Sunday, March 07, 2010

Violence out of control

Your Excellency, madam Laura Chinchilla,

It is with great concern that I write these lines, regarding the vicious spiral of violence that has taken our nation at the expense of the peace that characterizes our idiosyncrasy. I am confident that you, Madam President-elect , have the most accurate diagnosis of the situation, having been Minister of National Security during the 1994-1998 Administration, and having been both Vice-president and Minister of Justice during the 2006-2010 Administration that precedes yours.
It is then, with all due respect, that I address you to offer some insights about ways in which the problem of insecurity in the country can be transformed more effectively, given the urgency and limited time available to contain this spiral from growing larger and faster, and the imperious need to revert the process towards a more peaceful coexistence.
After considerable review of your Government Plan 2010-2014, more concretely its first chapter on National Security as the number one issue in your agenda, I call your attention to the effort that has been done during the present Administration under the name “National Plan for the Prevention of Violence and Promotion of Social Peace 2007-2010: A Country Without Fear” , which you coordinated as Minister of Justice.
Your Government Plan claims that some of the actions of “A Country Without Fear” have been “effective to face numerous factors associated to violent crimes.” Nevertheless, your former fellow Vice-president and current researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Dr. Kevin Casas, has published a trilogy of articles that reveal quite the contrary regarding the effectiveness of policy actions taken in terms of security in recent years. He says, “the increase in the intentional homicide rate in Costa Rica for 2008 […] the most basic one in terms of national security- went from 8.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2007 to 11.2 a year later, a 37% increase.” He further explains that, past the threshold of 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants is regarded by the World Health Organization as a serious public health issue.
As you well know, Dr. Casas is a qualified reference to speak about security, as he was in fact the coordinator of the 2005 National Report on Human Development for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) “Defeating Fear: National Insecurity and Human Development in Costa Rica”, which contributed with facts and figures for the elaboration of “A Country Without Fear” policy under your Ministry.
His two main recommendations for a sustainable strategy in terms of national security are: number one, to “rethink the debate […] to resist the strident calls to solve the issue through ‘crackdown’ policies and twisted repressive populism, that almost always fails to reduce the levels of crime, but never fails at violating the Rule of Law.” He makes reference to such State-violent strategies implemented in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras – two of the countries with the highest homicide rates in the world – with no effective results whatsoever.
Number two, to invest in information as the single most important requirement to fight crime as a short-term strategy. As the saying goes, information is knowledge, and knowledge is power. The most effective way to allocate police resources in fighting crime is to know accurately where, when, and how crime takes place.
Time Magazine would agree with Dr. Casas, and in fact illustrates with the same example he uses: crime reduction in New York City under Rudy Giuliani’s administration. They refer to CompStat, “a real-time database of crime statistics and other intelligence useful for pinpointing trouble spots and targeting resources.”
This is nothing new to your Government Plan, where you propose the creation of an “Integrated System of Police Statistics that unifies statistics and information […] allowing therefore permanent monitoring of criminal behavior and better planning of police action” , and “installing a System of Electronic Surveillance through video cameras in several especially crowded public spaces and with closed circuit television.”
Still, this would not provide a solution for drug-related crime, which is so obscure and appears to take place underground in broad daylight. Again, Dr. Casas offers a diagnosis of this type of crime that is worthy of attention: “The impact of drug trafficking on the violence epidemics that affects our entire region cannot be minimized. Half of the intentional homicides that occurred in Mexico in 2008 are directly linked to drug dealing. In Puerto Rico it was 79 percent. Very few countries keep a detailed account of such deaths, but it is undisputed that a similar exercise in Costa Rica would offer an alarming result.”
Time goes on to suggest that, apart from statistics, another way in which the city of New York brought the crime levels to a remarkable low was speedy incarcerations. The article quotes Mark Kleiman, a criminal justice expert from UCLA, arguing that “new strategies for targeting repeat offenders – including reforms to make probation an effective sanction rather than a feckless joke – could cut crime and reduce prison populations simultaneously.”
As a matter of urgency, this may not be a practical measure for our country since its prison system is beyond its full capacity. As of legal reform, implementation might be relatively quick, but the policy-making field is quite unpredictable.
Violence breeds violence. Every day we wake up to a more violent country. Our easygoing lifestyle has suddenly been sequestered by fear the instant one leaves the household, and even at home people do not feel safe anymore. In fact, as Dr. Casas exemplifies, men are more vulnerable than women of becoming victims of crime in public areas, but at home it is the opposite. “For women”, he says, “the most serious problem of security is not in public spaces, among unknown people, but at home, among well-known people.”
Fear is paralyzing. A country without fear is what we used to be. Many lives have been lost, many families have been dismembered, and many crimes have left indelible marks in men, women and children around the country. Our population has learned to be afraid, and reverting the process will take time, which is precisely what we do not have anymore. People are not only afraid but also tired of waiting for a solution that seems to be delayed a little too long.
Fear is not an empty emotion. Neither is it only a “sensation of fear” , as referred to in the opening paragraph of the first chapter in your Government Plan, and it is not only “an alarming increment in the perception of insecurity”, as you wrote in the introduction for “A Country Without Fear.” The Ministry of Justice under your leadership issued a parallel document with a slideshow presentation of “A Country Without Fear” in which a few statistics allow to make a point in this regard. Crime rates have soared in the last two decades. For example, from 1990 to 2005, filed complaints about theft increased 693% , violations to the Law of Narcotic Substances grew 406% , and intentional homicide rose 46% (in fact, 133% if we consider Dr. Casas’s figure of 11.2 by 2008). On the other hand, perception about the level of insecurity in the country grew from 59.8% in 1999 to 78.5% in 2004. Even though the dates from one slide to another do not match, it still allows for a general overview of a disproportionate growth in crime than in the public opinion’s perception of crime.
The Ministry of Planning reveals statistics about the increment in criminal cases being tried at national tribunals and courthouses. From 1990 to 2008 criminal cases skyrocketed from 22,854 to 188,074, more than 800% variation. So the perception of the people is grounded on facts, and is treating them mildly, because the statistics are alarming.
We well know the public reaction of disapproval to the Minister of National Security’s inaugural statement regarding insecurity and its perception. She was quoted saying: “What Costa Ricans are perceiving is a growth in violence rates, since crimes are more violent (…), what is true is that the perception of insecurity is higher than insecurity itself.”
In an effort to diagnose the scope of the situation, it is important to consider three dimensions that provide an analytical framework to be more effective in the identification of the problem. The first dimension refers to the parties involved in this conflict. There are multiple actors and roles they play or could play in diagnosing and transforming the situation. There are the victims of crime, the victimizers or criminals, organized institutions of the Civil Society like a few you propose on your Government Plan, for example “Safe Schools” and “Citizen Security Committees” ; private corporations that have funds allocated for social responsibility; local governments; public institutions in general, and also in particular those related to security, justice, and health; policy decision-makers, especially in the Executive and Legislative branches.
Last but not least, the people in general are a complex actor because it includes victims, victimizers, and participants in all institutions mentioned before. As it is stated in our Constitution, “sovereignty resides exclusively in the nation,” and “the government [is] exercised by the people…” The slideshow “A Country Without Fear” makes a statement about the separation of roles dealing with this conflict. It says “The responsibility is, above all, public, but help from the Civil Society is welcome.” Perhaps a more thorough analysis of the causes and the proposals for transformation will lead us to believe that Civil Society participation is required and, in some cases, even obligatory. Clarity in the identification of the parties involved will offer more efficiency coordinating efforts depending on the social and political participation that each person has.
The second dimension has to do with time and the elapse of the conflict. In diagnosing the situation with precision, it is important to conduct a critical and historical analysis of the causes and origins of the present conflict, one that did not exist only a couple of decades ago. As quoted as an opening remark on the first slide of “A Country Without Fear”, “We shall be hard on crime but harder on the causes that provoke it.” Specificity in the root of these causes will allow for a more effective intervention dealing with the problem wherever it may be possible. This chronological study should also be driven into the future, not only in the sense of “guaranteeing continuity of strategies and actions to take” , but also in achieving sustainability in terms of harmony, empathy, and creativity dealing with conflict individually and collectively as a nation for the decades to come.
The third dimension regards the conflict itself. A conflict is generally composed of attitudes, behaviors and contradictions. Attitudes include elements like fear. Behaviors refer to elements like risk. Contradictions are incompatibilities in the way some people pretend to live their lives and, in doing so, interfere with the way others want to live theirs. Knowing exactly what the conflict is and making this information available to the public to raise awareness, will allow for a more comprehensive and even collective action in the right direction.
It is time to think creatively towards a new paradigm by leapfrogging with our imagination of a better future. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”


1. Chinchilla, Laura. Government Plan running as candidate for nacional elections on 07 February, 2010., in “Pensamiento/Plan de Gobierno.” Last reviewed February 22, 2010.

2. Einstein, Albert. Last reviewed February 24, 2010.

3. La Nación Newspaper, “Janina Del Vecchio says that insecurity is not so alarming”, 16 April 2008. Last reviewed February 24, 2010.

4. La Nación Newspaper, “Avoiding the Fall into the Abyss, Part I” Kevin Casas, 23 August 2009. Last reviewed February 22, 2010.

5. La Nación Newspaper, “Avoiding the Fall into the Abyss, Part II”, Kevin Casas, 30 August 2009. Last reviewed February 22, 2010.

6. La Nación Newspaper, “Avoiding the Fall into the Abyss, Part III” Kevin Casas, 04 September 2009. Last reviewed February 22, 2010.

7. Ministry of Justice, “National Plan for the Prevention of Violence and Promotion of Social Peace 2007-2010: A Country Without Fear”. Last reviewed February 24, 2010.

8. Ministry of Justice, “National Plan for the Prevention of Violence and Promotion of Social Peace 2007-2010: A Country Without Fear”, slideshow presentation. Last reviewed February 24, 2010.

9. Ministry of National Planning and Economic Policy of the Republic of Costa Rica. Last reviewed February 24, 2010.

10. Republic of Costa Rica, Political Constitution. Last reviewed February 24, 2010.

11. Time magazine, “Why Crime Went Away,” David Von Drehle, February 22, 2010.,9171,1963761,00.html. Last reviewed February 22, 2010.

1 comment:

請客 said...

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