Janina del Vecchio is an unlikely choice to succeed Fernando Berrocal as public security minister, a position that oversees the National Police.
A lifelong academic with no experience in law enforcement, del Vecchio taught math at the University of Costa Rica and served as the UCR’s vice rector.
But the 62-year-old del Vecchio, who began her new job on Monday, said she is not worried about her lack of experience.
“It does not preoccupy me. It occupies me,” del Vecchio told The Tico Times, playing on the Spanish word preocupar (to worry).
At an April 9 press conference with Vice President Laura Chinchilla, the new minister said people shouldn’t be shocked by the appointment because none of the country’s senior officials had any specialized training or experience in their fields when they started.
Del Vecchio, a mother of three grown children, said she certainly wasn’t surprised by the appointment.
Arias has been quick to defend his choice, implying that critics have reasons other than del Vecchio’s lack of experience for questioning the appointment.
“Maybe it’s because she’s a woman,” said Arias.
In naming del Vecchio, Arias stressed her loyalty, integrity and capacity to make tough decisions.
Del Vecchio has considerable experience in government and in academic administration.
She currently serves as a legislator from the Alajuela province, northwest of San José, and served as chair of the Special Permanent Commission of International Relations and Foreign Trade, helping to shepherd through the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which passed by referendum last Oct. 7.
She served as cabinet chief for President Oscar Arias during his first administration, 1986-90.
Under the Arias administration, she also has served as ambassador to the Holy See in Rome and to the sovereign Order of Malta in Rome.
She also served as president of the G-77 group of developing countries.
She has served on numerous academic boards and is a founding president of the foundation for the development of the Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve.
Del Vecchio said the administrative experience will serve her well in overseeing the security ministry.
“The ministry has a program for attacking the (crime) problem. It will be my job to make sure that the program is fully executed,” del Vecchio said.
She echoed Arias’ vehemently stated position that no Costa Rican politicians are tied to drug traffickers or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Del Vecchio said FARC has tried without success to set up bases of operation throughout Central America.
Del Vecchio said she hopes to maintain Berrocal’s pace of drug seizures, which has set records. Since taking power in May 2006, the Arias government, with the help of U.S. Coast Guard patrols, has seized more than 65 tons of cocaine.
The law enforcement neophyte also said she didn’t want to encourage a “mano dura” (iron fisted) approach to crime but she said she wants cops to hit the streets.
“The cops are going to be in the streets, not sitting behind desks in offices,” she said.
To attack Costa Rica’s spiraling crime problem, the country must take an integrated approach, she said. Part of the problem that has to be addressed is poverty and the need to keep young people in school.
“A scholarship program has been created and we are working to reduce poverty,” she said.“Marginality makes it so that there is more lack of confidence, more discontent.”
Del Vecchio said she hopes to dispel the notion that the crime problem is the fault of foreigners. “We can’t proceed with a xenophobic or a class vision,” she said.