Citizen participation a must

  • 22/05/2009 02:00
  • 22/05/2009 02:00
PANAMA. Local citizens have recently embarked on debates on the nature of security and the ways to combat it, with one group putting it...

PANAMA. Local citizens have recently embarked on debates on the nature of security and the ways to combat it, with one group putting its weight behind a societal response to crime, while another group inclined towards a military “zero tolerance” type of action.

Recent controversy over president-elect Ricardo Martinelli’s decision to name a former lieutenant under Manuel Noriega’s military dictatorship as new police chief fits well within this paradigm.

Yet at a recent workshop organized by The Copan Circle, (El Circulo de Copan), a Central American group of strategic thinkers which focuses on proposals for development and regional integration, Panamanian politicians, academics, members of the media and different civil groups’ representatives agreed that as a society problem, fighting crime will require the creation of a widespread security policy which includes in its fabric a heavy public participation.

This is juxtaposed to the “zero tolerance” on crime policy pitched by president-elect Martinelli as well as his former contenders during the electoral period.

At the workshop, Victoria H. Figge-Cederkvist from Berg Associates Inc, Danilo Toro, security expert, and Magaly Castillo, from Alianza Pro Justicia remarked on security and the challenges it poses on democratic governance.

According to Toro, the past election period was characterized by politicians delineating specific and unconnected actions to be taken without an overall strategic security plan.

He said that a “zero tolerance” on crime policy has historically not worked in Central America, and decried the belief it will solve Panama’s insecurity.

“It takes Panama 18 years to produce a delinquent,” he said. “The average age of prisoners is 30, many of whom say they start to break the rules by 12. That’s 18 years until the government considers them a problem to society and decides to imprison them,” he argued, 18 years where society can make a difference.

Toro argued that 40 percent of high school students are either pregnant, flunking, facing suspension or similar roadblocks to a potential graduation, which denotes that there are other problems to be tackled in order to keep youngsters from falling into crime.

For Magaly Castillo, crimes can be divided into three parts: the before, the during and the after, with the government not focusing enough resources on the first.

“The government needs to define a citizen safety policy. We need a plan, and coordination between individuals and institutions,” she said.

“If there is no citizen participation in prevention, we are not going to go anywhere,” she argued.

Workshop participants agreed, noting that as an investment strategy, it makes more sense spending taxpayers money in preventative measures rather than in post-crime expenditures that range from police investigations to prison maintenance.

For Figge-Cederkvist, money launderers are the most benefited from the current global crisis, as businesses in need of cash or individuals struggling to cover their daily expenses are tempted to comply with launderer’s dealings as they scramble for extra revenues.

She strongly recommends homogenizing laws in Central America against money laundering based on the 49 recommendation made by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body whose purpose is the development and promotion of national and international policies to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.

Yet participants noted that although a problem, drug trafficking (a precursor of money laundering) has been sold as the sole cause of Panama’s security problems, when the root causes of crime in the country are more widespread and not necessarily an import from neighboring countries.

“There is a double morality in the country,” one participant said, “where the “barrio” kid gets five years in prison for stealing a cattle head, while thefts of $1 million and up go without punishment.”

Among concluding recommendations were the creation of a ministerial entity to deal with security, with the ability to focus on a security master plan, and more social investment, noting that although not causal, countries that have decreased social spending tend to see a rise in crime.

Lo Nuevo
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