10 January 2012 ~ 0 Comentarios

The cucaracha effect

By Carlos Alberto Montaner


(THE MIAMI HERALD) Stepping on a cockroach nest only prompts the surviving insects to look for other hiding places. I heard this simile from Volker Lehr, a well-known figure in Germany on communications and marketing, apropos the war on drug trafficking. The pressure on the drug cartels has generated a form of crime that’s as profitable as the sale of cocaine but a lot simpler and hard to combat — extortion.

All that’s needed is a lack of scruples and an unlimited capacity to inflict harm. Firearms are not essential. All that’s required is a good knife, a baseball bat and an abundance of evil.

Every day, tens of thousands of Latin Americans have to pay so that others don’t kill them or their children. Sometimes, extortion becomes a nightmare that destroys entire families. I heard the case, which happened in a Venezuelan prison, of a young professional sentenced to a few years’ imprisonment for fraud.

When he entered the prison, the local bullies, after beating him up "to soften him," told him that his parents had to pay them three taxes so he could live, eat and not be raped. His parents had to sell their home to save him.

The martyrdom didn’t end there. He was visited by his fiancée, a beautiful girl. As she left the place, a prison official told her that if she wanted to keep her boyfriend alive she should see a certain person. Panicked, she obeyed. He was a pimp. To keep the young man from being killed, she had to become a prostitute. If she exposed the threat, he would be killed. If she revealed names, he would be killed. If she fled, he would be killed. A pretty girl can be an inexhaustible source of money and those corrupt policemen were not going to let her slip through their claws.

Extortion covers all social classes. There are shanty towns where extortionists charge you a fee to walk on the streets. Many micro-entrepreneurs, from taxi drivers to barbers, have to pay in order to work. It is known that there are certain areas in Mexico where teachers have to pay monthly fees to mafia gangs that threaten them. The poor and the middle classes, lacking private security, probably are a lot more exposed than the rich.

Once in Guatemala, my taxi driver received a call on his cell phone. A man was calling from prison to say that the driver’s son would be killed if the family didn’t hand the equivalent of $200 to a messenger. The blackmail call contained lots of details about the boy and the school he attended.

The poor man hung up and burst into tears of desperation. He had no way to know if that was a bluff without consequences or a real threat. If he paid, an interminable calvary would begin. If he decided not to pay and his son was murdered, he would never forgive himself.

Naturally, extortion, like all violent crimes, is fought in open societies with the opportunities to prosper honestly, a civic education from childhood, citizens’ cooperation, harsh laws, efficient police, swift courts, and modern punitive systems that don’t generate more crimes, but almost none of those elements are present in half of Latin America.

On the contrary, what abounds — increasingly — is the opposite: an absence of values that encourage a civilized coexistence, contempt and mistrust toward governments rotted by corruption, institutions that don’t work, judicial systems that are inoperative, and prisons turned into general headquarters of the criminals.

That is the environment where the cruelest dictatorships are incubated. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in the 17th century, "any government is better than the absence of government. Despotism, evil though it may be, is preferable to the greater evil of anarchy, of generalized violence and permanent fear of violent death."

Either the democrats are capable of controlling the cockroaches or other creatures, fiercer and more fearsome, will show up to do that job.

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