During his first three months as Public Security Minister, Fernando Berrocal made headlines by denouncing irregularities in the nation’s police force.
Other actions, such as restructuring a department that became known for stepping up the capture of sex offenders, seem to be going largely unnoticed outside police circles.
Last month, Berrocal recast the Directorate of Special Investigations (DIE) as the Department of Prevention and Crime Control. The directorate had drawn attention by tracking down and arresting more than 100 fugitive sex criminals and suspects in 2005 and early 2006.
Consulted by The Tico Times, representatives of two nongovernmental organizations expressed concern that the change means less police emphasis on sex crimes. But a security analyst described it as a sign of a more socially conscious policing philosophy.
Aside from his vision for the Security Ministry, Berrocal changed the DIE specifically because it was investigating cases, which is the responsibility of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), he recently told The Tico Times.
While Paul Chaves led the DIE from 2003-2006, one-third of the unit’s approximately 120 officers were dedicated to fighting sex crimes (TT, Dec. 2, 2005).
In the new Department of Prevention, led by OIJ veteran Rodolfo Jiménez, sex crimes have the same priority as auto theft, copyright infringement and cyber-crimes such as the use of the Internet to solicit sex with minors.
The goal of the department’s sex crimes unit is to prevent sexual abuse of children by identifying and capturing such “high-risk” individuals as pimps and human traffickers, Jiménez explained. It will also coordinate with the Child Welfare Office (PANI) to protect street children, who are extremely vulnerable to sexual abuse, he added.
The department will pass capture orders on to local police, thereby aiding in arrests without expending extra resources, he said.
Mercedes Arguedas, who coordinates programs against violence for women’s rights organization CeFemina, said it is “detrimental” to reduce the number of officers focused on arresting suspected and convicted sex offenders.
Fighting child prostitution is important, but police must also focus on other kinds of sex crime, such as rape and incest, she said.
“Not only children suffer this … there has to be an equilibrium when it comes to investing resources,” she said.
Arguedas said she also worries about the at-large suspects and convicted sexual predators, a figure Chaves estimated at 350 in April.
In 2004, there were 5,708 reports of sexual violence in Costa Rica, up from 3,439 in 1999, according to the most recent statistics from the National Institute for Women (INAMU).
But rather than reflecting a rapid rise in crime, the increased number of reports likely indicates more willingness to report sexual abuse, which historically has been a taboo subject in Costa Rica, said Sylvia Mesa, coordinator of INAMU’s gender violence section.
As of May of this year, the nation’s jails held 1,039 people convicted of sex crimes. Another 284 listed offenders were either on parole, doing community service, in juvenile detention, free or unaccounted for, according to statistics from the Judicial Branch.
In this context, Arguedas said decreasing the number of officers focused on arresting sex criminals could lead to an increase in the number of at-large sexual predators, encouraging a feeling of immunity among them.
“In this country it has been very difficult to guarantee security and justice for women … Closing a program specializing in sex crimes will make the possibility of access to justice even slimmer for us,” she said.
Iván Rodríguez, technical coordinator for Defense of Children International, sees the change as part of a trend toward streamlining police responsibilities at the cost of focusing on sexual violence.
“Changing a specialized organization… and assigning (its) responsibility to an agency that is not specialized raises doubt,”Rodríguez said, explaining that while the change could be positive, he worries it could lead to impunity for predators.
Paula Dobles, executive director of the criminology department at the University for International Cooperation in San José, dismissed the idea that focusing on arrests is the way to decrease sexual predation or any other kind of crime. Programs that target the causes of crime are cheaper and more effective in the long run, she said.
Dobles sees the Department of Prevention starting down this path. “Prevention is essential if (police forces) are based in social politics,” Dobles said. She emphasized the importance of protecting vulnerable groups and coordinating with local police, two tasks new department head Jiménez said his unit is undertaking.
“They are trying to transform the schema of social control from an idea of repressive, reactive social control toward a proactive social control more focused on human rights,” Dobles continued.
Police officials agree that the DIE under Chaves was doing good work. But the department had to be changed, several officials told The Tico Times, because it was doing work that was within the OIJ’s jurisdiction.
“Paul Chaves was doing a good job …But was what he was doing legal or illegal?” was the rhetorical question of Carlos Morera, interim assistant director of the OIJ.
According to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office and police officials interviewed, the OIJ is the only agency that can investigate crimes to collect evidence admissible in court.
The DIE was authorized to do judicial investigations in an executive decree by former Security Minister Rogelio Ramos.
Fabían Barrantes, chief spokesman for the Judicial Branch, said the Prosecutor’s Office later declared the decree inappropriate. In 2005, the office circulated a memo stating that, except for extraordinary circumstances, all investigative orders should be sent directly to the OIJ.
Officers in the directorate saw their workload drop after the memo, and Chaves decided to ramp up the hunt for fugitive sexual predators, he told The Tico Times.
As the DIE located and detained more sex criminals, the OIJ captures division was struggling with its caseload, which includes serving warrants for all types of suspected and convicted criminals.
For example, the OIJ’s San José captures division received 3,168 new arrest warrants in 2005, about half of the national total. That year, it detained 1,200 people.
Any police officer can make arrests, but the primary duties of police departments in the Public Security Ministry are such preventive activities as street patrols, community policing, and responding to reports of crime, Dobles said.
It is not appropriate for the DIE or any other department to take over work that belongs to the OIJ, the analyst continued. If the OIJ can’t do its job, it is obligated to “procure the resources” necessary to comply with its mandate.
Despite funding and manpower shortages, the Department of Prevention’s new focus could ultimately decrease sexual violence more than the DIE’s arrests, Dobles said, explaining that the key will be training local police.
Though it is too early to judge the department’s – or the ministry’s – success at preventing crime, Berrocal’s actions so far make Dobles hopeful.
“They are structuring and arming the platform,” she said. “The proposals are very positive.”