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Venezuelans pay last respects to slain actress

January 10, 2014

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hundreds of Venezuelans paid their final respects Friday to a popular actress whose slaying in front of her 5-year-old daughter has reignited debate about the nation’s rampant crime.

Former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear and ex-husband Thomas Henry Berry were shot to death Monday night while apparently trying to resist a robbery attempt after their car broke down on an isolated stretch of highway.

Fellow artists and relatives of Spear, some holding pictures of the actress, formed long lines to bid farewell at a funeral in Caracas. Spear’s sister threw flowers to weeping fans.

While authorities swiftly arrested several suspects, the killings focused attention on President Nicolas Maduro over the government’s failure to bring down violent crime that has soared during more than 14 years of socialist rule.

So far Maduro’s response has been to extend an olive branch to the opposition, which he normally derides, and collect proposals for a united front to combat crime.

David Smilde, an analyst who has studied citizen security in Venezuela for the Washington Office on Latin America, said Maduro may also be seeking to take advantage of public outrage to roll back a civilian police reform started by the late President Hugo Chavez and instead expand the military’s role in policing the streets.

Smilde said one sign of a militarized approach was this week’s naming of retired army Gen. Ronald Blanco la Cruz as head of Venezuela’s top police academy. He replaced Soraya El Achkar, a human rights activist who spearheaded the police reform.

Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with more killings every year than war-ravaged Iraq, whose population is about the same.

The nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates more than 24,000 people were slain in 2013, pushing the homicide rate up to 79 for every 100,000 Venezuelans. The government disputes that finding. It says the murder rate fell last year to 39 per 100,000 inhabitants, but it has gradually blocked access to murder statistics in recent years.

Spear was crowned Miss Venezuela in 2004 and was fifth runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant the following year. She acted in numerous soap operas, most recently in “Pasion Prohibida” for the U.S.-based Telemundo network.

Her father, Rafael Spear, said Friday that his granddaughter, Maya Berry Spear, is recovering from a bullet wound in her right leg. He said the two families have agreed the 5-year-old should be taken to the U.S. by her maternal grandparents, who live in Orlando, Florida, and be raised there.

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