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Crime Prevention Plan Draws Fire

Costa Rica should have been fighting the root causes of its growing crime problem for the past 15 years, instead of focusing so much on making tougher laws to punish criminals.

With that message, Justice Minister Laura Chinchilla, who is also the First Vice-President, recently launched the Arias administration’s crime prevention plan, which will include coordinating community crime-watch groups, offering at-risk youth alternatives to gangs such as sports and arts, and a crime-prevention publicity campaign.

“If we don’t begin to design policies, we won’t have a response to save ourselves,” Chinchilla said in a meeting with reporters earlier this month at her office behind the glitzy new National Registry building in Zapote, in eastern San José.

Critics say the policy should have been introduced 15 months ago – when the Arias administration first promised to get tough on crime. They also say the plan lacks financing  and resources to deal with the immediateproblem at hand: skyrocketing delinquency.

Since 1990, the crime rate has doubled, robberies and theft have shot up 700% and drug crimes have jumped nearly 300%, according to statistics from the Justice Ministry.

Former Public Security Minister Juan Diego Castro, one of the critics, mockingly called it a “beautiful dream.”

“This plan will take years, generations. Meanwhile, we’re being robbed, killed and assaulted,” said Castro, a criminal lawyer who has served as the president of the Costa Rican Lawyers’ Association. He wonders why it took the administration so long to design the plan.

“I could have done that in 15 days… They produced a little pamphlet, not a concrete solution,” he said, referring to the booklets the administration distributed at the Children’s Museum Aug. 16 along with the launching of the plan, entitled “País Sin Miedo” (Country Without Fear).

National Union Party (PUN) legislator José Manuel Echandi, a former Ombudsman,  was also critical, saying that the country hasn’t invested enough in security.

“The government has to be more honest about the need for equipment,” he said. “It  can’t request $3 million from Taiwan for patrol equipment and then kick them out of the country.” He was referring to the Arias administration’s decision earlier this year to cut ties with Taiwan, one of Costa Rica’s biggest aid donors in security and other areas, and establish diplomatic relations with China (TT, June 8).

But Chinchilla, who is also a former Public Security Minister, is open about the fact that the plan doesn’t involve an immediate increase in resources.

“Here, we’re not creating a new bureaucracy. We’re drawing off a network of different committees,” she said, adding the plan will strengthen ties between government institutions and different communities with the help of several existing community organizations.

The plan will create an initiative to collect data on crime and violence in Costa Rica; launch a public relations campaign involving media, the entertainment industry, parents and teachers to encourage cooperation to combat crime; train students to become conflict mediators in schools; create community crime-watch organizations; offer at-risk youth alternatives to the country’s estimated 25 gangs; and campaign to discourage arms use.

President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias says he’s fulfilling one of his campaign promises.

“During my campaign, I was very clear in communicating to Costa Ricans that my  government would be tough on crime, but even tougher on the causes of crime,” the President said. The plan comes alongside the administration’s promise to train 4,000 new police by 2010 (TT, May 11) the creation of a new Tourism Police force (TT, Dec. 22, 2006), and a recent increase in police salaries (TT, Aug. 17).

Gonzalo Abad-Ortiz, a United Nations representative in Central America, called for  the need for crime prevention in Costa Rica atan Aug. 23 forum to promote regional alternatives to violence for Central American youth.

“The idea is to be able to construct alternatives within the community. If the youth is excluded,we have to seek out ways for them to be included,” he said at the conference, at the Hotel San José Palacio in northwest San José.

Costa Rica’s crime problem is apparently taking its toll on the minds of Costa Ricans, nearly 80% of whom define the country as unsafe, and 72% of whom say they fear walking in the street, according to statistics compiled by the Justice Ministry.

The country sees 21 assaults a day, and there have been nearly 500 murder allegations so far this year, according to the daily Al Día. Castro agrees the crime problem requires preventive measures.

“We haven’t just been neglecting prevention the past few years, we’ve been doing that our entire life,” Castro said. He said the preventive measures are long-term goals that must be coupled with immediate solutions, which cost money.

“The country has to finance its security,” said Castro, whose alternative solution would be to focus on raising more taxes so there is more money to finance improvements to Costa Rica’s law-enforcement and justice systems.

In an Aug. 22 speech on organized crime at the Legislative Assembly, Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese stressed the need for additional resources, as he has during previous visits to the assembly (TT, Oct. 22, 2004, Feb. 25, 2005).

“The emphasis on corrective justice is fine, but there’s a void – the means,” he said. “We have to have resources to carry out investigations.”



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