Panamanian police officer steers young people away from gangs through sports
By Dialogo November 28, 2013
Nicolás García Noval, a Panamanian police officer who is also an elite athlete, spends much of his spare time coaching children how to run – and how to avoid gangs. Through sports, García not only teaches young people how to train for athletics, he also instills the values of discipline and teamwork and advises them to stay away from violent street gangs which recruit young people.
Since 2009, García has devoted between 15 to 20 hours of his free time every week to train kids in the neighborhood, El Chorrillo. The police officer usually trains about 35 youngsters, who are between the ages of six and 18.
García joined Panama’s National Police in 1991. He is widely-respected as a law enforcement officer, and is also considered one of the best runners in his country for short and long distances. The officer has competed in races ranging from five kilometers to 42 kilometers.
The idea for the running club began in 2009, when García invited a neighborhood youngster to train with him. Another youngster quickly joined them, then another, and before long, nine young people were training with García. The police officer invited the nine youngsters to the birthday party of his son, Angel, and as he saw the children playing, he had the idea of forming a running club. The youngsters decided to call the club Los Gladiadores de El Chorrillo.
Teaching positive values
Coaching young people in athletics provides an opportunity to teach them positive values and steer them away from the recruiting efforts of street gangs, García explained.
“The fight against crime is not between adults because we are the ones passing on bad things to our teenagers,” García said. “The real battle is changing the doctrine for children through values and discipline to keep them away from gangs through sport.”
García, 46, holds the rank of sub-lieutenant with the National Police. To the young people he coaches, García is a mentor and role model. The group of young athletes is known as Los Gladiadores de El Chorrillo.
As a law enforcement officer, García participates in security operations in conflict areas such as San Joaquín and San Miguelito. The National Police has honored him four times for his athletic achievements.
Teaching children how to run while instilling positive values is a natural and logical combination, García said. “I do it because both professions are in my blood,” said García, who has received honors four times from the National Police for his sporting achievements.
“The training is tough. I’ve seen their achievements in competitions. The most important thing is they go to college, gain knowledge, and be good people. My young athletes have many dreams,” García said.
In the training plan, the young runners have the opportunity to be leaders of the group for two weeks, to show them what it is like to be responsible for the group. García also teaches the youngsters about the physiology of running. .
In order to enroll in Los Gladiadores, young people not only need to get good academic grades, they must also respect and obey their parents.
García keeps in touch in with the parents of his runners.García tells his runners that he will suspend them if they are disruptive or disrespectful.
Before a racing competition, the sub-lieutenant reminds his young runners to eat a healthy diet and to drink plenty of water.
On Sept. 22, 2013, Los Gladiadores de El Chorrillo competed in the first “Junior Check E. Cheese” race in Cinta Costera, Panama. Fifteen members of Los Gladiadores competed, and the members of the club won 11 medals.
False promises of gangs
García consistently talks openly with children about the false promises gangs make to Panamanian youth, as well as the consequences of being imprisoned and “losing your whole life that you can’t get back.”
Life in El Chorrillo “isn’t easy, things are tough, people want to change, to be someone in life, and that’s what we convey to young people to get them to join the running group,” Cristopher de Witt, one of the Gladiadores de El Chorrillo (El Chorrillo Gladiators), told TVN2 in October 2013.
Gangs and shootings are a part of life in El Chorrillo. The area is home to around 14 gangs such as “El Clan Agua”, “Tiny Toons”, “Hijos de Dios” and “Chuquies”, which terrorize the neighborhood, according to published reports.
With around 200 gangs operating in the country, it is estimated that one-third of the gang members are minors, according to published reports. Organized crime groups use juveniles as enforcers, drug dealers, and lookouts.
Fighting gang violence
In September 2013, Panamanian authorities deployed nearly 400 National Police officers in the El Chorrillo and Santa Ana neighborhoods to ensure public safety and to strengthen ties between police and the civilian population. This approach has been successful in the favelas of Brazil.
Panamanian police are working hard to stop violence connected to gangs and organized crime. In 2012, authorities recorded 665 killings in the country. About 23 percent of the homicides were related to organized crime.
García advises the young athletes he trains that the lure of quick money offered by gangs and organized crime groups carries a heavy price.
“In life, there are two ways to do things, one is the legal way, and the other is the illegal. There is a fine line of temptation between one and the other. Honest work is the key to success,” García explained.
García began his athletic career at age 21, when he met cross-country skier and coach, Pastor Perea.
Perea changed García’s running style. The police officer trained hard and became an excellent runner.
García has participated in 39 marathons. He has also been a champion for the three clubs in Panama: Panfra, Panama Runners, and Corredores del Istmo, as well as the Panama Triathlon Union.
García’s participation in athletics has taken him to California, New York, Chicago, Colombia, Brazil, the Netherlands, and recently, Las Vegas.
The police officer and athlete has participated in events held by the U.S. military, in the CG’s Challenge, and the Panama Armed Forces Running Association.
García’s work with the children in El Chorrillo has earned him recognition. He was among 11 nominees for the “Héroes por Panamá” award in October 2013.
“I wasn’t expecting it. Someone sent an anonymous letter to the television station about the Gladiators project, and they called me,” García said.
The sub-lieutenant’s goals go further. In the coming weeks, he is going to sign a contract that will provide the Gladiators with running shoes, food, and teacher resources. García’s dream is to finalize the creation of the “Fundación Team Gladiadores” (“Team Gladiators Foundation”).
Other National Police officers area also trying to steer young people away from gangs and organized crime through athletics. In the Curundú district , a group of officers from the
Community Preventive Unit of the National Police are coaching children in karate. Some of the children taught by the officers won seven different categories during a competition on Nov. 17, 2013, said National Police spokeswoman Mara Rivera.
“It is of great pride for the National Police to have valuable people like Nicolás García and other law enforcement officers not only engaging in their work to protect and serve society, but also going beyond, giving a good name for Panama’s National Police. They are a source of pride and an example to follow,” Rivera said.