A mere three years ago, Melchor Astúa, a National Police officer, decided he no longer wanted to be a member of National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), the country’s largest workers’ union.
Astúa went on to create Costa Rica’s first police-only labor organization, the Public Security Police Union, known by its Spanish acronym SIPO.
The battle-scarred, 30-year police veteran had several run-ins with ANEP General Secretary Albino Vargas over the years. In 2005, Astúa concluded Vargas didn’t have the law enforcement community’s best interests at heart after the union leader failed to back officers, including Astúa, in complaints they filed with the Chief Prosecutor’s and Ombudsman’s offices alleging corruption and labor rights violations by superiors.
“It was a struggle over many years,” said Astúa. “And it still is. The president (Oscar Arias) doesn’t respond to us, we still don’t have an office, and the Public Security Ministry doesn’t respect us as a union because they’re afraid we’re going to stir up the place.”
Two years after its birth, SIPO is struggling with its rank-and-file membership.
It has just 700 members from the ranks of the nation’s roughly 10,000-strong National Police force. ANEP represents about 6,000 of them.
But Astúa, who serves as SIPO’s secretary, wants the Public Security Ministry to know he and SIPO, which charges its members ¢1,000 (about $2) per month in dues, aren’t going anywhere. He plans on taking various complaints filed with the Ombudsman’s office – including those about hours, shifts, overtime pay and stationing officers far away from their families – to
(Sala IV) if they don’t receive prompt responses from the Public Security Ministry.
Officers routinely work 72 hours a week, Astúa says, and he wants that to drop to the 48-hour week most Ticos get.
Rita Garro, SIPO’s vice secretary, said the union should not be taken lightly.
“There are many unions that, if the workers strike, people won’t miss them for a week or so,” she said. “But if we strike for five minutes, what would happen to the millionaires, the poor and everybody else? We are indispensable people who need attention.”
Astúa and Garro sat down with The Tico Times and, without mincing words, discussed a few critical issues facing police officers.
TT: Regarding the recent arrests of 11 National Police officers in Heredia for allegedly being allied with drug traffickers (TT, July 4), how bad is the problem?
MA: Before 1994, the great majority of National Police were corrupt. Now, it’s less, but it’s still bad and it’s something officers have to face every day.
Police pay averages ¢240,000 (about $480) per month and starts at ¢164,000 (about $328). Because of this and the lack of respect we get, no pay for overtime, many become corrupt. Officers are disciplined more often than the criminals, and we aren’t allowed a right to due process after allegations of abuse. What policeman is going to want to give his life in the line of duty under these conditions?
Police corruption is shameless. I’ve gone out on patrols before, and my fellow officers have asked me, “How much are we going to make tonight charging drug dealers for not busting them?” But I’m not like that, and I refuse to ally with corrupt police, which is why I prefer to work alone. You never know whom you’re going out on patrol with. They can backstab you or put you in compromising situations with criminals.
But police corruption is not the only problem. Politicians and judges are corrupt as well. What kind of transparency do we have here if the lawmakers who are subject to political interests are in turn the ones who appoint the judges? We’re playing democracy but with a stacked deck. Corruption is the king.
RG: Many (police officers) fall for the temptations. The pay is hardly enough to feed a family. The only incentive here, really, is to commit crime and the laws are all in favor of this. Here, there are many “untouchables.”
We can’t complain about our bosses. We have to keep our mouths shut or get transferred.
Speaking of poor conditions and morale, what is the attrition rate in the National Police?
RG: Desertion is high. Most don’t make it past a year once they realize it’s not like what they see on television. Sometimes, they quit right after they start. Many of us work in poor conditions without sufficient backup and most of us have physical and psychological problems.
MA: Public Security Vice Minister Gerardo Lázcares told us the National Police are losing about 180 officers a month. There’s no way they can keep up with that level of attrition.
How bad is public security? What are some potential solutions?
MA: The situation has become very precarious because of drug trafficking interests here, including of those in political power. The laws favor the criminals, and the political complicity is shameless.
The people are getting used to the crime, there is a great social confusion, and the country is falling towards anarchism.
The country needs to take on organized crime. Recently, the Judicial Investigation Police and the National Police have been doing better, but before, the government was doing little to nothing.
Crime and drugs are destroying our youth. They are selling drugs everywhere and openly. If the law were applied here, we’d have to incarcerate 40 to 50 percent of Ticos, the youth especially.
The government needs to get more radical, decentralize and create organizations that cooperate with local governments throughout the country to take on the criminals.
The current government approach is too centralized and paralyzed. There’s too much infighting. If there’s not a unified effort soon, anarchy will rule, and our society will disintegrate.
Last month, Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio told us one of the things she has done as minister was change a policy that didn’t take into account where a police officer lives when assigning them. Have you seen any evidence of this policy shift?
MA: We have seen no changes. We’re still waiting to see any.¦