In Latin America police corruption is endemic. According to figures released in the TI Global Corruption Barometer 2010, two out of every ten Latin-Americans interviewed had paid a bribe in the previous 12 months.
So it comes as little surprise that two colleagues who work in the Transparency International Secretariat have confronted situations of this kind. What follows are two anecdotes from among the thousands or millions of cases involving police corruption that happen annually in the region. Lea este artículo en español aquí.
Alejandro Salas, Americas Director – Mexico
I still remember an exchange with a traffic officer one afternoon when I lived in Mexico City some years ago, when I accidentally drove through a red light. The conversation went something like this:
Traffic Officer: “Son, you’ve run a red light. What happened, didn’t you notice? You can’t drive like that, can’t you see you’re putting your own and others’ lives at risk?”
Me: “Yes, I’m sorry officer, I thought it was yellow, but if you say it was red, well I committed an offence.”
TO: “Now you have a problem. I am going to have to fine you, and you already know how tricky that is; you will have to come with me to the station, I will have to take your car to the pound, and you’ll pay the fine, which is very expensive.”
Me: “Well, I committed the offence; I’ll have to pay the fine.”
T.O: “But don’t worry son, we can sort this out much faster and easier, and it will even be cheaper for you, if you just give me the money.”
Me “But if I ran a red light and then I pay the fine, I’ll make sure I never do it again.”
T.O: But son, can’t you see that it will waste more time and end up more expensive for you? Sort it out with me and I’ll give you a discount.”
Me: “That’s okay, just fine me please and we’ll leave it there.”
T.O: “I insist son, it’s really not worth it for you. Better that I do you a favour and we sort it out between us.”
Me: “I really appreciate that officer, it’s very kind of you, but please just fine me”
– after ten minutes discussion –
T.O “Right son, I’m not going to carry on with this any longer, on you go.”
ME: “But you’re not going to fine me? I committed an offence and I deserve it.”
T.O: “No, son, I like you, and we’ve already wasted a lot of time. Go ahead, and drive safe.”
Luciana Torchiaro, volunteer working on security and transparency – Argentina
I was 6 years old and I remember that we were going on vacation with my aunt’s boyfriend at that time, driving towards Mar Azul, a beach in the province of Buenos Aires. The police stopped us for allegedly exceeding the speed limit – difficult to prove as in the early eighties the use of speed cameras was not common – and the officer wanted to give us a fine.
The driver was convinced that we hadn’t gone over the speed limit and started to argue with the police officer, who after a few minutes suggested that the matter could be solved easily to the benefit of everyone involved. In other words, the policeman proposed to overlook the infraction in exchange for money. The driver refused to accept the deal, as he was sure that he had not committed any offence. Moreover, in Argentina it is well known that during the month of January (which is summer in Argentina), police officers make the most of the high season to obtain “unofficial bonuses” to supplement their salaries on the route that runs from the capital city to the Atlantic coast.
After some debate, my aunt’s boyfriend, who was not quite as honest as the example we have seen from Mexico, and after the insistence of the officer, proposed a solution to the issue, saying, “What if I give you t-shirts from my business (he was a clothes manufacturer) for you and your families?”. I remember how the officers’ eyes lit up; he was fascinated by the proposal.
They accepted the deal, and we continued along our route, not only as if nothing had happened, but with a smile for our successful negotiation. Now that I think back on the scene it seems pathetic.
Acts of petty corruption, the daily abuse of power by low and mid-ranking police officers when interacting with common citizens, as described in these examples, can at first seem to be simple and trivial acts.
A citizen could think “If I give eight dollars to a police officer to get out of this situation, I’m not hurting anybody”. However, the multiplication of this kind of conduct, by those police officers who propose or accept bribes from citizens seeking to obtain some benefit or avoid the law, in the long run has a high impact on the institution and the rule of law.
When a police officer commits an act of this kind, not only is he failing to uphold the law, he is executing an illicit and unethical act, and in doing so, actively violating the rules and laws in place.
Have you ever experienced corruption? Share your experience below.