LIMA, Peru – Female neighborhood watch members, known as serenas, are the new weapon in Peru’s fight against crime.
The serenazgo, the Spanish term for the municipal neighborhood watch program that monitors the streets and prevents crime, is derived from the Viceroyalty of Peru era. It refers to night watchmen who were responsible for ensuring residents’ safety, according to Peruvian linguist Martha Hildebrant.
Peru is home to 15,000 unarmed neighborhood watch members who patrol the streets in uniform. A total of 94.5% of the neighborhood watch members are men, according to the NGO Ciudad Nuestra.
The Lima City Government established the first Motorized Female Squad of neighborhood watch members in July 2012, as it’s comprised of 20 officers who keep watch over the Historic Downtown area of the Peruvian capital city.
The squad is trained in safety, management, legal issues and first aid.
“The idea is to train the future neighborhood watch members with a new logic focused on strengthening ties with the community in a joint effort with the National Police to strengthen the presence of authorities,” said Gabriel Prado, a public safety manager for the Lima City Government.
The measure is aimed at increasing women’s participation in the neighborhood watch program, which is very low when compared to the National Police, where women account for 14% of the more than 106,000 officers in Peru, according to Carlos Romero, a Ciudad Nuestra researcher.
According to the Second Metropolitan Victimization Survey 2012, which polled 13,968 people from 35 districts in Lima, 42.9% of residences had at least one occupant who reported being a victim of crime between July 2011 and July 2012.
A total of 70.2% of respondents reported feeling unsafe in Lima. Theft (47.9%) and burglary (19.4%) were the most common crimes, followed by mugging (14.9%) and gang violence (5.7%), according to respondents.
The survey also pointed out 34.4% of the respondents considered the neighborhood watch service in their community to be very good, which is higher than the 30.1% approval rating for the National Police.
“There are situations in which women have a better approach than the male officers, such as in providing immediate assistance to the victims of domestic or sexual abuse,” said Francisco Berninzon, coordinator of public safety at the NGO Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL). “The neighborhood watch program engages in significant community outreach, which should also be done by the National Police. They must connect with the civilian population, which can be achieved through integrated patrols involving both forces.”
Two years ago, Dalila Martínez Figueredo, 39, started working as a neighborhood watch member through the Safe Schools program in the municipality of La Molina in eastern Lima.
The neighborhood watch members patrol inside and around the district’s 20 public elementary and secondary schools to prevent violence, gang activity, drug use and narco-trafficking.
“Our greatest satisfaction is providing help to children and adolescents in need,” Martínez Figueredo said. “That’s our motivation.”
One case that moved the community occurred when a serena found a newborn baby inside a suitcase in June 2012, Martínez Figueredo said.
“She was patrolling the area with a colleague when they saw a suitcase start to move,” she added. “When they opened it, they were surprised to find a baby. They immediately administered first aid and handed the baby to health authorities.”
Prevention and support
Neighborhood watch members cannot arrest suspects. But if they witness a crime occurring, they are allowed to intervene using dissuasive actions or steps to prevent the suspect from fleeing until authorities arrive, according to the Organic Law of Municipalities, which regulates the serenos.
“The serenazgo service was established in 1990 originally as a palliative against the shortcomings of preventive police work,” Romero said. “The serenazgo service gradually was strengthened and extended throughout the popular districts of Lima and cities in the country’s interior.”
There is one neighborhood watch member for every 900 residents of Peru. Meanwhile, there is one police officer for every 291 residents, according to Ciudad Nuestra.
Municipal governments are establishing video surveillance centers to improve coordination between neighborhood watch members and the National Police.
One of them is the La Molina Comprehensive Security Center (CSI), a US$2.7 million initiative inaugurated in December 2012.
The center has a modern street monitoring system featuring 150 surveillance cameras. The CSI improves the coordination among the National Police and the fieldwork being carried out by the 470 neighborhood watch members in La Molina.
“We are constantly exchanging statistical information with the National Police as part of our work,” said Manuel Canales López, La Molina’s public safety manager. “This way, we know where to focus our patrols. We also can strengthen the presence of the neighborhood watch members based on the municipality’s plans and public safety strategy.”
Martínez Figueredo said the CSI represents a major step in the fight against crime, given emergency response times have been greatly reduced.
“Now, with video surveillance, our children will be safer, as will our neighbors because they are the focus of the serenazgo service,” she said.