A high-profile murder saw President Maduro convene a national political meeting and promise to meet a soaring murder rate with an 'iron fist.'
Caracas, Venezuela; and Boston
Venezuelans are buzzing with frustration over the government's inability to deal with violent crime, following the death of former Miss Venezuela and soap-opera star, Monica Spear.
"How many more murders in my country?" wrote 2009 Miss Universe Stefania Fernández on Twitter, while the hashtag #NoMasViolenciaVenezuela (No more violence Venezuela) was trending on social media.
Ms. Spear and her ex-husband Thomas Henry Berry were gunned down in their car on the side of the road Monday night during a robbery. Their five-year-old daughter was injured.
President Nicólas Maduro promised to apply an "iron fist" against "all those who want to keep slaughtering our people.” A meeting with governors and mayors from across the country convened today in the Miraflores presidential palace to review President Maduro's national security plan.
While the double homicide may have spurred movement at the executive level, analysts are skeptical about the government's commitment to combating violence as homicide rates continue to climb. But some see hope in Maduro's vocal response.
"It remains to be seen if it's another political move or a genuine reform," says Roberto Briceño-León, Director of the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence (OVV). "Still, [Maduro] has taken up the violence issue which never happened with [former President Hugo] Chávez."
The OVV reports that murders have almost quadrupled in the last 15 years. According to the NGO, there were approximately 24,763 murders in 2013 in Venezuela, with a homicide rate of 79 per 100,000 inhabitants. That’s nearly double the government statistic, which places the rate at 39 deaths per 100,000.
United Nations data from 2010 shows Venezuela with the fourth highest murder rate in the world behind Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica.
Venezuela has seen 21 different national security plans since former President Chávez took power in 1999, says Briceño-Leon. "The problem is there has been no coherent strategy to combat the violence.”
Venezuelan polls show that crime is largely viewed as a social issue here, to be dealt with in the private – not public – sphere. A recent Datanalisis survey found that 30 percent of Venezuelans view improvements to “family values” as the number one way to reduce crime.
That may seem strange, but the government has failed for over a decade to get its arms around the problem, convincing many Venezuelan's that the answer lies in social values and the family.
There was incentive for Chávez not to treat climbing homicide rates as an issue of public policy, “because once you try to resolve an issue directly, you own it,” says David Smilde, senior fellow at Washington Office on Latin America.
But Maduro and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles both campaigned heavily on the theme of violence in last April's presidential election, and unlike the economy or electricity crisis, it's an issue that resonates with all sectors of society here, Herbert Koenke, a political scientist at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, says.
Maduro’s first stab at curbing violence last year, a plan called “Patria Segura," increased the military presence on Venezuelan streets.
Critics claim the move was similar to national plans before it, and may be more politicking than actual policing. However, the fact that Maduro has made it a public policy issue at all “is good,” says Mr. Smilde. “Maduro may have to take more responsibility for it than Chávez did.”
All mayors and governors of Venezuela's 79 municipalities were in attendance at today’s meeting, including Maduro's rival, Mr. Capriles. It was the first time the two were in the same room since last April's hotly-contested presidential election.
Along with appointing a new national police chief today, the president called for unity between national and local governments to put an end to the violence.
“The authorities must come together to find common ground, to work together. This is an issue that we must approach with a higher level of integration, with a new model," Maduro said. "Nobody can cross their arms. The slaughter of this young Venezuelan is a slap against all of us. Let everyone take responsibility, I'll take mine."
Despite the president's verbal commitment, analysts say Maduro is fighting an uphill battle to make Venezuela a safer place.
"Without serious changes in the government's policies, a series of accompanying measures and reforms that encompass the entire society, I don’t think the president's plan [Plan Patria Segura] will work," says Briceño-Leon.
Maduro’s latest moves are “more symbolic than substantive," Mr. Koenke says.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Mr. Berry's first name.