Beauty queen's murder exposes Venezuela's crime epidemic

CARACAS (AFP) - The murder of a soap opera star has brought to light the harsh reality that Venezuelans endure daily: rampant violence and impunity allowing most criminals to get away with murder.

Authorities only solve eight out of 100 homicides in Venezuela, emboldening criminals who have turned the South American nation into one of the world's most dangerous places outside war zones.

Ask any Venezuelan what his or her biggest concern is, and the answer will most often be "la inseguridad", or lack of security, that has kept many from venturing out after nightfall.

"Public institutions in Venezuela are not doing their job of preventing and punishing crime," said crime expert Fermin Marmol.

"Impunity encourages imitation, which causes many young people to join criminal gangs because they see crime as profitable and with very little risk," Mr Marmol said.

The numbers are jarring: In 1998, when late leader Hugo Chavez was first elected, around 4,550 murders were perpetrated in Venezuela.

Last year, 24,000 people were killed, or 79 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the non-governmental Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

The government, however, says the murder rate was 39 per 100,000 people.

Monica Spear, a former Miss Venezuela who starred in a telenovela at the United States-based Telemundo network, became the latest casualty of her homeland's crime epidemic last Monday.

Robbers shot Spear, 29, and her 39-year-old British husband, Henry Thomas Berry, in front of their five-year-old daughter, who was wounded, after they desperately locked themselves in their broken-down car on a northwestern Venezuelan highway.

For once, the authorities reacted swiftly. Seven people, including a woman and two teenagers, have been arrested in connection with the double murder. The couple was buried on Friday while their daughter, Maya, was in the care of her grandparents.

"What would have have happened with this gang if it had been any other citizens?" said sociologist Roberto Briceno, coordinator of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

"They almost never go looking (for suspects) and this means that committing a violent act is very easy because there are no legal consequences," Mr Briceno said.

The killing of one of the nation's beloved beauty queens shocked Venezuelans and jolted President Nicolas Maduro into holding a meeting with local governors and mayors to draw up yet another anti-crime strategy.

In the past 15 years, the socialist government launched 21 crime prevention programs, Mr Briceno said, adding that officials have blamed the violence on social inequality.

"Some 83 per cent of homicides in the country are poor people who kill poor people. It is not social revenge," he said, noting that violence has soared despite the government's success in reducing poverty through oil-funded social programs.

Mr Maduro, who succeeded his mentor Mr Chavez after contested elections last year, has blamed capitalism and even Hollywood films like Spider-Man for breeding violence among youths.

The 200,000 security and law enforcement officials in Venezuela face a daunting task to combat crime, with guns proliferating despite various disarmament campaigns.

Between three million and 18 million firearms are circulating in the nation of 29 million people, according to various estimates. But only tens of thousands of gun permits have been handed out in the country.

Criminologist Javier Gorrino said many weapons are smuggled in from neighbouring Colombia by criminals who use them to defend drug trafficking routes.

Other weapons are used by guerrillas or paramilitary forces at the Colombian-Venezuelan border, he said. But many are stolen from the police and sold on the street.

Police officers are underpaid and are not given the tools to investigate crimes while prosecutors and judges are overwhelmed with caseloads that can reach 700 cases per month, Mr Gorrino said.

"A criminal has no reason not to be a criminal because he knows that he won't be punished," he said.

Those who do get punished end up in overcrowded prisons, where deadly riots regularly occur.

"They are warehouses of men where armed mafias rule, where some gang leaders are bosses who charge for everything," Mr Gorrino said. "A prison is a school of crime where a criminal returns to the streets much worse than before."

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