With determination, the group of five police officers line up next to their patrol vehicle for a photograph, following the order of their captain, Omar Chavarria, who introduces me and explains my job.
Four men and one woman made up the team that would go out on the afternoon of Friday, August 16, as part of the operations being performed by a new division of the Nicoya Public Force that was formed in July.
The group focuses on crime prevention in the most problematic neighborhoods of the canton, among them Las Latas in San Martin, San Joaquin in Mansion, Hollywood in Nosara and Matapalo in Samara. Seven police officers in total make up this unit, which is divided into two teams, one of four officers and one of three. They rotate every six days since, for security reasons, most of them are from places outside of the canton.
My task was to accompany the team of mobile unit 1533, supervised by officer Johan Fallas during their shift, which started in the San Martin neighborhood. The patrol vehicle began the journey through the streets of Manuel Ajoy. The first stop was relatively quick: a group of juveniles consuming alcohol on the sidewalk. The treatment between them and the officers was casual, at times even lighthearted. The juveniles were cooperative the entire time, even though some alcohol and a marijuana joint were seized. What bothered the young guys more was the presence of a photographer—me—something that became very common throughout that day.
The second stop on the tour was half a block after the first. The scene was repeated with young people sitting on the sidewalk and good dialogue with the officers. This time they seized marijuana, cocaine and crack.
This is the second such group operating in the fifth region, corresponding to Guanacaste. The other is in Liberia, has 20-25 supporting troops and lends support to preventive aspect in other cantons of Guanacaste. Officer Fallas commented that years ago, they tried to create a similar group, but lack of resources and staff eventually led to its elimination. In addition, he affirmed that at first, the group he is part of also had it rough because they didn’t have a vehicle to get around and had to patrol on foot.
We arrive in Las Latas, considered by police and civilians as the most dangerous sector of Nicoya. There, two men and a woman smoking crack confront the police. Relevant seizures are made. Everything precedes the same, the same friendly treatment between those involved and the surprise at seeing a camera. As one of the officers observed, that night there were so many police cars in the operation that he affirmed, “Today, we do seem like an army,” apparently stunned by the unusual number of vehicles and personnel on duty.
There were a couple of pickups, another couple of kennel units and a patrol sedan, six units in total. As officer Fallas would tell me later, the large amount of resources used in the operation was the result of an order from the deputy chief of the delegation, Adriana Cordoba, with the intention of creating what she calls police impact, which is intended to make people perceive a safe environment.
On Saturday, I accompanied the officers for almost their entire twelve-hour shift. The beginning was unexpectedly far away, in the town of Santa Ana, where they went to lend support to a domestic violence case, the most common type of crime in the county, followed by the sale and consumption of drugs.
In addition to preventive work, this operational group also provides backup for other police officers or other public entities such as INCOPESCA and MINAE.
The officers mentioned that they are aware of places where people meet to use drugs or alcohol in public areas, and they have also identified several people who are repeat offenders in these crimes.
Upon arriving in the Calderon Fournier neighborhood, also in San Martin, the neighbors were surprised to see the police activity, confiscating items from a large group of young people sitting in the street.
Vladimir Rios lives in the area and affirmed that this occasion was an exception because the police rarely visit that neighborhood at night, which is why people watched police work with anticipation. Rios agrees that he’s satisfied with the work of the Public Force on at this time, but he noted that if there isn’t consistency in the operations, assaults and drugs will remain the order of the day.
The officers move into the plaza of the colonial church of Nicoya, where they subdivide to approach four different groups of people in the park. The first was three guys who have, from whom an unlit marijuana cigarette is confiscated. The second group was more numerous, at least six young men and women, who were searched but nothing was found.
The third group was the one that gave the most trouble, since the fourth group was only three guys with nothing incriminating. When they wanted to take away two containers of alcohol, one of which was closed (in the end it was returned), the two men and two women, who had been overindulging in drinking, got into a somewhat heated argument with the police. The situation set off one of the men who let into the officers, who in turn threw him to the ground to restrain him and then handcuff him and take him to the police station. According to Fallas, the man who was detained was a former police officer, which contributed to the altercation. He assured that scenes like this one are rare.
Back at the police station, Fallas indicated that in their work, they have to always be alert to any threat, but most altercations happen because people don’t want to understand or accept that they are doing something illegal, and it is the police’s job to take action.
According to data provided by Fallas, before the formation of the new operational team, the average number of police reports for the delegation hovered between 60 and 110 a month. Now, with the new team working hard, last month’s tally reached 270.
To Fallas, this shows the effectiveness of the operations as the preventive work has managed to maintain a certain frequency in patrolling and operations, thereby achieving more constant surveillance. But during my tour with the squad, despite the gratitude displayed, the general perception of people is that consistency is still lacking.