At least two people were shot dead Feb. 12 in student protests in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. An anti-government protester and a pro-government activist were each killed in an exchange of fire as rival demonstrators clashed, officials said. "He was a comrade assassinated by the right-wing fascist hordes," National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello said of the second victim, a community leader from a poor neighborhood. At least 23 have been injured in demonstrations across the country. President Nicolas Maduro is under mounting criticism for the country's economic woes and high levels of violent crime. 

An alarming homicide rate of 79 per 100,00 was punctuated by the Jan. 6 murder of Monica Spear, who won the 2004 Miss Venezuela beauty contest and was one of the country's most popular actresses. Spear was driving with her partner and their young daughter along a highway in Carabobo state, and suffered a flat tire -- possibly due to the road being spiked. As they waited for assistance, a group of armed robbers attacked, shooting dead both Spear and her partner; the daughter survived with a leg wound. Propaganda vultures on both sides have wasted no time in exploiting the atrocity. Fox News Latino ran a commentary blaming it on an atmosphere of impunity under the baseless headline "Venezuela: Where The Mafia And The Military Come Together." President Maduro, equally baselessly, implied that the slaying was a provocation by the political opposition to create fear. “That assassination seems more like a contract killing,” Maduro said -- despite the fact that his own police had called the double-slaying a highway heist gone overboard. Days later, the identification of a camera stolen from Spears in the raid led to the arrest of seven members of a local gang that preyed on motorists. 

Populist-ruled Venezuela and its conservative-ruled neighbor Colombia are always feuding, and then making up when political circumstances mandate it. The crime crisis has prompted another make-up. The Colombian and Venezuelan foreign ministers met Feb. 6 to develop what they called a "shock tactic" plan to end smuggling and lawlessness across the country's shared border. Venezuela's Foreign Minister Elias Jaua and Colombian counterpart Maria Angela Holguin met in the Venezuelan city of Maraciabo, pledging to cooperate in a crackdown on the lucrative cross-border traffic in black-market oil as well as cocaine and other illegal drugs.