Chile , Colombia , Brazil and Venezuela
Opinion Piece

Venezuelan beauty queen slaying spotlights Latin American violence

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On January 6, roadside burglars murdered Mónica Spear, a former Miss Venezuela, and her British ex-husband, Thomas Henry Berry, who were returning to Caracas after vacationing on the coast with their five year old daughter, Maya, who survived the spree of bullets, enduring a gunshot to her leg. 

This absurd act of violence gained global attention due to the celebrity status of those killed, but assassinations of this sort are commonplace in Venezuela, a country that saw 24,000 murders last year, or about 65 killings per day.  Most murders go unnoticed.

Venezuelans have consistently cited crime as the most pressing issue their country faces. Even so, the murder rate has risen fourfold over the past 15 years (even as poverty rates have fallen sharply in the same period). Many decide their home country is too dangerous, and leave. A recent study conducted by Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) de Caracas shows that 143,000 citizens left Venezuela between 2005 and 2010 in search of professional opportunities and improved security, part of some 530,000 Venezuelans who now live outside their native country.

But the devastation of violence - the way it empties countries of their most talented citizens, and turns cities into ghost towns after sundown - is not only felt in Venezuela. Latin America is home to the 10 most violent cities in the world "not at war," says Mexican think tank Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia Penal. According to the UN Development Program, the murder rate in Latin America grew 11% between 2000 and 2010, even as it fell or stagnated in other parts of the world.

"In the last decade, more than one million people have died in Latin America and the Caribbean as a result of criminal violence," the UNDP said in late 2013. "Moreover, considering the countries for which data is available, robberies have almost tripled over the last 25 years."

The UN agency calculates that regional economies lost US$24bn in GDP in 2009 as a result of violence, not to mention all the lives needlessly cut short. The World Bank, meanwhile, says 30mn Latin Americans have fled home, and now live abroad.

The picture, of course, is not all gloomy. Colombia has significantly reduced violent crime over the last decade. Many Latin American economies are booming, and attracting talent, rather than suffering from brain drain. Brazil and its dazzling cities are set to welcome the globe for the World Cup this year, and Chile is safer than the US by many indicators. Uruguay's President José Mujica, meanwhile, has taken the unusual and progressive route of pushing for marijuana legalization as a way to fight the brutality of the drug war.

All the same, the level of violence is, in many cases, incompatible with stable democracy, and holds back the region's potential. "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them," Latin American writer Roberto Bolaño wrote in his novel 2666. We must all begin paying attention, as defeating this terrible plague is vital to the region's development.

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