San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Chinchilla Takes Cues from L.A. Youth Outreach Projects

The administration of President Laura Chinchilla this week took pointers from programs working to bring Latin America’s marginalized young people into the fold with better opportunities.

At the Costa Rican Child Welfare Office’s auditorium in San José early this week, the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) presented three programs that U.N. experts consider exemplary models for steering at-risk youths away from drugs and crime.

These problems are on the Chinchilla administration’s radar as the country gets further cornered into a deadly drug-trafficking corridor and as the nation’s prisons continue to overflow.

“We don’t want our young people to stay in jail forever, nor do we want them to be in the drug network forever, so we’re confident that with our proposals and the help that CEPAL is offering us we will be able to apply a successful program,” Chinchilla said at the presentation.

The Argentine Support System for Supervised Adolescents program provides scholarships and tutoring for juvenile offenders. Guatemala’s Ceiba Group Association and Colombia’s Fenix Program work to keep young people out of gangs, offering  education, vocational training and other guidance toward leading a straight life.

U.N. experts and Costa Rican government officials agree that programs such as these mark a critical departure from traditional, iron-fist methods of dealing with marginalized young people – and they could even be more effective.

The “punish the bad kids” model has failed, said María Elisa Bernal, a social development expert at the Santiago, Chile-based CEPAL. “Nobody’s saying there shouldn’t be policing of citizens’ behavior.

But the use of repression alone with these youths is not going to get results, as has been thoroughly demonstrated in (the countries these projects come from),” Bernal told The Tico Times. “They break the law, get caught, break the law again, get caught again, but what’s society offering for them to get ahead?”

After researching more than 30 social innovation projects across Latin America, Adolfo Rodríguez, Chinchilla’s social wellbeing secretary, perceives holes in Costa Rican policies toward the young.

Rodríguez said Costa Rica has made strides in health, rights, laws and economic productivity; “however, our crucial weakness lies in our work with youth.”

–Alex Leff

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