It’s been a rough couple of months for Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio.
The former legislator with the National Liberation Party (PLN) and diplomat took the post two months ago after President Oscar Arias abruptly fired then-Minister Fernando Berrocal in a flap over penetration of the country’s political sectors by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The situation was chaotic and the national media didn’t take kindly to Arias’ appointment of a party loyalist and former math teacher without any law enforcement experience. Costa Rican blogs, such as Historietas de la Vida Real (blog.mauricioaraya.net), lit up with scornful invectives over her appointment.
But del Vecchio, 62, points out that in Costa Rica, appointed ministers hardly ever have experience in their area, and have to learn on the job (TT, April 18). And she believes her appointment was the appropriate approach for a “civil government without a military” to take.
She argues that even though the country has no official military, the police is the closest thing to it, and therefore it is important to appoint a civilian commander-in-chief, one without the bias of law enforcement training.
Then in April, the daily La Nación reported that she said the crime problem in the nation wasn’t so bad. This is the same country in which the latest polls published by the daily Al Día show more than half of Tico households report members who have been victimized in the last year. The blogs went wild again. She later denied she made the comment and said her remarks were taken out of context.
To add insult to injury, La Nación then reported the minister had links to the Italian Mafia because of her relationship with the Italian Ana Moscarelli, who allegedly managed money for people later acquitted of Cosa Nostra links (TT,May 9).
After legislators from the Citizen Action Party (PAC) called for the minister’s ouster, del Vecchio and Moscarelli called a press conference to deny the essential points of La Nación’s piece. Del Vecchio said she has no plans to sue the paper for defamation.
In an interview with The Tico Times this week, del Vecchio wanted to make it clear she’s not going to back down, the president has her back, and the country better get used to her for the next two years. Some highlights:
TT: It was chaos after Berrocal’s firing when you were brought on board. How have you recovered from that difficult transition period after the first two months?
JDV: It has been a difficult process as the ministry wasn’t in the best organizational shape it could’ve been because there was an abrupt change. It was necessary to make some changes. We, the president included, wanted to have a complete overhaul here to increase its professionalism. (Editor’s note: Since del Vecchio took office, Vice Minister Rafael Gutiérrez quit, Presidency Minister José Torres took Vice Minister Gerardo Lázcares’ post while Lázcares took Gutiérrez’s and National Police Director José Pizarro was replaced by Erick Lacayo, among others.)
What has been the hardest thing for you to accept or learn since you took the job?
I was being questioned even before I took the post. Call it whatever you want – sexism or sensationalism – they were already questioning me. Nobody, with few exceptions, who has ever taken this post has had any experience in public security.
The national press had a field day with you when you allegedly said in April that the crime problem in the country isn’t so bad. Do you still feel that way?
Get the recordings, because I never said it. I never said we shouldn’t give crime all the attention it deserves. But perception of crime is always higher than the reality of crime. And if we don’t attack the problem of perception with successful law enforcement action, what we’ll end with is a population that just shuts itself indoors and doesn’t take advantage of its right to use its public places.
I’m in this post to take on crime. I’m not here to pad my résumé or climb higher on the political ladder.
The country’s new reality is that crime has become more sophisticated and violent. But the public needs to get it – we have a civil police but they also have to work and sometimes apply violence to people who resist, but the public reacts so strongly, alleging police abuse.
We have to deal with the fact the country has changed. We have to continually professionalize the police so that every day they can respond to the needs of the people, who are disheartened by a criminal system, every day more violent. Every neighborhood needs a neighborhood watch.
What have you done so far specifically as Public Security Minister?
I changed policies that were bad for police morale, including officers being placed in branches far from their families where they could hardly ever spend any time with them, given their work schedules.
I’m working on improving the branch offices, some of which are in extremely precarious, disgraceful situations.What I found here is police sleeping in very inappropriate places without the least bit of incentive to do all the work they have to do.
The other very concrete things is I’m looking to strengthen police coordination between us, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), the Prosecutor’s Office and the municipalities so that we can conduct joint, coordinated, intelligent and well-managed operations. This was not happening before and there were complaints from OIJ and the Prosecutor’s Office that this coordination was not happening. We’re going to create more GAOs (Organized Operations Groups) between different law enforcement entities to make sure police are in the streets (as opposed to in their offices).
I created the (150-strong) Metropolitan Police (in May) to patrol the downtown area and try to recover many of the parks that have been taken over by (criminal elements).
The Comptroller General’s Office released a report earlier this year saying that police allocation and branch location are poorly planned, with no regard for the areas with the highest incidence of crime. What do you plan to do to change that?
We have a saying that there are no bad police, only badly located police. However, a branch doesn’t have to be located in a highcrime area, but it’s important their operations are.We have to worry about the intelligence management of police action.
Why did the president pick you and why did you decide to take the job?
(Arias) said he wanted a woman who could fulfill certain conditions, and that I did. I considered it a challenge and took it. It wasn’t easy because my family was against it.
(He picked me because) I work really hard and I’m transparent. I don’t do things behind people’s backs. I study a lot before making decisions. But I make them and I don’t have any problems admitting to my mistakes.
What mistakes have you made so far?
Here, none. I have great vice ministers.