A Civil Duty, A Shared Responsibility
By Geraldine Cook January 01, 2012
Citizens expand the reach of security forces and help keep crime away from their
In Peñalolén, Chile, the community began with three neighborhood watch
committees aligned with local government agencies in 2005. Today, the number of
committees has grown to 166 for a community of 216,000. Norma Maray, manager of the
Citizen Security Unit for Peñalolén, told Diálogo the growth in community groups has
helped cut the rate of victimization by nearly half in five years. That means fewer
home invasions, muggings and other criminal acts in the community.
The municipality aims to underscore the idea that citizen security is both a
right and a civil duty, according to Maray. It is the idea of a shared
responsibility among the citizens and the state, with the state providing the needed
support for citizens to organize. The citizen groups meet with local officials and
police to create action plans; the municipality then conducts training and provides
equipment and technology. The plans contain elements of crime prevention ranging
from youth programs and community alarms to ensuring areas in a neighborhood are
well lit and surveillance cameras are set up as crime deterrents.
As criminal activities threaten the region’s security, citizens in Guatemala,
Chile and the Dominican Republic are rising to meet the challenge. Tougher action by
security forces has helped some, but simple community-driven vigilance and
communication is also helping to reduce crime. Thousands of neighborhood citizen
watch groups are forming across the region, working hand in hand with their local
governments to bring security back to communities.
“On the topic of security, everyone from the president of the nation to the
child in the community must be included. It is not only a topic for the police
forces,” said former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe during an August 2011
conference in El Salvador about the role of mayors in public safety. The former
president and local mayors discussed sustainable plans for security, including a
security tax, a measure that proved successful in Colombia.
Latin American citizens are faced with myriad sources of violence from drug
cartels, gangs, narcotraffickers, insurgent groups and opportunistic criminals.
Although figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2011 report show
global homicide rates are stable or decreasing for most of the world, Central
America’s homicide rate is on the rise: The total number of homicides in the
Americas ranks No. 2 in the world, second only to Africa. The approach of turning to
community groups is not a new one, but it has gained increased attention as a
low-cost alternative employed to address crime.
Donaldo González, spokesman for the Guatemalan National Civil Police, told
Diálogo that the police have worked with community groups for several years. About
700 citizen community security groups have formed in that time thanks to assistance
from the National Civil Police prevention unit. Their impact has been to leave
citizens feeling more secure and supportive of democratic institutions, as opposed
to calling for a return to military control.
As citizens take back their neighborhoods, they are more inclined to interact
with one another in shared community areas, as opposed to seeking shelter within
their homes and keeping to themselves. The increase in communication helps promote
vigilance as social networks form. Maray said the result is not that the community
members take justice into their own hands, but that they deter criminals.
Community groups in Chile and Guatemala primarily work with the police by
providing information about their surroundings. “Citizens are not going to go out
and capture criminals, [citizens] are not patrolling,” explained González. The
groups achieve three goals: They create an interconnected society, provide an
extension of police resources by reporting on matters of security, and serve as a
system of checks and balances for police actions or follow up on the information
provided. “The citizen becomes, in some way, supportive of police actions. And in
addition, becomes a type of comptroller of the actions taken [by police],” said
Recognizing that citizens’ perceptions of the state are largely based on
interactions with the police, the Dominican Republic’s National Police trains its
officers to become community leaders. A Colombian police officer delivered the
initial training, funded by the U.S. Embassy, according to Colonel Teresa Martínez,
commander of the Dominican Republic’s National Police. “The training showed us how
to empower the communities and it taught us to see ourselves as agents of security,”
Col. Martínez explained to Diálogo.
The training provided guidance to enhance interactions between police and
citizens, ultimately seeking to eliminate the lack of trust in the state. “We don’t
want citizens doing the work of the police, but rather, given the lack of human and
other resources, that citizens simply commit themselves to the topic of security and
to support their authorities,” said Col. Martínez.
Experts like González and Maray, who gathered at a community security seminar
organized by the Institute of the Americas in June 2011, agree that the effort to
overcome crime is gaining momentum and bolstering citizens’ confidence in the state.
Experts in attendance at the seminar underscored that even though the threats to
citizen security vary from Guatemala to Chile, communities are most engaged when
citizens trust the state. Community engagement is a powerful factor that boosts the
work of security forces and supports democracy. “Trust is gained in the sense of the
interactions had, the attention [given], and the approach that the police has with
the population,” added Col. Martínez.
Sources: www.elsalvador.com, United Nations Office on Drugs and