It was just their third neighborhood watch meeting when four local gang members showed up, pointed menacingly at their eyes and then their mouths.
“The message was clear,” says Barbi Mora, leader of the neighborhood watch in Leon XIII de Tibás, a neighborhood on the north side of San José and one of the country’s most dangerous. “We’re watching you, and your lives are in danger.”
After the gang’s message in 2007, Mora says membership in the local neighborhood watch group dropped from 50 to two. Mora, not her real name, asked that a pseudonym be used for this story for her safety.
Though she says she refuses to be intimidated by the criminals in her midst, her eyes flit back and forth, she constantly watches her back and speaks in hushed tones during a hasty interview with The Tico Times in her neighborhood. She warns the newspaper’s journalists to leave the way they came, as men with guns are farther down the street and will rob anyone who drives there.
Mora is among a dwindling number of neighborhood watch leaders who have not lost hope in the program, started in 1998 by the Public Security Ministry.
At least half of the country’s 4,915 watch groups have disbanded, crumbling in the face of an increasingly violent crime wave during the last few years.
Mora retains some hope despite living in one of the nation’s worst slums where she says many police are on the take, charging drug dealers not to bust them. Prostitutes and crack addicts control access to the community’s only health clinic by extorting money from people who want to get in.
“It’s so bad here even the firemen won’t come in because they’re afraid they’ll get robbed,” she says.
Lillian Saborio, former head of a nowdefunct neighborhood watch in Cuatro Reinas de Tibás, says the tactics police initially taught them are no longer effective and that the Public Ministry has abandoned them. These tactics include the use of whistles, uniforms, neighborhood alarms, patrols, batons, telephone networks and group action.
“All the old tactics can’t be used any longer because (the criminals) will just kill us,” says Saborio, whose daughter was recently robbed 100 meters from their front door.
“We’re incarcerated in our homes, and the criminals run free in the streets.”
Saborio says there is some talk in Tibás of trying to create a private police force with vehicles to patrol the high-crime areas.
Patricia Brenes, leader of a six-year-old neighborhood watch in central Tibás, says she is not ready to throw in the towel but is disheartened by the lack of police support.
“The Public Security Ministry tells us they have given us certain police powers, but even when we do this job by providing them lists of criminals and crime hotspots, they don’t really do anything,” says Brenes.
“This is not what we were hoping for, and I’m disillusioned. … But we’ll continue with or without the help of the ministry.”
Brenes says organized crime is winning. “(The criminals) have better guns and better tactics,” she says. “They’ve surpassed the police, and organized crime has us pretty beaten up right now.”
Even Mora acknowledges the neighborhood watch in her area is not effective and economic factors can trump ethics.
“There’s no real response to the crime,” she says. “Most of us are just trying to stay alive, and even I buy stolen items from time to time just to save money.”
One of the tactics the ministry used to teach was for watch groups to install a neighborhood-wide alarm system. When the alarm sounded, a small army of neighborhood watch members with whistles and batons would descend upon the crooks, scaring them off or making citizen’s arrests.
Neighborhood watch instructor and police officer Karen Sanabria says whereas tactics such as alarms and direct confrontation once sufficed to deter criminals, the landscape has changed, especially with the increased use of guns.
“About five years ago, we instructed them to stop confronting them because of the firearms trend,” she says. “We never had any neighborhood watch members killed or injured because of their affiliation, but there were numerous threats against them.”
Not all neighborhood watches have given up on the old tactics. Victor Saborio, a taxi driver, says his 20-member neighborhood watch recently used the shared alarm system to chase off an individual trying to steal a television.
“About two months ago, we chased one off and the system seemed to work alright,” he says. “He did fire a shot off, though, but luckily, no one got hit.”