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WhatsApp: Costa Rica’s latest policing tool

The messaging service WhatsApp caught on in Costa Rica and elsewhere around the world as a way to keep up with friends and family. But local communities and the police are tapping into its potential to prevent and fight crime here.

Instead of sending bendiciones or memes, members of some WhatsApp groups are sharing license plate information with police and tips about suspicious people in their neighborhood.

On May 5, neighbors in Nicoya, Guanacaste used their community WhatsApp group to alert police about a robbery suspect. Within minutes, officers found the suspect and arrested him redhanded, according to a statement from the Public Security Ministry.

“The community is very well organized and trusts the police here in Nicoya,” deputy chief police Luis Mendoza said in the statement. “That’s why we decided to open a WhatsApp group and have direct communication, which produces good results.”

Other communities around Costa Rica are turning to WhatsApp as a tool to communicate with police. Though the Security Ministry doesn’t have firm figures on how many communities have WhatsApp chat groups with local police, spokesman Carlos Hidalgo said roughly 70 percent of the 1,400 neighborhood watch programs in Costa Rica use some kind of social media to communicate with law enforcement.

The Amón neighborhood of San José has had a WhatsApp chat group with police since February 2014. Fernando Vega, head of transport and security for the Development and Conservation Association of Barrio Amón, credited the chat group with improving security in the area, which is known for historic homes and parks but also street prostitution and occasional robberies.

He said crime has dropped demonstrably since the WhatsApp group went online. The WhatsApp police chat has become so effective, Vega said, that people are using it instead of calling 911.

Stacey Corrales, owner of Downtown Yoga and Barrio Bird Tours in the adjacent neighborhood of Otoya, said the community’s WhatsApp chat helps keep pressure on police to act fast and address persistent problems in the area. San José Municipal Police Director Marcelo Solano agrees.

“People are used to immediate responses with texting and WhatsApp,” Solano said. “That means they expect an immediate response to a complaint or at least an explanation for why the police can’t respond immediately.”

According to Security Ministry spokesman Hidalgo and San José Police Director Solano, the majority of messages from community members are to report suspicious persons. Occasionally, they said, the chats lead to arrests.

Solano told The Tico Times that last year a group chat in Barrio Cuba, a neighborhood in the southern part of the capital, saved a local business from a protection racket. A gang was extorting a butcher there and the owner was too afraid to report the crime to police.

That’s where the WhatsApp chat came in. Neighbors realized what was going on and reported their suspicions to the police. Working alongside Judicial Investigation Police, Solano said that San José police were able to arrest the gang members and end the extortion.

Criminals can WhatsApp, too

Though social media is proving to be an effective communication tool for security, Solano warned against sharing sensitive information on WhatsApp. If criminals are able to infiltrate a chat group, they could use the archives to target community members who have made complaints against them.

Solano said chat group administrators need to be careful about who they let in. Fernando Vega of Barrio Amón, for example, said that he conducts interviews with potential members before they are allowed access.

Another concern of chat administrators like Vega is that police officers currently have to use their personal smartphones to monitor the chats. Vega said that if community policing is to rely increasingly on social media, officers need government-issued smartphones enabled with WhatsApp or other group chat platforms.

Solano said the municipal police force in San José is working to fix this. He said he hopes to have an institutional WhatsApp chat operating soon. The group would be monitored by capital police who could dispatch officers over the radio.

Communities interested in setting up a group chat with the police should reach out to their neighborhood watch leader or the delegation chief for their neighborhood. Getting a community organized is the first step, Solano said.

“The best experiences we’ve had have started at the community level,” Solano said. “Police can only do so much without the community being on board.”

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