Venezuela got a tragic New Year reminder of one of its most pressing problems: violence.
Mónica Spear, 29, a former beauty queen and a popular soap opera star who was raised in Orlando, was killed Monday night during a presumed highway robbery.
Authorities said her partner Thomas Henry Berry, 49, reportedly from the U.K., was also killed and that their five-year-old daughter was injured in the attack.
Investigators said the couple was traveling from Merida to Caracas on Monday night when they had car trouble. They were reportedly being assisted by a tow truck driver when they were approached by gunmen. Authorities said the couple locked themselves in the car and were shot by their assailants. Five people have been detained but the investigation is ongoing.
Many in Venezuela have become inured to the violence, as the country suffers one of the highest homicide rates in the world. But the death of Spear — young, beautiful and successful — brought quick condemnation and an outpouring of sympathy.
President Nicolás Maduro called the ambush a “massacre” and vowed to punish those responsible.
In Miami, where Spear worked at Telemundo as an actress, executives were in shock.
“It’s an incomprehensible tragedy,” said Joshua Mintz, an executive vice president at Telemundo who oversees the network’s studios in Miami.
Mintz met Spear in Venezuela in 2010 when he was looking for a lead actress for the telenovela “Flor Salvaje.” He recruited her to the network after noticing Spear’s dedication to her craft.
“She worked hard to portray complex roles,” he said. “She was a technically gifted actress.”
From December 2012 through June 2013, Spear lived in an apartment on Biscayne Boulevard during production of her final soap opera, “Pasión Prohibida.”
Carmen Cecilia Urbaneja, vice president for soap opera production, said Spear was happy in Miami during that last production, but her heart was in Venezuela.
Born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and raised in Orlando, where she’d eventually study theater at the University of Central Florida, she’d travel once a month to Venezuela to see her daughter Maya during filming for “Pasión Prohibida.” Toward the end of the production, the doting mother brought her daughter to Miami.
About two weeks after production wrapped, Spear and her daughter were on their way back to Venezuela.
“She was very attached to Venezuela,” Urbaneja said. “That was her home.”
But home has become increasingly dangerous.
The government quit releasing comprehensive homicide data in 2003, but the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a consortium of seven universities, makes annual estimates. The OVV recently said there were approximately 24,763 murders in 2013, giving the country a homicide rate of 79 per 100,000 inhabitants.
If those figures are accurate, Venezuela would have the second-highest murder rate in the world after Honduras, which registered 91.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, according to United Nations data.
Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez accuses the OVV of playing politics with the figures. Last month, in response to the report, he said the murder rate had dropped 17.3 percent in 2013 and kidnappings were down 51.7 percent. The actual homicide rate is 39 per 100,000 inhabitants, he said — still the highest in South America but behind countries like El Salvador and Guatemala.
Since taking office in April, Maduro has put the military on the streets to assist police, stepped-up weapon seizure programs and inaugurated a fast-response monitoring center.
While those measures are necessary, they’re not enough, said Roberto Briceño, the director of the OVV. He said citizen security has become a victim of the government’s socialist rhetoric. During the 14-year administration of the late President Hugo Chávez, violence was seen as the product of poverty, inequality and soulless capitalism, Briceño said.
“The government says poverty and inequality have been reduced and that capitalism is failing, but the violence keeps increasing,” he said. Even so, the government has steered clear of using more aggressive police tactics for fear of alienating its base, he said.
Since 2000, the murder rate has increased 140 percent, according to OVV and United Nations figures. And impunity is also fueling the crime wave, Briceño said. His group estimates that there are only eight or nine detentions for every 100 murders and that many of those never lead to formal charges.
In recent months, the country’s ongoing economic crisis had overshadowed the violence. Venezuela recently reported that inflation for the year was 56 percent — the highest in the region. And shortages of basic items, from flour to toilet paper, have been hogging headlines.
Spear’s death may change that.
Spear shot to fame in 2004 when she won the Miss Venezuela contest and then finished fourth runner-up in the 2005 Miss Universe pageant. The stardom brought her roles in regional soap operas, including “Mi Prima Ciela” and “La Mujer Perfecta.”
But she was also known for her philanthropy. Spear worked closely with Asodeco, a Caracas-based non profit that works with mentally disabled adults and children. Just a few weeks ago, she helped the organization celebrate Christmas, said Gladys Boza, the general manager of the institute.
“We have a group of children here now who are crying,” she said. Spear “was a frequent presence in their life. For them it was a real privilege to have a friend like her.”
Spear was vacationing in Venezuela and in the days leading up to her death she posted videos on Twitter highlighting the country’s landscapes. On Monday, just hours before she died, she posted a video of the “magic of the plains.”
On Tuesday, the shaky image of a sunrise over the llanos became a message board for those mourning her death.
“The price you paid for loving your country,” one fan wrote. “What sadness, what indignation.”