Central America Should Turn to Community Policing, Experts Say

(IPS) – The countries of Central America should adopt community policing as a strategy to fight organised crime, say experts in the region ahead of a key summit on security to be held Jun. 22-23 in the Guatemalan capital.

In Latin America, community policing was adopted in 2009 by the government of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, when Pacification Police Units (UPPs) were set up in some of the favelas or crowded shantytowns surrounding the city.

This new model of public security and crime prevention is aimed at forging ties of trust between the local population and the police. It maintains a sustained police presence in favelas once controlled by drug trafficking gangs, rather than the periodic violent police raids carried out in the neighbourhoods in the past, which claimed a large number of civilian lives.

And parallel to the new focus on relations between the police and the local communities are efforts to strengthen the state presence by bringing running water, sanitation, education, decent housing and other services to the favelas.

The Jun. 22-23 summit is being organised by the Central American Integration System (SICA – made up of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, plus the Dominican Republic as an associate) to come up with a regional security strategy and seek resources to finance it.

“The community policing model is very interesting because of its comprehensiveness, and it can be studied and adapted in this region,” Verónica Godoy with the Public Security Monitoring and Support Group (IMASP) told IPS.

She pointed out that Guatemala has made similar efforts, such as the “model police station” in Villa Nueva, in the south of the capital, which with the support of the U.S. government has managed to bring crime rates down in that area since 2006.

The police station established a permanent presence of specially trained police in the community, including an anti-gang unit, and kept in close communication with the office of the public prosecutor. In addition, a hot-line was set up for people to anonymously report crimes.

But four years later, the station has turned into “just another station,” she said, due to a lack of patrol cars, weapons and staff, and a drop in calls to the hot-line. Furthermore, the plan to expand the pilot programme to other areas has failed.

“It has been impossible to sustain the initiative due to a lack of resources and because government institutions are not sturdy enough to maintain it without external support,” she said.

Godoy believes that a strategy like Rio de Janeiro’s UPPs “is possible” in Central America, but only if it is a government decision.

The so-called “northern triangle” of Central America, comprising El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, is caught up in a bloody fight against drug traffickers and youth gangs, exasperated by a growing presence of Los Zetas, Mexico’s most dangerous drug cartel.

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Central American Human Development Report 2009-2010 described the northern triangle as the most violent region in the world.

The report noted that these three countries have homicide rates five to seven times higher than the global average of nine per 100,000 people: 48 per 100,000 in Guatemala, 52 per 100,000 in El Salvador and 58 per 100,000 in Honduras.

Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama to the south are significantly safer, with murder rates of 11 per 100,000 population, 13 per 100,000 and 19 per 100,000, respectively, the report added.

The Latin American average is 25 per 100,000 people.

Experts say a closer relationship between the local community and police is essential. Jeannette Aguilar, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, pointed out to IPS that community policing models help improve the image of the police and strengthen citizen participation.

But in this region the strategy “would only be feasible if the countries of Central America decided to make the shift from authoritarian to democratic approaches to security, and to make comprehensive efforts in prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation and institutional reform,” she asserted.

Aguilar said police reforms including a purge of the police force, professionalisation, and improved working conditions for police officers are needed, parallel to government anti-poverty and social development programmes.

No community policing initiative has been tried in El Salvador, the expert said. “The programmes implemented have been more oriented towards militarisation and greater territorial control, like what was done in the Distrito Italia,” she said.

In that district on the northeast side of San Salvador, the government boosted the military presence in 2010 to fight crime and crack down on youth gangs.

But Aguilar said these are “repressive, militarisation-based approaches to internal security, which have been predominant, especially in the northern triangle of Central America, and have proven to be ineffective.”

She also said any attempt to combat organised crime in the region will fail unless the problem of the high level of demand for drugs in the United States is addressed and arms sales are regulated.

Professor David Martínez-Amador, who teaches a course on transnational organised crime in universities of Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Mexico, told IPS that up to now, no Central American country has adopted a community policing model along the lines of the strategy followed in Rio de Janeiro.

“On the contrary, they have tended to copy Mexico’s militarisation, which has involved tardy reactive deployments of military troops to broad areas of territory,” he said.

The professor believes reactive – as opposed to proactive – measures “are the easy way out.” And “in countries like Guatemala there is a fascination with armies and a tendency to demonise any social policy efforts as ‘communism’, while there are no public policies to address the issue of drug trafficking activities,” he added.

For his part, Honduran security expert Alfredo Landaverde told IPS that violence prevention and repression efforts, when necessary, must be accompanied by the promotion of social development in the region.

Landaverde said that although experiments in citizen security are frequently carried out in Latin America, it is never done on a large scale, or in an ongoing, sustainable fashion. “They implement them in a neighbourhood or city, and after a short time they change to another kind of project. But this has to be permanent, massive and integral,” he said.

The SICA summit could be an opportunity to undertake a shift in focus on the question of regional insecurity, Landaverde said, although he added that “it doesn’t look like (the authorities) are heading to the meeting with novel, comprehensive proposals.”