Costa Rican Police, Communities Join Forces to Prevent Youth Crime

By Geraldine Cook
February 24, 2016

Costa Rican Security Vice Minister María Fullmen discusses joint police-community efforts to prevent crimes by children, teenagers, and young adults.

Costa Rican security forces are working closely with civilians to prevent crime throughout the country. The Community Safety Program, an initiative from the Public Security Ministry, focuses its efforts on children, adolescents, and young adults because most of the crime in Costa Rica is committed by males in these groups, Public Security Vice Minister María Fullmen told Diálogo
during an interview.

The typical criminal offender is “a young Costa Rican between the ages of 15 and 35 who doesn’t work, doesn’t study, has deserted the formal education system” and usually lives in a low-income area, Vice Minister Fullmen stated. People who have low incomes are not more inclined to commit crimes than other people, but poverty encourages crime, she added.

“We’ve established a population target to work with, which is young people, of course,” Vice Min. Fullmen explained. “So, we’ve got to work with primary level education centers and then with secondary level. We’ve also got to work with parents.”

Criminals sometimes recruit young people to sell drugs or join gangs and engage in violence. To counter these recruitment efforts, members of the country’s police force, which is called the Public Force, are present in schools and recreation centers to talk to young people about the dangers of criminal activities, deterring them from breaking the law. The officers educate young people by explaining that those who participate in crime put themselves at risk of being kidnapped or using drugs, according to Vice Min. Fullmen.

Drugs and gangs

Vice Min. Fullmen said prevention work must be centered on youth in these communities. With children, teenagers, and young adults living in high-crime communities continually exposed to drugs, drug dealing, shootouts, and gangs, she asked, “then, what future awaits you?”

To discourage youth from turning to crime, the Public Force works with about 1,900 Community Safety Committees, which are community-based organizations that deal with issues affecting communities in topics ranging from gender and domestic violence to neighborhood organization and police work. The Public Force travels to each of the provinces in buses, known as Community Prevention Units (UPC, for its Spanish acronym), to reach remote rural populations. The UPCs are “intelligent” buses, equipped to give lectures and video screenings.

The Community Safety Program is part of the government’s efforts to improve public safety and lower the level of violence nationwide. In 2015, there were more than 550 homicides in Costa Rica – the country’s highest number of yearly killings, surpassing the 527 recorded in 2010, according to Judicial Investigation Bureau Director Walter Espinoza.

Of the 2015 killings, 205 were motivated by revenge, Espinoza told journalists. Many of those homicides began as territorial disputes between street gangs.

Organized communities

The Community Safety Program’s primary goal is “preventing crime from happening,” Vice Min. Fullmen stated, emphasizing the importance of “an organized community” that works with police. “It’s indeed important for communities to organize themselves and seek measures that lower the risk of a crime from being committed.”

“In the world in general, and in this country in particular […] it’s clear that the police need community support, and the other way around, the community needs police support,” she stated. Community organization is very important because it is not possible to have “a policeman in front of each house or a policeman at every corner,” she added.

Other aspects of Costa Rica’s crime prevention strategy include trying to stop bullying among children and teenagers, and addressing the issue of domestic violence. As part of the Domestic Violence Program, officials educate communities, including high school students, about the importance of reporting the crime. In 2015, 24 Public Force officers attended a Security Ministry workshop on domestic violence, where they received training in how to enforce domestic violence laws and how to intervene in such cases.