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  Number 325 | Agosto 2008
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Costa Rica

Insecurity in Reality, the Media and Our Self-Image

Is Costa Rica more insecure these days? What crimes are on the increase and why? The media is attempting to address this complex problem with simple answers and analyze it with deep prejudices. Let’s talk about reality, putting the media in the “dock” and reflecting on the creation of an ideology that encourages fear and generates insecurity.

Carlos Sandoval García

In Costa Rica, as in so many other countries unfortunately, the security issue has become the raw material for prejudices and hasty conclusions. Phenomena that are dissimilar in themselves are frequently put in the same category. So that conventional criminality, organized crime, drug trafficking or armed subversive groups are all treated as an undifferentiated whole.

Faced with such a heterogeneous set of realities, there are calls to restore the peace, which very often do not avail themselves of the force of reason so much as give reason to the use of force. An authoritarian solution emerges from an analysis in which the resulting panorama appears as a picture of chaos. There are few explanations for these phenomena, little reflection on the factors that could be causing them. What predominates is the search for solutions, and generally punitive ones. Regrettably, many people identify with this option. It isn’t easy to accept that complex problems don’t respond to easy solutions.

There are at least three levels to the discussion of insecurity as an issue. A first level deals with the characteristics of the phenomena of violence and insecurity. A second is expressed in the media discourse about insecurity. And a third concerns some of the ways in which insecurity is also converted into an ideology, a way of thinking about society.

How trustworthy are the statistics?

An initial observation: different research studies stress that the sources aren’t always consistent. Ministry of Government data don’t always pay attention to or process the information sheets filled out by the Neighborhood Police, which is the police unit assigned to the neighborhoods and thus where people turn when they need police intervention. Ignoring these sheets means the loss of extremely valuable evidence. Nor does the ministry classify data in a way that makes it possible to get a feel for the issue over time.

Secondly, the ministry’s statistics don’t always match those of the courts or the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the prison population. These differences cannot be explained away by the fact that the different bodies register an occurrence at different moments. There’s also inconsistency in how different incidents are registered. The 2005 Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Program highlights the fact that homicide statistics provided by the different institutions don’t always match.

The availability of trustworthy records and databases is a first requirement. To this must be added the under-reporting of events to judicial authorities or else the failure of Government Ministry authorities to record them. Last but not least are those kinds of crime for which there is no specific penal category, or if one does exist, it’s rarely analyzed. For instance, white collar crime is not generally viewed as violence or as contributing to insecurity, although the cases have become increasingly spectacular in Costa Rica.

More suicides and traffic fatalities

All these gaps mean that caution is required when exploring the issue of insecurity and ultimately raising it as a matter for public discussion. Keeping these precautions in mind, it’s worth briefly examining some of the indicators. While the figures per thousand inhabitants for crimes against life are not strictly comparable due to changes in criminal law, they have grown in the last 15 years, albeit not dramatically. For example: comparing the figures for murder with suicide rates in the same year, it comes as a surprise that the figures don’t vary substantially. According to the figures provided by the judicial branch’s planning office, the rates for murder and suicides were very similar in 2004 and 2005. Indeed in 2006 the suicide rate overtook that of murder. Nonetheless, social alarm and moral panic aren’t triggered by the climbing suicide rate. It’s not so easy to convert suicide into “news.” Likewise, a good many homicide cases are manslaughter victims of traffic accidents, not usually perceived as expressions of a climate of violence.

What about domestic violence?

It might come as a surprise but in Costa Rica domestic violence is the main reason the Neighborhood Police are called. Despite the fiction that violence and insecurity are found in the streets, home is the place most associated with conflict. Nonetheless, punitive solutions don’t take this into consideration. Just as with suicide, domestic violence escapes easy and stigmatizing classification.

The figures that show the most significant rises are those relating to crimes against property and those punishable under the law against psychotropic substances. The rate of theft per thousand inhabitants shows a rise, especially from 1998 onwards: from 66.3 to 86.3 per thousand inhabitants between 1998 and 2003. To avoid jumping to conclusions, one must bear in mind that this is due not only to an increase in this type of crime but also to changes in criminal law.

The media: Sexy “incidents”

Ignoring that certain types of crime have increased in recent years is as risky as assuming that discussions about crime haven’t changed. The past decade has seen an increase, especially in the press and on television, in the amount of news referring to “incidents”—the euphemism reporters use to refer to crime whenever it’s not white collar. One could even say that incidents have become nationalized, replacing what in the old days were considered “national” news.

The newspaper Extra, followed by Al Día and finally La Teja—these last two part of the Nation Group—have formed a trilogy of papers in which incidents, entertainment gossip and soccer comprise the main content. In addition to these was the major shift ten years ago by “Telenoticias,” the TV news program with the highest viewer rating in Costa Rica, when it started leading its programming with a segment dedicated to incidents, which sometimes takes up more than a third of its air time.

The Repretel group, financed by Mexican capital and owner of several television channels, competed with the same formula and it’s now normal to see newscasters reading the text off a screen while simultaneously following on a monitor the news program broadcast by the other channel at the same time. Just like the press, the trio of incidents, entertainment and soccer are repeated endlessly. Politics is news only when it produces a scandal and therefore can be treated as an “incident.”

The fight for audience ratings and hence ad revenues has led us to a media landscape in which the main topics are traffic accidents and crimes against life and property. Contrary to the neoclassic economy’s promise, competition between the press and television has led to the lowest common denominators.

Incidents in poor neighborhoods

The media almost always turn up in impoverished neighborhoods when there’s been a crime, but nothing positive that occurs there is considered newsworthy. By monitoring the Red Cross and other institutions’ communications systems, some media even get there before the authorities when there’s been a crime in these neighborhoods.

The media usually interview people in the context of the criminal act and their answers are used to validate the prejudices the news coverage was already going to contain. The setting in which the question is posed frequently influences the response. Poverty is turned into something abnormal and is criminalized for a day or two.

Attempts have been made, for example, to get the news programs that criminalize people in poor neighborhoods to take notice of the students’ graduation day in their community school. For most of these students it will be their first and probably their last graduation. For their parents and especially their mothers, graduation day is an event of incredible happiness. It means seeing their sons and daughters reaching the end of their school days, despite hundreds of problems. With shirts that are threadbare from frequent washing and ironed over and over again, they climb on to the stage to receive their diplomas. But of course, the media don’t show up; they push a select inventory of events they seek to legitimize as “reality” and one of this inventory’s premises in practice is that the only news is bad news.

Just as with all rules, this necrophiliac principle does have exceptions: any small action by a legitimate and legitimated public personality is enough to make the news. When a politician or other personality with power gives out toys in these barrios whose graduation days never make the news, the media do show up. VIPs are news, communities aren’t.

Fear grows faster than crime

This tendency has been around for a decade at least and its socio-cultural implications are manifested in the ways television discourse permeates how people perceive their surroundings. Based on data produced by a national questionnaire, the 2005 Human Development Report concludes that the people who believe the country is more unsafe are those who watch more news about crime on TV. Conversely, the opposite is also true: those who watch fewer television news reports about crime perceive the country as more secure.

This finding hasn’t provoked discussion among those who program the news agendas, especially those of the television news. Unfortunately, the media demand accountability from officials but aren’t accountable to the citizenry, which is equally unaccustomed to demanding it. The media believe themselves the unelected representatives of the people.

We could say then that, although insecurity is not merely talk, it is also talk. Assuming that reality and its manifestation as discourse are two separate worlds makes it difficult to understand the problem and inhibits any answer to why the experience of victimization and the perception of insecurity in Costa Rica present considerable asymmetries.

For example, the 2005 Human Development Report shows the probability of falling victim to burglary as one in four, while the perceived probability is one in two. Perception doubles the victimization. When it comes to physical violence, the ratio is one in thirty-one, while the perception of victimization is one in three. Once again the perception is much greater than the reality.

In other words, independent of the rise in crime, the feeling of fear has also increased. One factor doesn’t neutralize the other and we would do wrong to suppose that simplistic explanations help us understand something that isn’t simple. What is serious is that easy rhetoric, occasional politicking and bad journalism try to reduce everything to law and order.

Insecurity as ideology

Insecurity’s third dimension isn’t about statistics or discourse but rather is a more ideological dimension. In other words it is the attempt to legitimize certain increasing crime indicators and the discourse accompanying them as society’s way of thinking.

As part of the neoconservative tendency around for the last thirty years, it’s been said that the permissiveness encouraged by the Welfare State in the United States and European countries led to abuses by groups who are helped by these state benefits: black and Latin populations, many of them recent immigrants; the inhabitants of big city neighborhoods characterized as “dangerous” and “violent” places, generally occupied by “foreigners” and “criminals”—words the media use almost as if they were synonymous.

The neocon discourse legitimated the theory that universal social benefits would make way for abuses and conformism and require ever higher taxation rates. This reinforced the neoliberal theory that individual initiative is the key to prosperity. “I don’t believe in society. It doesn’t exist, there are only individuals and their families,” said Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago.

Cohesion and exclusion

Criticism of the welfare state went hand in hand with an attitude that the alternative consisted of more individual initiative and social control of the groups considered threatening, dangerous or contaminating. Law and order was needed when faced with a “permissive culture” that not only guaranteed social benefits but also gave rights to groups with different sexual preferences or implemented affirmative action policies to increase the negligible presence of Afro-American or Latino students in the universities.

The neocon critique suggests that the threat of fear and the erosion of traditions, whether personal or national, is projected upon and linked to these groups in particular. It is often summed up as the “immigration problem,” associated on the whole with cities and mostly with poor barrios.

The poorest urban social sectors, often immigrants and/or black or Hispanic people, have consequently been turned into an “issue,” allowing the middle and upper classes to portray themselves as “the nation’s nucleus” in opposition to these groups. Cohesion is born out of exclusion, as Steven Macek emphasizes in his book Urban Nightmares.

Neoconservatism has become the ideological referent for a lot of the incidents, at the same time as the incidents themselves make up the discursive structure by means of which neoconservatism tries to legitimate its central theories. The neocon legitimization-by-incident process is helped by some key resources, among which it is necessary to emphasize the way in which politics, public life and the institutions are depoliticized, converting everything into personal volition or chance events.

Do punitive solutions work?

Organized crime, frequently linked to drug trafficking, has been suggested as the reason for a rise in violent deaths, but there has been little discussion of what favors the consumption of illicit drugs in countries such as the United States. Likewise, the question of why robbery has increased so much is frequently skipped over, instead moving directly to initiatives that try to resolve its manifestations with punitive measures.

Three examples are useful here. One is the initiative known as “Let’s restore peace,” a campaign that avails itself of the authoritarian discourse so often used by other Central American countries when trying to criminalize young people. One of its sponsors in Costa Rica is Juan Diego Castro, who is also one of those pushing for the creation of a juvenile penal code and the criminalization of teenagers generally referred to as “chapulines,” who mug pedestrians in the street. Transformed by the media into a specialist on the subject, Castro went from leading a leftwing political party 30 years ago to being a supporter of the law and order dogma today.

“Let’s restore peace” initially counted on support from publicity agencies and the media. Nevertheless, the government itself noticed the authoritarian turn and political risk implied in giving it center stage and persuaded the business sectors supporting it to withdraw their backing. As such it can be considered a failed attempt, but the call for “zero tolerance” is latent and one should not overlook the possible emergence of a charismatic leader with an iron fist.

The legislation that’s really missing

Another initiative that is trying to solve the problem of rising violence is the bill on “The comprehensive strengthening of citizen security” presented to the Legislative Assembly. One of the main conclusions from a first reading of this draft is that the accompanying analysis doesn’t appear in the law’s clauses. While the project recognizes that inequality, school dropout rates and urban segregation are factors that influence the rise in crime, not one of these factors is dealt with in the legislation’s provisions.

Why aren’t laws being passed on these aspects? Because such issues can’t be approached from an exclusively penal angle. To reduce inequality, fiscal reform would have to be enacted and something would have to be done to reduce school dropout rates and urban segregation. But fiscal reform has been conspicuously absent from this government’s first two years. On the other hand, the bill’s final chapter does address the immigrant issue, even though it is known that there’s no significant statistical relation between the immigrant population’s presence and the rise in crime.

Another legislative project underway is a bill to strengthen anti-terrorist legislation. Although a substantial part of the bill refers to the need to prevent financial assets of dubious origin being hidden or moved, it is the relationship between these assets and terrorism that is emphasized, as if they were not found in any other economic activities. In this context, drug trafficking becomes an instrument for criminalizing politics as if politics were the only link with drug trafficking.

Erosion of the Liberal tradition

Legal specialists have called attention to the implications of these and other projects underway in the current legislature. Constantino Urcuyo warns that the rule of law risks being undermined not by a dictatorship but by a police state. For example, the bill to comprehensively strengthen citizen security makes provision for anonymous witnesses and with it the possibility that the accusers also remain unidentified.

Javier Llobet, coordinator of the Political Science masters program at the University of Costa Rica has called attention to the fact that anonymous witnesses would become part of a greater dilemma, consisting of sacrificing liberty to guarantee security. According to Llobet, experience shows that both end up losing.

On the subject of the Arms Law reform going through the legislature at the moment, a group of lawyers recently noted that the US Supreme Court repealed by a 4-3 vote a law prohibiting the possession and carrying of arms. This decision could have repercussions on Costa Rica and brings out into the open the defining paradox of our times: owning a gun is a right like the right to life and health, which is precisely so often put at risk by gun ownership.

Without a doubt the criminalization of political protests is one of the most disturbing consequences of the bill to strengthen anti-terrorist legislation. Demonstrating in front of an embassy could be considered a terrorist action. It would run the risk of both the Public Ministry and the judicial branch wielding excessive discretion in deciding which forms of political and social protest will be considered terrorism. The information allegedly obtained from the computers seized from the FARC in Ecuador has doubtless fed this tendency to criminalize politics.

(Un)reachable promises of success

If there were genuine interest in researching the reasons for an increase in certain types of crime, one would have to wonder why crimes against property have shown the most significant growth. A possible factor that might be contributing to the increase in this sort of crime would be the gap between the promise of success—frequently represented by ostentatious houses, luxury cars and latest generation mobile phones, to mention just three status symbols—and the real possibilities of attaining them.

The social system establishes indicators of success and also the legitimate means for attaining them, but provides no answers on how to cope with frustration and failure. The population is exposed to the promise but can’t attain it. Inequality isn’t just about the differences in income between better or poorer placed sectors in society. It’s also about the socio-cultural and subjective consequences caused by this gap. We thus need to look further than the Gini coefficient, the indicator typically used to get a handle on inequality.

It must be added that frustration is felt most intensely by men who see consumption as one more of many proofs of their masculinity. So it’s not odd that most perpetrators of robberies, homicides and suicides are men. To hegemonic masculinity in crisis is added a more competitive society in which we’re all exposed but not all are allowed to succeed.

Anticipating the electoral campaign

It isn’t hard to imagine that insecurity will be a major issue in the 2010 election campaign just getting underway. Both the most radical version of “Let’s restore peace” and the bill to comprehensively strengthen citizen security rely on the premise that insecurity isn’t just a problem but also a way society thinks about itself.

Much care is needed to avoid the political debate focusing on sectors or potential candidates arguing over the toughest measures to use against insecurity. It isn’t hard to imagine that, faced with an image of living in chaos, the idea will be propagated that we need an authoritarian figure, likely outside the political parties, whose patriarchal stature would reestablish peace. This is what “Let’s restore peace” must be gambling on.

In the opposite corner, the comprehensive strengthening of citizen security bill shows how little can be achieved by taking the penal procedure route. This means that neither authoritarian solutions nor the government’s current alternative appear to be answers to the current situation.

It has been repeatedly mentioned that the current Vice President of the Republic and Minister of Justice, Laura Chinchilla, will be the National Liberation Party candidate supported by President Oscar Arias for the 2010 elections. Chinchilla has worked as a consultant on the issue of insecurity and it would doubtless be one of the issues on which she would show her leadership.

For a culture of democracy

For the opposition the challenge is how to take the insecurity issue on board in such a way that it doesn’t become an ideology from which to consider and formulate public policy. The challenge for both the Citizen Action Party, near the center of the political spectrum, and the Broad Front, situated on the left, is how to deal with the insecurity issue and from what position. There has been a rise in some types of violence and this shouldn’t be ignored, but it doesn’t follow from this that the punitive solution might be an alternative.

Moreover, how to look beyond the punitive angle in addressing the issue of insecurity and violence isn’t just a matter for the elections. What’s at risk here is an essential aspect of any political culture that aspires to be democratic.

Carlos Sandoval García is the director of the Research Institute of the University of Costa Rica and envío correspondent in that country.

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