Alma Solis / ISH
PANAMA CITY, Panama – The Community Police Unit’s (UPC) impact in the district of Curundú, a high-crime area in the nation’s capital of Panama City, was almost immediate.
The UPC, which focuses on crime prevention and community outreach, was established in Curundú in December 2012. As a result, between January and August of this year, two homicides were reported, six fewer than during the same period in 2012.
The number of burglaries fell to seven in 2013 from 20 in 2012, and there were five reported thefts, six fewer than in 2012.
“Crime levels are down almost 70% as we see how committed the community is in working with the UPC,” said Deputy Commissioner Luis Ortiz, the unit’s head in Curundú. “This is good because it indicates that [citizens] are confident in the program and that it works.”
The UPC model replicates the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) used by Brazilian authorities in favelas previously controlled by drug traffickers.
About 16,000 of Panama City’s 1.2 million residents live in Curundú, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census of Panama.
About 180 UPC officers, including 120 recent graduates of the police academy, are stationed in Curundú as part of the government’s US$1 million program.
UPC officers knock on residents’ doors and talk to them to find out whether children and young people went to school or whether there are signs of domestic violence. They officers also work with school officials to make sure students behave well when they are not in class, Ortiz added.
“People prefer the Curundú of today than before,” Ortiz said. “They have homes with drinking water, sanitation and security, whereas before they lived amid gunfire at all hours.”
The UPC serves as a bridge between the different government agencies responsible for solving problems and assisting residents.
“Officers come and talk with members of the community and conduct a report, which is then taken by the National Police to the various government agencies responsible for resolving these situations,” said Deputy Commissioner Raymundo Barroso, who was in charge of the UPC during its inception and in now responsible for training units.
The UPC is the channel for public and government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and social programs, which use the UPC to disseminate their messages, Barroso said.
“The police is doing its job and doing it very well,” said Ricardo Aldaín, a 54-year-old who has lived in Curundú for 24 years. “This is good for [minors] so they can have a good future … and can say that they are from Curundú, as it is no longer said that all of us from here are bad people.”
The UPC receives the full support from the National Police and government, allowing it to succeed, according to Manuel Zambrano, executive director of the Comprehensive Security Bureau (OSEGI) of the Public Security Ministry of Panama.
“They have the same obligations and responsibilities [as non-UPC police officers], only with a different approach,” Zambrano said. “The police play with children, do kite contests and ride bicycles with them. Now, the children and young people come to the police station without seeing it as a repressive agent as before.”
The UPC was established through an experience-sharing agreement signed in 2012 between the Central American nation and Brazil, which includes a stipulation that Brazilian UPP officers provide the training in Panama.
“This initiative came as a result of a tour of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, [in mid-2012] to observe the concept and philosophy of the UPP,” Barroso said. “We saw that [many of the] favelas had been pacified. In the past, the police could not even enter these favelas. Now, they are working on prevention and community outreach [and] we decided to replicate it in Panama.”
The agreement with Brazil also includes follow-ups, during which the Brazilian trainers visit the UPCs and see their progress, according to Zambrano.
The second phase of the program began in early June, when 385 officers were assigned to the UPC in the district of El Chorrillo, home to about 30,000 people and where about 14 gangs operate, according to the government.
“We are not willing to make room for crime. It is time to say no to violence and yes to peace,” National Police Director General Julio Moltó said during the opening ceremony in El Chorrillo.
The government has invested US$1 million to open a 500-officer UPC in the district of Belisario Porras, which is on the outskirts of Panama City, in December, according to Zambrano.
The government may extend the program to other cities, including Colón, though specific dates haven’t been announced.