Assailants stalked soap opera star, ex-husband and daughter as they hid in their car.
CARACAS, Venezuela – The murder of a former Miss Venezuela and soap-opera star has outraged people here who have been living in one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world.
"This is such a sad commentary on our country and the insecurity here," said Leonardo Hernandez, a 39-year-old shopkeeper in Caracas.
"This country´s crime is out of control, and the government does nothing or doesn´t seem to notice."
Monica Spear, 29, made headlines often throughout South America in her career, which ended Monday when she and her ex-husband were shot to death by robbers as they drove on a Venezuelan highway on a New Year's vacation in the mountains.
Spear's 5-year-old daughter was wounded as the family tried to hide in their locked car from the robbers.
Roberto Briceño Leon, who heads the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencian (OVV), a non-government group that monitors crime in the country, says 24,763 murders were committed last year in Venezuela, population 29 million. That's well above the 14,612 intentional homicides committed in 2012 in the United States, a country of 316 million.
Venezuela has a murder rate of close to 79 per every 100,000 inhabitants, making it fourth in the world behind Honduras, El Salvador and Ivory Coast, according to the latest figures compiled by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
The OVV can only estimate murders. The country´s Interior Ministry has restricted access to official figures since 2003 when 11,342 murders were registered. Homicides have nearly quintupled since 1999 when President Hugo Chavez took office.
Briceño says the high crime is a result of failure of the government to properly police the country. Since Chavez's socialist party came to power, police have been restrained to prevent abuse but also because Chavez believed it helped keep his government popular among the lowest classes.
Briceño says the government thinks crime is caused by poverty and capitalism, but crime has exploded despite a decline in poverty, and non-socialist countries with far worse poverty rates do not have the crime seen in Venezuela.
In beauty queen crazed-Venezuela, Spear´s murder provoked widespread worry even among Venezuelans long accustomed to daily reports of murders and kidnappings.
According to police, Spear, her ex husband, Thomas Henry Berry, and their 5-year-old daughter, Maya, were returning to Caracas when their vehicle hit a sharp object. Two tires of their vehicle were punctured, forcing them to stop, police say.
Seeing the assailants coming, the travelers locked themselves inside and the assailants fired at least six shots, police spokesman Jose Gregorio Sierralta said.
Spear and Berry, who worked in the travel industry, spent New Year's in the mountains of western Venezuela with their daughter and also visited the plains of Apure state. The two were shot in their car; their daughter was shot in the leg.
Criminals in Venezuela often place sharp objects on highways to cause accidents so they can rob their victims. Police in Puerto Cabello arrested five suspects, some under the age of 18, Sierralta said.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has repeatedly claimed that the country´s crime rate was falling due to new measures, promised that he would use an "iron hand" to confront criminals.
"We cannot accept this under any circumstances," said Maduro who convened an emergency meeting with governors and mayors to address crime.
Briceño said in an earlier interview with USA TODAY that Venezuela has more murders annually than the United States and European Union combined, and that is despite 18 government anti-crime initiatives that Chavez introduced before his death in March 2013.
Arrests are made in only eight of every 100 homicides committed in the country. More than 60% of victims are shot five or more times.
Even high-ranking government officials have been targeted with relative impunity. A relative of Vice President Jorge Arreaza was killed in December. Arreaza is married to one of Chavez´s daughters.
Chavez and Maduro have blamed the upsurge in crime on capitalism, poverty, the breakdown of families and American culture, which they say glorifies violence. The country's opposition says that the government´s own policies, which have placed thousands of guns in the streets through the creation of people´s militias, have worsened the problem. They also say the government hasn´t made law enforcement a priority.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski called on Maduro to work together with his opponents to tackle crime.
"We need to set aside our political differences, and unite to win this fight against violence," said Capriles, who is the governor of Miranda state. "Not only for the murder of Monica Spear but for the situation in which we´re living here in which we closed last year with nearly 25,000 murders."
TV personality Camila Canabal expressed what many were feeling in a tweet: "Sadness, anger, indignation, impotence, shame and pain, pain, pain, dammit!!!"
"Monica and Thomas are the face of thousands of men and woman whose children have been left without parents because of the violence of Venezuela," she said.
Luis Carlos Dominguez, a longtime friend and former business associate of English-born Berry, said he was raised in Venezuela and ran a travel agency.
"He knew Venezuela a lot better than many Venezuelans," said Dominguez, describing the slain couple as people "who really loved the country," had a good relationship despite their divorce and made it a point to vacation together.
Spear was crowned Miss Venezuela in 2004 and was 5th runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant the following year. She comes from a country that is one of the most successful at winning global beauty pageants. Pageant winners here are among the most beloved of its celebrities.
She had acted in numerous soap operas, most recently in Pasion Prohibida for the U.S.-based Telemundo network. She split her time between Caracas and south Florida; Berry lived in Caracas.
Contributing: The Associated Press