Monica Spears's Husband Also Was Slain, While Their Daughter Survived With Gunshot
By Kejal Vyas
Updated Jan. 7, 2014 8:01 p.m. ET
Mónica Spear becomes Miss Venezuela in 2004. The president called the attack that killed her 'a massacre.' Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela—A former Venezuelan beauty queen and her partner were found shot to death in their car after an apparently botched highway robbery, authorities said Tuesday, putting a spotlight on the South American country's battle with rampant street crime.
The couple's 5-year-old daughter suffered a gunshot to the leg, but survived and was in the hospital, officials said.
The news comes amid growing debate over the government's efforts at tackling one of the region's worst crime rates and the dearth of statistics that officials disclose. The government insists the number of murders dropped last year, while nonprofit groups say they have risen to historic highs.
It is yet another challenge for President Nicolás Maduro, who in recent months has concentrated on solving the oil-rich nation's mounting economic woes, which includes the highest inflation rate in the Americas.
Mónica Spear, 29 years old, and Thomas Henry Berry, 39, were killed Monday night off a highway 125 miles from the capital, as they waited for a tow truck after their car was damaged by a pothole, José Gregorio Sierralta, director of the national investigative division Cicpc, said in televised comments.
They may have been targeted by criminals waiting for vacationers' cars returning to cities as the holiday season draws to a close, Mr. Sierralta said.
"It was a massacre," Mr. Maduro said on state television as he was shown meeting with his top security advisers.
Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez said five people were being questioned in connection to Ms. Spear's death. He also said he would be ordering a restructuring of police forces.
Ms. Spear, a rising soap-opera star, was crowned Miss Venezuela in 2004. She finished as the fourth runner-up in the 2005 Miss Universe contest.
News of her death was splashed on the Web pages of top Venezuelan media outlets and received coverage on state television—where crime is seldom discussed. Anchors called for an end to street violence and for the opposition to not make political hay from the tragedy.
Her death hit hard in a country proud of its beauty pageants, which are often followed with the same fervor as sports. Venezuela boasts seven winners of the Miss Universe contest, second only to the U.S. Local TV network Venevision last year launched a popular reality show following Miss Venezuela candidates in the run-up to the competition.
"We've all lost someone very dear to violence, and it hurts more to see that the [murder] rate rises while the whole country gets used to it," opposition political leader Henrique Capriles said in a message on social media. Venezuela's government doesn't publish homicide statistics. Mr. Rodríguez, the interior minister, said the number of murders dropped 17% in 2013 to 39 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, during televised comments on Dec. 27.
Mr. Rodriguez's data would imply the lowest homicide rate in Venezuela since 2006, according to United Nations data, which hasn't received updated figures since 2010.
The numbers are in contrast to those from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a local nonprofit that reported recently that the murder rate rose to 79 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013—having quadrupled in the 15 years that the government has been controlled by the ruling Socialist party. Opponents of the government use crime statistics to criticize the late leader Hugo Chávez, who died in March 2013 after 14 years at the helm and whose policies Mr. Maduro promises to carry forward.
Opponents also cite what they call the government's efforts to limit press coverage of the problem. Courts in August fined newspaper El Nacional the equivalent of 1% of a year's revenue for publishing a gruesome picture of a Caracas morgue in 2010 to underscore the country's crime problem. The government said the images violated decency laws designed to protect children.
Advocacy groups blame corruption in the police ranks, widespread availability of arms and impunity for rising crime.
Streets of major cities such as Caracas are typically barren at night, their residents fearing crimes such as muggings and kidnappings for ransom, which are common.
"You go out at night, and it looks like everyone has disappeared," said Luis Cedeño, head of local security advocacy group Paz Activa. "The government has to see that insecurity generates a lot of poverty and a lot of lost economic activity. There is a direct correlation there."
Write to Kejal Vyas at email@example.com