San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Arias Salutes Police Cadets

Kar Cabezas just got out of jail and is ready to raise hell.

He storms into the house and waves his gun around at his screaming inlaws and son. In a fit of rage, he opens fire on his father-in-law, and starts to hogtie his squealing son and hysterical mother-in-law.

He isn’t finished tying them up when the police kick their way through the door and Cabezas drops his weapon as ordered. They lead him away in handcuffs and his fatherin-law’s blood-soaked body is hauled off as the press swarms the scene and crying family members outside try to figure out what is going on…

And they’re all trying really hard not to laugh.

In real life, Cabezas isn’t a murderer; he’s a recruit acting out his role in a dramatization as part of training at the NationalPoliceAcademy, housed in an old monastery turned into barracks and classrooms in south-central San José.

This is where President Oscar Arias’ ambitious promise to train and put on the streets 4,000 new police – which would be the first significant increase to the force here in 50 years – is being put to the test.

Arias and other top officials gathered Tuesday at the Parque de La Paz in southern San José to swear in 289 of his administration’s 1,069 trainees. The rest are expected to graduate from their four-month training courses by October.

A whopping 65% of officers already patrolling the streets haven’t received a lick of official training – a problem Academy Director Carlos Roverssi attributes to the fact that the law requiring formal training for police officers is just a decade old. Roverssi said most of the officers do, however, have some form of outside training or experience in private security.

The Arias administration is trying to live up to its own daunting promise of expanding the police force by 40% during his four-year term and training at least half of existing untrained officers – all on a shoestring budget.

“After 25 years of not having trained any working officers, we’re starting from zero,” Roverssi told The Tico Times.

As was brought to light Tuesday, the plan is a work in progress. More than a year into the Arias administration, only 289 cadets have completed training, which includes three months at the academy in San José and three weeks at the Murciélago base in the northwestern corner of Costa Rica, where recruits receive live arms training.

The average academy graduate will receive a wage of about $300 a month – less than what recruit Roger Cascante says he made working for retailer Más x Menos. Private security companies pay salaries 50% higher on average, according to Roverssi, which may help explain why there are some 30,000 private security guards in Costa Rica compared to approximately 10,000 police officers.

Trainees like Cascante and Cabezas say despite the low pay and lack of resources, they want to be police officers because they feel a sense of public duty and a craving for camaraderie and adrenaline, among other reasons.

During his speech, Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal called for the government’s 2008 budget to set aside more money for police officer salary increases and police school improvements.

Roverssi said the Arias administration, in an attempt to confront the country’s growing crime problem, is now faced with having to make up for the fact that there has been no significant investment in public security in the past 50 years.

The lack of resources and training against the backdrop of a rising crime problem has presented a conundrum for a demilitarized country that Arias said should be “an example of civility for the entire world.”

“Costa Rica is one of the only countries in the world, if not the only, that sends unarmed police to a civil protest,”Arias said.

By the Fingernails

After she oversaw the dramatization, Sgt. Magda Aponte, 35, stood on the second floor of the academy watching over a group of recruits in arms training.

“Crime has grown,” said Aponte, who has been an academy instructor for the past seven years. “There’s a lot of organized crime now… drug traffickers, sexual exploitation, gangs. Before, it was just isolated delinquency like jewelry theft or smoking marijuana. Putting on a uniform and going out into the street is a danger in itself these days.”

Aponte will tell you the same thing anyone here will tell you: Police haven’t received the resources they need to face the growing problem.

A severe lack of equipment was brought to light last September after two officers were shot to death by a thief in San José – fatalities that may have been prevented if the officers had been provided bulletproof vests (TT, Aug. 25, 2006).

Police aren’t just short on vests. Roverssi said they don’t have enough bullets, guns, vehicles and uniforms. Here at the academy, where the dorms are packed tight, Aponte says there aren’t enough instructors, and cadets get a barebones lunch of rice and beans between training sessions.

Down on the sun-drenched patio below Aponte, police practice handling M-16s and automatic weapons from the Cold War era.

“We don’t have a lot, but we’ll get the job done with our fingernails if need be,” said arms instructor Kawuig León, smiling.

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