A Civil Duty, A Shared Responsibility

Citizens expand the reach of security forces and help keep crime away from their homes.
Print | 1 January 2012


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.

Community groups in Peñalolén, Chile, work hand in hand with local authorities to keep their neighborhoods safe. [MUNICÍPio DE PEÑALOLÉN]

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.

Norma Maray, manager of citizen security for Peñalolén, Chile, talks about public safety issues in her country during a June 2011 seminar at the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, California. [LUIS J JIMÉNEZ/INSTITUTo das AMÉRICAS]

“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.

The municipality of Peñalolén, Chile, has more than 150 community security groups that collaborate with local government and police forces striving for greater security. [MUNICíPio DE PEÑALOLÉN]

Community Bonds

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 González.

Col. Teresa Martínez, commander of the Dominican Republic’s National Police, attends the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla, California. [LUIS J. JIMÉNEZ/INSTITUTO DaS AMÉRICAS]

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 Crime

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