It took a beauty queen's murder to get Venezuela's leaders focused on stopping crime

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. During her life Venezuelan beauty queen and actress Monica Spear was in the spotlight, but after her murder this week, the spotlight is now on Venezuela's skyrocketing rate of violent crime -- last year, nearly 25,000 murder in the country, according to one group. Spear and her former husband were killed during a robbery while driving on a quiet stretch of highway outside of Caracas. Her death has sparked public outrage and demands that President Nicolas Maduro's government protect its citizens. The BBC's Vladimir Hernandez has been reporting on the story. I want to talk to you about a crime in Venezuela, Vladimir, but what is the latest on this case?

Vladimir Hernandez: Well, the latest on this case is that something probably unexpected happen after the shock of the murder of this couple, is that political and opposition leaders in Venezuela in a way have been brought together and have even been photographed together, trying to agree on security policies to avoid cases like these happening. It probably was a bit unimaginable that this particular case was going to bring together rival factions, rival political factions in Venezuela, in a country which is extremely polarized.

Werman: Right, and in a city like Caracas where the murder rate is more than 30 times higher than New York City, I mean how do people actually live with such a high crime rate.

Hernandez: People just adapt and in Caracas, many people have stopped doing things that maybe people in other places, particularly like in the US, would you know, consider a bit bizarre. But some areas, for instance, people when they're driving at night, they would jump the lights, they would not stop in traffic lights because they're afraid that they may be carjacked, they may be kidnapped, they may become targets for criminals or other people. They're carpooling, for instance, maybe an environmental measure in some cities, but in a city like Caracas, carpooling is more about safety because of the fear of traveling alone. And also, street food used to be very popular a decade ago in Caracas and many would after a party or after even going out would go to a street store to get your hotdog or your hamburger or your local beef or whatever...because people are afraid of going out. And that's the way normal life has changed a lot.

Werman: I gather even joggers go out in groups.

Hernandez: Yeah, they do if they even venture to go out and jog. I know of people who have stop running in parks and public places, well first, because there's not much illumination in some places. And areas that may still be considered safe, then the whole issue of getting your car, going out at night, going for a job and then coming back to your area, in a way I think people are just trying to eliminate the exposure to the risks of being affected by the criminal violence.

Werman: And the demands that the government of Venezuela needs to do more to protect its citizens, is it really just a policing problem?

Hernandez: It's probably more of a structural problem. Many people are starting to believe that the police is corrupt and doesn't really answer to the demands of the population, and there may be an element of corruption in the police, but also when the criminals are actually caught, then they don't really spend that much time in jail because Venezuela has overcrowded jails. So there's not a lot of trust in whether criminals, if they got, are going to be prosecuted.

Werman: So Nicolas Maduro came to power after the death of Hugo Chavez and many knew that his biggest challenge was going to be crime and specifically, the murder rate. Does the murder of Monica Spear really bring the murder rate into focus as possibly a political anchor for Maduro?

Hernandez: I think it has and it may have been surprising for many people in the opposition the reaction of the Maduro government. In particular, because it was quick, it was fast. They came out strongly, publicly and in the media to try to give a message that they were doing something about it. They didn't spin it in a way that it has been in some cases spinned before because that's what happens in Venezuela most of the times. When there's a problem that has affected the public, the government takes a defensive mode and the opposition immediately takes it, sees it as a political opportunity. In this case, which is quite unusual, there has been less of a political grab into it and more about just a natural reaction of anger, of shock, and even from within government, ranks of people who have been generally seen to be shocked about what has happened.

Werman: Vladimir, at a very basic level do the Venezuelan people trust the police?

Hernandez: I think they don't and in particular because there are many cases of criminal violence where police officers sadly have been involved, either by kidnapping or either by just crimes, people who have been stopped by men wearing police uniforms. That's not clear if they have been criminals themselves or just policemen doing wrong things, and they have ended being shot and stuff like that. And this is not just in unusual, extraordinary cases, these are things that are not only in Caracas, but all of the country and has been frequent when there has been an element of police involvement in the crime, so no, the trust levels of the police are very, very low.

Werman: The BBC's Vladimir Hernandez, thank you very much.

Hernandez: Thank you.