Beauty Queen’s Death Spotlights Beast Lurking in Venezuela

EspañolThe recent murder of a celebrated Venezuelan beauty queen puts the spotlight on a major beast shadowing politics in the South American nation: unfettered bloodshed. Venezuela’s murder rate has jumped to one of the world’s highest amid widespread police corruption, suspect rule of law, economic woes, and growing politicization of the nation’s military and judicial system.

Venezuela is among the five most violent countries in the world — Honduras, El Salvador, Ivory Coast, and Jamaica comprise the others — according to the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia(OVV). The nongovernmental watchdog, in a report released last month, calculated 24,763 violent deaths in the oil-rich country during 2013, up 24 percent from 2012.

The government dismisses these figures, calling them inaccurate attempts by the opposition to keep perception worse than reality. Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres told Reuters in a December interview that the official homicide rate for 2013 was a much improved 39 per 100,000 inhabitants — down from 52 per 100,000 in 2012 — and credited President Nicolás Maduro’s Plan Patria Seguro for the improved numbers. Plan Patria Seguro was launched last year as a joint police-military effort to combat rampant crime.

The problem with those official statistics is that December 2003 — when 11,342 homicides were reported — was the last time that government crime data was publicly accessible, as the OVV report stated correctly. Faced with 10 years of official censorship, the OVV has developed a complex systematic analysis of partially segmented source data, with demographics broken down nationally, regionally, and municipally. According to the report, their numbers hold a 95 percent accuracy rate.

Mónica Spear
Mónica Spear in 2005. Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom.

Spear Personifies the Reality

Public outrage immediately followed the vicious road-side murders in the central state of Carabobo. Alleged to have been victims of a botched robbery, Mónica Spear (29) — Miss Venezuela 2004 and telenovela star — and her British ex-husband, Thomas Henry Berry (39), were shot to death after their car was disabled.

Maya, their five-year-old daughter — and witness to the tragedy — survived, but still had a bullet lodged in her leg three days after the shooting, the child’s grandfather, Rafael Spear, told CNN. Mourners from all over the country lined up in Caracas’s Cementerio del Este as Spear and Berry were laid to rest.

Nine suspects have been detained in connection with the murders. Rodríguez Torres, who also heads the nation’s intelligence service, labeled the case as “unfortunate and atrocious.” Investigators said the victims’ personal belongings were confiscated during arrests of the suspects.

In the wake of the Spear tragedy, Rodríguez Torres called upon police to root out corruption among the ranks, stating this “undermines police authority for the Venezuelan people.”

The police and military have been “prone to corruption, widespread arbitrary detention, and torture of suspects and extrajudicial killings,” according to a 2013 report on Venezuela by Freedom House. In 2009, the Justice Ministry acknowledged that police were “involved in up to 20 percent of crimes,” though few officers were convicted, “partly due to a shortage of prosecutors,” the report added.

Lawlessness on the streets is not a new concept here, and it is one that has become endemic in Venezuela. The country has arrived here under what Freedom House describes as “an increasingly politicized military [that] has stepped up its participation in the delivery of public services.”

“I Am the Law”

Starting in 1999, the late Hugo Chávez used his populist Bolivarian Revolution to center power in the presidency, push his “Socialism for the 21st Century,” and in 2007 declared “I am the law . . . I am the state.”

Maduro has embraced the playbook of his predecessor who undercut the rule of law by continuing to persecute political adversaries, restrict media freedoms, attack property rights, and militarize the government. Chávez’s anti-free market policies, and their survival, have left the country with abysmal economic freedoms, according to the Heritage Foundation.

Venezuela’s economy ranked 175th freest in its 2014 Index, with an economic freedom score of 36.3. Over its 20-year history Venezuela has deteriorated by 23.5 points, the worst decline of any of the 177 countries measured. Venezuela is ranked 28th out of 29 countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

The dysfunctional judiciary system subject to political interference has undermined the rule of law. Government leaders act with complete impunity in a political system which the index has said “perfected the art of 21st century corruption,” where the entire formal economy “now operates as a black market,” saddled with soaring inflation and rife with obsolete products.

Inflation was above 50 percent in November when the Venezuelan Central Bank (BCV) put out its last report. The Bolivar was devalued twice in 2013, with the latest cut resulting in a devaluation of 44 percent. In the wake of 10 years of currency controls, the BCV postponed its year-end report on economic growth, public spending, and foreign-currency distribution for the first time since the 1990s.

The Spear tragedy, amid the violence and financial chaos, forces a debate on the “intrinsic linkage among democracy, economic freedom, and law and order,” wrote Ana Quintana from the Heritage Foundation.

In the immediate aftermath, Maduro condemned the double-homicide as a “massacre” that would be answered with Plan Patria Segura using an “iron fist.” In Venezuela, “there must be respect for life,” he proclaimed.

The Venezuelan leader proposed a national peace phase to Plan Patria Segura, which could be implemented starting in February. He also promised governors and mayors 10.7 million Bsf. (US$160,000) in additional funds for the country’s 79 most crime-ridden municipalities.

Later, Maduro accused private media of trying to convert the Spear case into a “show to demoralize Venezuela,” and warned the opposition against using the incident for political reasons.

“Active war zones and countries overrun by terrorists are much safer than Maduro’s Venezuela,” Quintana furthered while pointing out that one is more likely to be kidnapped in Venezuela than in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Libya. Maduro’s security plan “is nothing more than a publicity stunt backed up by falsified statistics,” she added.

In the end, casualties to the government’s Plan Patria Seguro include one injured, innocent child, forever scarred by the murder of her parents.

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