, was barely audible as he gave the shocking details of the case and offered condolences to the victims’ families. He said that he was calling together an urgent meeting later on Wednesday of all the state governors and mayors of 79 of the country’s most dangerous cities.

“I ask the criminals who want to kill good men and women: what reasons do you have to commit murder?” he said. “I ask you this with anger and pain. I will assume my responsibility: for those who want to kill, we are coming after you with an iron fist. Make no mistake about it.”

The double murder also seems to have brought the opposition together in a rare show of support for the leftwing government.
Mesa's report provides a somewhat more detailed account of the situation at the time of the killing than I've seen elsewhere, i.e., the presence of a tow truck at the time the attack began.

This report has more details on the charges against the accused, Van presos 7 implicados en asesinato de Mónica Spear La Opinión 11.01.2014

To emphasisze the seriousness of the situtation, Moduro even requested and received letters of resignation from his entire cabinet. (Maduro pidió la renuncia de todo su gabinete Página/12 09.01.2014) He announced that he will be meeting with provincial governors and local officials over the next month to consult on creating a new National Pacification law. Which I must admit to my American ears sounds uncomfortably similar to USA PATRIOT Act.

But Maduro isn't framing the effort as one against "terrorism" or political violence or foreign conspiracies, but against the kind of violent street crime that claimed Spears and her family as victims. He's framing it in terms of training and professionalization of police efforts and better coordination among different police departments. (Maduro inició proceso para crear Ley de Pacificación Nacional El Universal 08.01.2014) Maduro's government last year committed some military troops to supplement police efforts against violent crime, but admitted last November that no improvement was yet to be seen. (La inseguridad sobre el tapete Página/12 08.01.2014)

Some of the articles on the crime and its implications, like Valeria Pacheco's Asesinato de exreina de belleza venezolana modifica la agenda del gobierno AFP/MSN Noticias 09.01.2014, mention a number of factors creating social stresses, including a high rate of inflation that Maduro's Chavista government calls "economic warfare" by the wealthy against his regime and the Chavista constituency.

Maduro has objected that some of the country's political critics are using the Spear case to promote "anti-Venezuelan hatred." (Maduro llamó a cerrar filas ante las "campañas de odio anti venezolanas" La Opinión 10.01.2014) Politics is politics, as always.