San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Disarming Young Ticos

A 17-year-old boy was charged last month in the death of an 18-month-old shot in the back of the neck while in his mother’s arms in crossfire between rival neighborhood gangs in La Carpio de la Uruca.

Earlier that month, in Grecia, after nearly coming to blows at the local roller-skating rink earlier in the day, an 18-year-old shot a 16-year-old in a dispute over a girl.

Another minor is currently on trial in San José for a shooting death in a bicycle robbery gone bad in April.

These are just some of the cases marking what Victor Hugo Mejias, director of the Juvenile Crimes Sector of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), calls a significant rise in violence among youth.

“It’s not just the mode of crime,” Mejias says. “(We’re) losing respect for … human life.” Firearms are playing a significant role.

In 2007, the number of handguns seized in colegios, the public schools attended by 13- to 17-year-olds, nearly doubled from 2006, jumping from 22 to 43, according to Education Ministry statistics reported in the daily La Nación. Pavas, a western San José district, had the most cases involving guns and knives, while Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and Puerto Viejo de Limón, both on the Caribbean slope, reported among the highest numbers of firearms cases.

On a positive note, the number of gun incidents in escuelas (ages 7 to 12) went down one-third from 29 to 19.

But the experts are quick to qualify the increases.

“In terms of (youth) violence and use of arms, it’s evident the country is witnessing an increase, but it’s nothing comparable to (violence committed by) adults,” says Rebeca Padilla Herrera, director at the ZurquíYouthEducationCenter, a detention center northeast of San José.

Rocío Solís, head of the Education Ministry’s Children and Adolescents Office, told La Nación that the rise is due primarily to increased weapons detection by bettertrained school officials.

“You could say there has been a light augmentation in the quantity of crimes committed by minors,” says juvenile justice specialist Carlos Tiffer, a criminal law professor criminal law and an adviser to the United Nations. “In Costa Rica, there’s a lot of alarm over crime. There’s more fear than crime. … This isn’t to say that there isn’t crime; there is crime.”

He said people’s reaction to youth violence is disproportionate because people see youth violence as “crimes against the future.”

Using Judicial Branch raw data, Tiffer’s office found the total number of minors investigated by the Public Security Ministry rose 6.5 percent between 2000 and 2007 – much lower than the 54 percent increase in overall suspects. Their proportional representation has slid from 11.5 percent of all crime in 2000, to just under 8 percent last year.

A 17-year-old boy named Roel (all juvenile offenders’ last names are withheld) was found guilty last year of armed robbery and currently awaits trial for murder.

Roel is being held at Zurquí, the country’s only juvenile detention center.

His attitude toward violence in the neighborhood he comes from, Tibás’ notorious León 13, on the north side of San José, is matter-of-fact. Carrying a gun, the weapon he used in the robbery, is a must for “your own safety.”

Handguns in his neighborhood can be rented for four hours for ¢10,000 (about $18). Or you can buy a basic handgun for about ¢60,000 ($109).

“You can’t walk around without (a gun),” Roel says, gnawing on a piece of raw spaghetti. “If you had a problem with someone, they’d kill you.” Would-be foes, however, “respond” to the presence of a gun, he says.

Isaias, also 17, was charged with armed robbery after trying to rob someone of a few crack pellets with a knife. The soft-spoken son of a Christian pastor in Managua, Nicaragua, says that among his friends, “almost everybody” uses drugs. At Zurquí, on the other hand, he likes the construction workshops and gardening. “Did you see all the flower beds outside there? I did those,” he says with a rare grin.

Experts are near consensus as to the forces behind the rise in violence.

Unemployment and the deterioration of the economy are the first things Mejias points to, and he, along with Tiffer and Padilla, cite broken homes and drug abuse as contributing factors.

Specifically, experts say, many youths are involved in drugs via adults who erroneously believe that minors cannot be charged for such crimes. Costa Rican law actually sets 12 as the minimum age a person can be charged. At age 18, they are tried as adults.

Mejias points to the juvenile homicide record – a spreadsheet he manually updates in his office – shows that, so far in 2008, 32 minors have been charged in connection with 20 murders, up from the 21 youths who were implicated in 19 murders last year, a change he attributes to a higher socialization of the violence and increased presence of neighborhood gangs.

In dealing with juvenile offenders, the Costa Rican justice system takes a “more educational” approach than other countries, says Tiffer. Mejias even notes that the Constitution obliges the state to provide education opportunities to all who seek them, something that would include juvenile offenders.

Of the 200 to 300 minors who are sentenced annually, the vast majority receive probationary sentences or “libertad asistida” (assisted freedom), and about 10 to 15 percent, about three dozen cases a year, are sentenced to various forms of incarceration, known as “privada de la libertad” (denial of freedom).

At present, 48 youth, 46 males and 2 females – up from 30 to 35 in recent years – are being held at Zurquí, the country’s only juvenile detention center. Eighteen are currently charged with violent crimes, knows as crimines contra la vida (crimes against life), which include murder and abortion, a number that’s gone up by about 80 percent over the last few years, per Padilla’s estimate. Another 10 are in on aggravated robbery and one for drug-trafficking, among others.

For those who get out, recidivism is high.

“What’s hard is when they leave (the center), because there is a lack of external resources, there is social rejection and a lack of projects for youth,” says Padilla, a clinical psychologist. “If they stay on the street, there’s no mechanism to follow up with them.”

The social stigma of being labeled a criminal is hard for many of the youth to shrug off. The need, says Mejias, is to “correct, not sanction (them), teach them to respect people.”

For too long, says Tiffer, the policies have focused on “repression, and not on prevention.”

But officials say that’s about to change.

Last week, Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio announced a $3 million grant from the joint Spanish government-United Nations Development Fund for new regional projects aimed at neighborhood security issues. The money is part of a total $13 million that has been donated to Costa Rica for its participation in the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals program.

One of the projects five objectives is to work with youth, and to specifically create educational and recreational opportunities for them.

“We need to rescue our youth,” del Vecchio told The Tico Times. “We need to take back these (public) spaces for them.”

Many of the programs, she says, involve simply providing restless adolescents activities and sports. “We need to keep them busy.”

Tiffer notes that two of every five 15-and 16-year-olds are neither enrolled in school nor working. Mejias describes plans for a pilot program to build all-night soccer gyms in at-risk neighborhoods by early next year, similar to programs that have been used in El Salvador.

Padilla also advocates drug-addiction treatment programs and shelters for homeless youth as the most-needed types of institutions.

Involving the family is also key, all the experts say.

Costa Rica, along with the six other Central American nations, will roll out a first set of projects that also target drug consumption, firearm usage, social inequalities and city beautification projects. Downtown Limón has been named the first beneficiary of the projects, which MSP officials expect to implement the first of the projects by early December.

Also last week, President Oscar Arias traveled to El Salvador to the Iberoamerican Summit, whose theme this year is “Youth and Development.”

“Many of our most pressing social problems begin in youth,” Arias said in a press release. “To address that, there is no task more urgent than increasing our investment in education.”

The heads of state signed an agreement to combat youth poverty.

While the politicians debate how to solve the crime problem at large, Isaias and Roel are focused on their own futures.

“I want to stop doing drugs,” says Isaias. He takes a bit more time to think about what type of job he’d like to pursue, eventually naming construction or gardening.

“I want to change myself,” says Roel.

“I want to make things out of wood, like tables. What’s that called?” he asks the guard standing nearby. “Carpentry. Yeah, that’s it.”


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