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Costa Rica, US team up to keep kids out of gangs, and that’s just G.R.E.A.T.

With an acronym like “G.R.E.A.T.,” how can you go wrong?

G.R.E.A.T. stands for “Gang Resistance Education And Training,” and it’s a new program here sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and carried out by Costa Rica’s Public Security Ministry.

According to Public Security Vice Minister María Fullmen, G.R.E.A.T. targets children and teenagers by working with them in their schools and communities to encourage youth to avoid taking part in criminal activity. The Costa Rican version of the program is called “Soy grande.”

On Monday, 40 specially trained National Police officers began working with local schoolchildren to help them avoid being recruited by gangs, Fullmen said.

U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Karin Sullivan noted that by focusing on violence prevention, G.R.E.A.T. forms part of anti-crime strategies promoted and supported by the U.S. in Costa Rica.

According to program manager Ron Doyle, the initiative has been active for over two decades in the United States, were it was started before being extended to other countries in the region.

Doyle told The Tico Times that by implementing G.R.E.A.T., Costa Rica is addressing the gang issue before it takes on the proportions witnessed in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“We believe it is necessary to work with [youth] in prevention, to work with them in education centers, in communities, in neighborhoods,” Fullmen said. “We believe this is how we really contribute to this country’s security.”

Fullmen said the initial training of 40 police officers would allow those officers to share knowledge with colleagues in order to cover all schools and communities nationwide.

Sullivan described G.R.E.A.T. as a “good example” of U.S. cooperation in Costa Rica.

According to Doyle, “We’ve only recently begun to bring it [the program] here, but we’re finding that this program works very well in Central America, and, perhaps, it’s having even more dramatic results here than it has in the United States.”

He added that, “By beginning to attack this problem up front, you would help to increase the chances that it will not be as much of a problem here as it has been among your neighbors.”

Referring to the violent Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran youth gangs known as “maras,” Doyle said the gang issue has rapidly spread throughout the Northern Triangle, and that “it has certainly spread beyond that in the region.”

“I think we are beginning to see those maras showing up in Costa Rica as well as in Panama and Nicaragua,” he said. “So, I think part of the effort here is to try to get ahead of the curve a little bit and start addressing the problem in numerous ways before it becomes as rampant as it is in the Northern Triangle.”

In the three countries where G.R.E.A.T. already operates on a limited basis, the results “have been very good,” he said.

In those countries, school principals, teachers, and police officers involved in the program have reported that students’ behavior has improved, as have their grades, he said.

A key element of G.R.E.A.T. is to build trust between police officers and the students, so that they “see these police officers as someone who is there to help them and to protect them, rather than … someone who’s there to arrest them,” Doyle said. “As a result, they are more willing to listen to the officers, to trust in them, and to share information with them.”

On its website, G.R.E.A.T. is described as a program that hopes to serve as “immunization against delinquency, youth violence, and gang membership for children in the years immediately before the prime ages for introduction into gangs and delinquent behavior.”

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