SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – Carlos, a 15-year-old drug-dealing student at the Dos Cercas High School in the city of Desamparados in the province of San José, sells only marijuana to his fellow students.
“But I know of some people who are distributing crack, and I don’t like that,” said Carlos, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity.
Carlos started smoking marijuana when he was 12 and began selling the drug upon enrolling in high school a year later.
Costa Rica’s Public Force, however, wants to put Carlos – and all the other drug dealers in schools nationwide – out of business. The department has implemented the “Safe Classroom” initiative, which includes drug searches and lectures about the dangers of narcotics, at 51 schools in San José and in rural areas of Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast, and Limón on the Atlantic Coast this year.
“Safe Classroom,” which is supported by the Ministry of Public Education (MEP) and the Regional Antidrug Program (PRAD), has grabbed Carlos’ attention, as well as 77 doses of crack found in a student’s backpack last month, when agents also seized 50 marijuana cigarettes, a gram of crack cocaine, a firearm and five other weapons.
“Selling marijuana has gotten so complicated that I prefer not to bring it with me to school because there are a lot of risks,” Carlos said. “The police come more often with the dogs and search through our stuff.”
Col. Juan José Andrade, director of the Public Force, said the main objective of the program, which features 3,300 officers, is to prevent drug trafficking and consumption in schools throughout the country.
“Parental responsibility does not end after buying school supplies and uniforms,” he said. “On the contrary, it is there when it all starts.”
Annethe Fernández, a guidance counselor at the San Antonio High School in Desamparados, San José, said the students’ parents and police are contacted when a student is found with drugs. The student is referred to the Institute about Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (IAFA) for help.
“We also call the police whenever we want them to search the school,” she said. “They bring trained dogs that sniff around, often finding traces of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and crack.”
Fernández added it’s becoming more common for school officials to receive tips from local residents regarding drug use on and near campus.
“Many times, kids go to a park near school grounds to consume drugs, and the neighbors call us and let us know of the situation,” she added. “On other occasions parents tell us about changes in their kids’ behavior, which help us identify drug-related problems.”
Police also have implemented the “Looks Safe” program, where officers teach children how to avoid violent altercations and what to do if they are physically, emotionally or sexually abused at school or at home, according to the Ministry of Public Safety.
Sixty-five thousand children graduated from the “Looks Safe” program, Andrade said, adding the Public Forces’ canine unit visited 123 schools.
“This kind of activity helps us send the message that children are one of the main focal points of our society and they are our future – that’s why the Public Force works to improve their quality of life,” said Col. Carlos León, chief of Police in Desamparados, who attends most of the events held in schools within his jurisdiction. “We also trained teachers on how to prevent drug consumption in their schools. All these actions will be increased throughout this year.”
Lucía Ramírez, a single mother with two teenage sons at Dos Cercas High School, is pleased with what police are doing inside schools, but she worries what happens when her children leave school grounds.
“I can’t be always on top of my children,” she said. “I have to work all day to be able to give them all they need. I don’t know whether they are going somewhere else. I am really happy to see that police patrols are coming around more often. That is of great help for us parents.”
Celso Gamboa, the vice minister of public safety, said the next goal is for police to start enforcing Article 47 of the Psychotropic and Narcotic Drugs Act, which mandates an eight-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of bringing narcotics into a public school.
“We are also sending to Congress an addition to the Psychotropic and Narcotic Drugs Act that calls for prison terms for those convicted of selling, distributing or using drugs in public parks or any other public place,” Gamboa added.