Monica Spear won the 2004 Miss Venezuela contest.
Credit: Andrew Alvarez

CARACAS, Venezuela — The killing of Monica Spear, a former Miss Venezuela, on Monday night has shaken this country as it struggles to tame one of the world’s highest murder rates.

The 29-year-old model and telenovela actress, who had been living in the United States, was on a family vacation in her native South American country. The car apparently broke down, robbers approached and fired bullets at the vehicle, killing Spear and her ex-husband, and wounding their 5-year-old daughter in the leg, a head investigator said in comments to local media.

The authorities have made seven arrests in connection to the murders.

Spear had recently posted video and photos onto her Instagram account, apparently from the holiday trip.

Venezuela is enamored with its beauty queens, having produced more international beauty pageant winners than almost any country. But it's also dealing with violent crime, with a murder rate that has quadrupled in the 15 years since the government of Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, according to local NGOs.

The Venezuelan Violence Observatory says 24,763 killings occurred in 2013, which is a homicide rate of 79 per 100,000 people.

The government contests those figures, however, claiming that the rate has been dropping. Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez told Reuters in December that the murder rate was 52 per 100,000 in 2012 though NGOs and independent analysts have little confidence in that figure.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles expressed his condolences and noted that violence was one issue which transcended the sharp political divide here.

President Nicolas Maduro said he was sad about the killings, as authorities announced that five people had been detained in connection to the crime.

Spear won Miss Venezuela in 2004 and the following year represented the country in Miss Universe in Thailand, which she lost. She also appeared in a number of Spanish-language soap operas.

Reports offered conflicting details about the man traveling with Spear. Early reports said he was her husband and was Irish. But an NBC News story, citing a family friend, said the 39-year-old victim was English and was Spear’s ex-husband. Several reports called him Thomas Henry Berry.

NBC also reported that Berry had moved to Venezuela as a young boy, but left the country after he was shot at there.

According to an interview with the Huffington Post, Spear also left Venezuela primarily because the country was so unsafe.

Critics frequently blame the government here for failing to take on the horrific murder rate.

“Solving the crime problem is going to require a lot of things Chavismo simply doesn’t have,” wrote prominent Venezuela blogger and economist Juan Nagel, “brains, funding, the capacity to think outside the box, the willingness to go tough on [thugs], and the ability to forge consensus across vast swathes of society.”

Instead, he said, public outrage would be channeled into useless government plans, “full of smart logos, deceitful advertising and lots of fat men in uniform.”

Still, celebrities are rarely the target of the country's bloodshed, which made Spear's killing all the more shocking.

Venezuelan salsa star Oscar D'Leon lamented the death on Twitter, adding that “yesterday was Monica and her husband. Tomorrow it could be any of us.”

Watch GlobalPost's video Inside Venezuela's beauty factory, including an interview with former Miss Venezuela Marelisa Gibson.

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