When I was celebrating my first year as an ICMA full time employee, managing LAC programs, (even though I started working with ICMA on projects in 2002), I had the opportunity to join officials from the Police Department and a business leader from Santa Ana, California, on their visit to the cities of Sonsonate and Nahuizalco in El Salvador. This trip was carried out as part of a CityLinks Partnership component of the USAID-funded Municipal Alliance for Violence Prevention in Central America (AMUPREV), a Regional Program implemented by ICMA.
The objective of AMUPREV’s CityLink Partnership is to expose police, municipal authorities and citizens of selected municipalities in the Central American Region to the efforts of cities like Santa Ana in the US to promote violence prevention, especially through community policing practices.
This experience has great relevance, because El Salvador has the highest rate of homicides per every 100,000 habitants on the continent (71.16 from Sep 2010 to Aug. 2011), while the world average is approximately 11. In recent months, homicides and violence in schools have increased, leading the authorities to look for different alternatives to reduce crime in public schools, and not only combat crime and violence, but also change the perception of the Police in the schools.
The relationship between Santa Ana and Nahuizalco and Sonsonate initiated with the visit of a delegation of both municipalities to California. The August trip was the second visit of a delegation from Santa Ana to El Salvador. On this occasion, I thought it would be worthwhile to share two activities that demonstrate the importance of these types of exchanges.
One of the selected participants who travelled to Santa Ana in January of this year was Officer Garrido, Chief of the National Salvadoran Police in Nahuizalco. As a result of their exposure to the programs in Santa Ana, with the support of the Santa Ana Police’ Deputy Chief Carlos Rojas and Officer Gabriela Alday, Chief Garrido and his team received a delegation from a primary school (10-year-old girls and boys) in the Police Station. I was so impacted when I saw the gradual transformation on the face of the children when they were in the Police Station. Their expression passed in few minutes from an attitude of fear and timidity, to one of confidence and of interest in knowing more, not only about the equipment which Police use for their work, but also about their daily work and the conditions in which they work.
Because the crimes among students in schools have experienced alarming growth, the Civil National Police (PNC) is preparing officials to work in schools. Through the CityLinks exchange with Santa Ana, the officers will be able to learn how they should approach students in their community, to reach the goals that have set for themselves in El Salvador – to ensure that students don’t see the police in their institution like a security guard, but as a friend and mentor, who are there to help them. The experience of opening the doors of the police station to students is one of the best routes they can take to reduce the rates of violence among youth which has grown exponentially in every Central America country.
It has been so impressive to me, to be the witness to a great result achieved. Since the start of the Partnership, Officer Garrido has shown great interest and has been eager to learn about the work developed by the Santa Ana Police. The results are clear - he and all the officers have taken a very proactive role in all the activities that have been developed in Nahuizalco with the participation of a violence prevention council led by the Mayor of Nahuizalco and made up of civil society, police and government representatives. It is impressive that even in the language used by Garrido and the rest of the officers, it is clear that they have assimilated in an excellent way the philosophy of community policing and they apply it in their daily work.
Finally, the training obtained by Officer Garrido and the Police in Nahuizalco has not come only from this exchange. In order to improve the quality of life in that community, reducing crime and the violence, USAID has also funded programs implemented by RTI, Checchi and Creative Associates in Nahuizalco.