María Gabriela Alfaro Zúñiga, deputy juvenile penal prosecutor, warns that the growing risk of minors falling into substance abuse is increasing their vulnerability to recruitment by criminal groups.
Alfaro stated that authorities urgently need to address the violence and victimization in which young people are immersed, which can stem from numerous factors.
“Dysfunctional family environments, domestic violence, limited education access, poverty and lack of family support can all influence youth involvement in crimes,” she explained.
In the first seven months of 2022, Costa Rica saw 3,034 legal cases against minors, including 310 related to violence in schools. Children under 12 involved in offenses get referred to child services, while older minor’s confidentiality is protected.
But Alfaro worries that for children of all ages, the lure of drugs leaves them susceptible to exploitation. “Thanks to drug use, criminal groups can connect with young people, increasing the chances of recruitment,” she said. “This is a clear risk factor for inappropriate groupings.”
Alfaro strongly believes preventative and intervention measures are needed to address this complex issue proactively. “We must understand the factors influencing crimes by minors, including substance abuse, so we can respond effectively,” she argued.
Groups working to curb underage substance abuse have echoed Alfaro’s concerns about the way it endangers youth.
“Addiction often goes hand-in-hand with affiliation to gangs or trafficking networks,” said Roberto Salazar of the Costa Rican Drug Institute. “Prevention is crucial.”
Others advocate for more youth outreach and family engagement by law enforcement to divert kids from crime. “Police mentoring programs can help guide vulnerable teens, filling needs unmet at home,” recommended social worker Tania Morales. “It takes a village to raise our children away from harmful influences.”
With collaboration across education, social services, community organizations and law enforcement, Costa Rica hopes to protect its youth from the threats of drugs and crime.