By Carla Ortega
With no military—and located just a stone’s throw from the biggest cocaine-producing countries in the world—Costa Rica is a prime target for drug traffickers. In fact, Costa Rica was the number one transshipment point for cocaine heading to the United States in the last two quarters of 2019 making gangs and criminality an urgent and growing concern.
To combat these trends, the Bureau of International Law Enforcement Affairs’ (INL) Costa Rica office in San José partnered with the national and local governments in 2017, and embarked on an ambitious plan to change the face of security in some of Costa Rica’s toughest neighborhoods. The program is named Sembremos Seguridad, or Planting the Seeds of Security.
Through Sembremos Seguridad, INL set up 33 community centers in San Jose’s toughest neighborhoods, with municipal bands and youth groups to provide a healthy outlet and a safe space for Costa Ricans. INL transformed Costa Rica’s ability to support the victims of gender-based violence, giving a voice to those who were once silent. To address the growing presence of gangs, more than 33,000 youth participated in INL’s Gang Resistance Education and Training program at local schools, a program now entirely run by the Costa Rican government.
With the Sembremos Seguridad program, INL is also making strides to reclaim public spaces and assisting Costa Rica’s law enforcement as they coordinate with social services, psychologists, and even academics to better address local communities’ needs and to transform the face of public security.
From June 2018 to June 2019, homicides in Sembremos Seguridad communities fell 22 percent, and property crime fell six percent. Similar improvements are taking place in everything from unemployment to teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates.
To date, the government of Costa Rica has invested more than $27 million in Sembremos Seguridad despite an acute fiscal crisis. Indeed, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada has taken Sembremos Seguridad and made it the lynchpin of his national security agenda, with plans to expand it to the entire country by 2021. For an initiative whose name stands for planting the seeds of security, dozens of communities are already reaping the benefits.
Carla Ortega is an INL program specialist at Embassy San José.