Who enforces what

December 3, 2023

BY Laura Valenciano

Artwork credit: Peter Kramar

content warning: descriptions of an incident of sexual violence 

As feminists, one of our strategies to advance the cease of gender based violence has been to work on influencing, drafting, and monitoring the implementation of policy and law through national, regional and global advocacy. Although our efforts are put in place to eradicate violence against women, and there have been plenty of steps forward, the system is one and one alone, and our work seems to be never ending. 

Recently in Costa Rica, a young woman used her social media platform accounts to denounce abuse of power, intimidation and sexual violence from police officers in the city of Alajuela. As a direct repercussion to her claims, a civil march against police brutality was organized. Protesters were cornered by the police resulting in four people being arrested. One of them even got falsely charged with attacking a police officer. These events sparked conversations about the first line of law enforcement that is in direct contact with the population. Our experience being that it functions in complete and utter disengagement with policy and academic efforts to eradicate violence, and particularly violence towards women and girls. 

Police claim that their use of force was justifiable and measured, in direct response to the attacks from the protesters. Their legal strategy was to instill doubt among the population under the umbrella argument that there are two sides to every story. The initial claim by the young woman that sparked all of these subsequent actions stated that the police officers touched her breasts, her thighs, and her butt as they conducted her arrest and transfer. She was beaten, her hair was pulled, her face was punched and as if the physical violence wasn’t enough, the police officer who conducted the arrest kept repeating that she was disgusting, referring to her body and appearance. 

The government under the current Chaves presidency has employed especially aggressive tactics whenever civil society takes to the streets, be it on Women’s Day, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, or due to femicides or specific cases of violence against women, not to mention that the government deploys all of the women on the police force specifically to the streets on those days. So when the question is asked about whether or not we feel safer with women in the police force, at least in Costa Rica, the answer is clear. There is an instrumentalization of women by the police, combined with absolute collusion on part of the former, which makes it impossible to perceive those women as allies. They actively participate in a system that not only systemically oppresses us, but also violates our physical and emotional well-being with complete normality. By looking into the social conditioning that leads us to believe the police keep us all safe, it is quite easy to verify this is only true when a number of intersecting privileges coincide. It might be time to direct more effort towards the lack of accountability and impunity law enforcement enjoys in our countries.