It made headlines worldwide when Venezuelan beauty queen and telenovela star Mónica Spear was murdered in a roadside robbery during a holiday vacation in her homeland. But those who track the violence in that country and others nearby weren't surprised.
They say the threat of violence is a part of everyday life in Venezuela.
“I don't recommend to anyone to travel to Venezuela,” said Norma Camero Reno, a Tampa lawyer who visits the South American country regularly to see her daughter. “This is not a safe country for residents or tourists, and it's only getting worse.”
Spear and her ex-husband, Thomas Henry Berry, were gunned down Jan. 6 on a desolate highway after the car they were driving struck a sharp object, according to news reports. Their 5-year-old daughter was injured in the attack.
Seven people have been arrested in the slayings.
Berry, 39, lived in the capital city of Caracas, even though he was shot 15 years ago in a robbery attempt that killed a friend, according to Britain's Daily newspaper.
Spear, who was raised in Orlando and studied theater at the University of Central Florida, split her time between Florida and Venezuela.
Carmen Cecilia Urbaneja, vice president for production at Telemundo, told The Miami Herald that the 29-year-old actress' heart was in Venezuela.
Reno said: “What happened to her is an awakening as to what is happening every day to hundreds of Venezuelans. Fortunately, her story made headlines because she is a celebrity. Most of the time, violence against Venezuelans in the country doesn't get the attention.”
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Venezuela has among the highest murder rates in South America, nearly 79 for every 1000,000 people, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
The group estimates more than 24,000 people were slain last year.
Many South and Central American countries are experiencing similar violence.
The U.S. Department of State, which issues travel alerts and warnings on its website (travel.state.gov), advises against going to Venezuela because of “violent crime both in the capital, Caracas, and in the interior.”
It also has issued warnings for Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Colombia. Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world since 2010, with slightly more than 81 murders per 100,000 people from January through November 2012.
Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Guyana are the safest South American countries to visit, according to the nonprofit Institute for Economics & Peace.
The high crime rate in Venezuela is fueled by class violence, organized crime, corruption among security forces, gun proliferation and a weak judicial system, according to InSight Crime, a think tank that researches crime in Latin America.
It says Venezuela also has seen an increase in drug trafficking from neighboring Colombia.
And in Colombia, “terrorist groups and other criminal organizations continue to kidnap and hold civilians, including foreigners, for ransom or as political bargaining chips,” the organization reports.
“I am 10 times more careful when I visit Colombia,” said Angelica Diaz, a native of Cali who has lived in the United States since 2006. “I hold my purse tighter, I don't wear jewelry or name-brand items, I won't catch a cab unless I call the company.
“You have to be careful where you go and keep your eyes open at all times,” said Diaz, who once was robbed at a stop sign by a pedestrian wielding a knife. “But I miss my country. It's a beautiful place with great food, great weather, warm people, and my family and friends are there, so I go.”
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In Venezuela, Tampa's Reno was once robbed outside a bakery in Puerto La Cruz in the middle of the afternoon. Her daughter, Sandra Ponce, was attacked and robbed outside an ATM in the same city, where she lives. Another time, thieves on motorcycles pulled a gun on her at a traffic light. Both women were unharmed.
“I would rather not travel to Venezuela,” Reno said. “But I have no choice; I have a daughter. We're very lucky nothing worse has happened to us.”
Reno, who came to the United States about 28 years ago, never enters Venezuela through Simón Bolívar International Airport at Maiquetía, the major airport for Caracas and all of Venezuela.
“I don't fly into Caracas because there is very little security inside the airport,” Reno said. “And the police usually work with the delinquents so you have no protection.”
Reno instead takes direct flights into smaller airports, and when she arrives, someone she knows is always waiting for her.
Reno even cautions against taking taxis; the drivers have a reputation for being involved in kidnappings and robberies, she said. She never goes out alone and doesn't venture out after dark.
Those same tips are especially important for tourists.
Sara Nieves, a travel writer and retired clinical psychologist, said visitors should research and plan ahead when visiting dangerous areas.
She also advises checking out online forums and message boards — not just guidebooks — and reading about the airport where you plan to land.
Nieves, who has worked with people traumatized by violence, advises visitors to study the people in the area and try to blend in.
Talk to the people who have been to the area and people who are there, and ask them how they deal with it, she said.
But she stresses there must be a balance.
“You can't be fearful in life,” said Nieves, a Puerto Rico native who lives in Washington, D.C. “You have to balance the risks and be able to enjoy the adventures of travel. There's no guarantee staying home you are going to be safe. It really can happen anywhere. Avoiding a whole country might not be a very logical thing to avoid risky situations.”
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Mark Jenkins, a spokesperson for AAA Travel, said the agency doesn't promote trips to some Latin American countries partially because they can dangerous for travelers.
“The infrastructure is still rebounding from years of political dispute,” Jenkins said. “We're all about encouraging travel, but we are advocates for safe travel.”
Jenkins said the safest way to visit countries deemed dangerous can be as part of a cruise.
Cruise lines offer tours that allow passengers to explore a city with a reputable tour operator in safer areas.
You don't want to put yourself at risk and be on your own in these countries,” Jenkins said. “Being with someone who knows the area is a safer bet.”
Jenkins said tourists also should check in with the country's embassy in case of an emergency and should purchase travel insurance that covers them if they are victims of a crime.
The U.S. Department of State website offers the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to U.S. citizens and nationals who are traveling to, or living in, a foreign country.
STEP allows you to enter information about your upcoming trip abroad so the Department of State can better assist you in an emergency.
The program also helps Americans residing abroad to get routine information from the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
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Spear, who was Miss Venezuela in 2004, and Berry, a former British businessman, were aware of the dangers they faced in Venezuela.
In a television interview in Florida, Rafael Spear said his daughter loved her country, despite being robbed five or six times.
“I couldn't get her to stay away, despite the insecurity,” he said.
More than 5,000 people of Venezuelan descent live in the Tampa area, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
And it doesn't look as though going home will get any easier soon: InSight Crime researchers say it's likely crime and violence will increase in Venezuela in 2014.
The prediction doesn't surprise Reno.
“I know each time I go (to Venezuela) I am putting my life at risk,” she said. “It's a beautiful country, but it's deadly.”