Jenifer Lizano lives in one of the five most violent places in Costa Rica, the neighborhood of León XIII in the northern San José canton of Tibás.
“Guns are used here on a daily basis and there are shootings at any time of the day,” she said.
In the first 10 months of 2013, 15 people have been murdered in the urban neighborhood.
Some victims are children, including Lizano’s 14-year-old nephew, who was killed by a stray bullet two years ago. Since then, Lizano campaigns against toy guns. Her organization, the International League for Women for Peace and Freedom (LIMPAL), partners with law enforcement agencies to raise awareness about the risks associated with gun ownership.
“Youngsters here no longer long for a flashy car or a new pair of shoes. Now they compete for getting more weapons,” Lizano said.
Since 2010, the Costa Rican Justice Ministry and the United Nations Children’s Fund have organized toy gun exchanges in which children receive more educational items instead of ones that promote violence. LIMPAL plans to organize a similar exchange before the Christmas season.
Officials from the Justice Ministry also participate in school talks about ways to prevent violence.
“The most important thing is that children learn about the risks and dangers of weapons. We give them advice on how to act if they see an abandoned gun; we ask them not to touch it and to report it to an adult,” Justice Vice Minister Max Loria said. Since the campaign started, officials have talked to more than 30,000 children.
According to a 2012 small arms survey, violence in Costa Rica is concentrated in urban areas, and 70 percent of homicides occur in cities with more than 50,000 people. The Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) reports that the number of firearms used in assaults increased by 59 percent from 2005 to 2011, and three out of 10 armed robberies are committed using a toy or replica gun.
In addition to law enforcement, the National Police also fights crime with preventive measures including the organization of tournaments and art activities in elementary schools.
“We work with 400 children in high-risk communities in San José and our goal is that none of them becomes a criminal,” said Roberto Ortega, coordinator of preventive programs at the National Police in San José. He added that the program has helped to improve the police’s image among children and raise awareness regarding the consequences of getting involved in criminal activities.
Lizano believes that parents can teach children to avoid weapons and violence.
“My son was born and raised in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Costa Rica. But the place where you live doesn’t make you a good or bad person,” she said.
Before the start of this year’s Christmas season, Lizano started posting on Facebook and talking to media about the dangers associated with giving children toys that promote violence. Whenever she can talk with a parent, Lizano tells them not to allow children to even imitate a gun with their finger.