Corruption in Panama
Talking to my father yesterday brought this topic of corruption of the the state up. My stance on this “corruption” thing is two-fold, as I’d be somewhat of a hypocrite if I said I was totally against it if I’ve used it before to get what I want faster and better. And in Panama, even if you try your darnest to avoid it there’s no escape: it’s so embedded in our society that sometimes people fall into it and talk about it without realizing that what they’re doing is inherently illegal… and like everything when it comes to society, the stem of all of this, the root of this corruption comes from the State. The government, the established power… it doesn’t matter who’s up there: blue, red, black, white, republican, democrat, PRD, Panameñista or independent, it’s a hard fact as evidenced by the past 4 administrations (including this one) that corruption is no longer a matter of who’s in office or not, but it’s poisoned the system so deeply that we, as a society, depend on it to get to our goals faster and this is intricately tied to our world-famous attitude of “me first and you second” or “juega vivo” that we use on a daily basis. It’s always about how to get things done faster, cheaper and easier… those who are honest are too ignorant to call the people who aren’t on their shit, and the more corruption you tie yourself to, the more power you have. It’s like turning into the dark side… it’s too good to be true, too attractive to pass up and sadly, we’re all at some degree guilty of using it to move forward.
The first government branch that springs to mind (ironically it’s the one I’ve found myself the most involved with) when it comes to corruption is the police. This is so wrong it’s unbelievable that it’s happening: how can the entity that was created to protect us abuse their power to get more money? They prey on foreigners (who don’t know about how corrupt the law enforcement really is) and the people most well off (people with money to spend won’t mind throwing some around to keep themselves off of trouble) in order to get more cash on the side… they sometimes put up roadblocks, not to find people who have done some felony but to find people they can squeeze money out of. They’re abusive and even worse than cab drivers when it comes to preying on women, specially if they’re out of the country and can’t understand the language. I’ll give you a slight example of what I mean when I say they’re looking for people to mess around with and score some cash: once, a few years ago I was at a club with my friends and we got out of there late (say around 3AM). I was in a buttoned shirt, shoes and jeans, looking awesome. Anyway, Magnus asked me if I could take him home and I agreed so we hopped in the car and made our way over there; now, at the time one of my headlights was dying out on me but it was still alive, yet you could tell the difference in luminosity between one and the other. We were driving down one of the main arteries of the city (Transístmica, for those in the know) when 2 cops hanging out by their police car in the corner of an intersection signal me into pulling over. The car I have is a spotty gray Galant from 10 years ago; back in the day it was very luxurious I suppose, so I figured these guys thought I was some kind of scareable rich kid they could squeeze a few dollars out of. Anyway, I pull over and head out of the car with my license and I hand it over to the cop who pulled me over; a quick scan saw the other one resting by the hood of the cop car, just looking on. The guy looks at my license, then at me, then at my license (this is a tactic the police use to break people who have fake licenses giving the victim fear of the cop finding out the truth) and when he realizes the license is real, the following exchange happens:
5-0: Your headlight is busted.
Rob (looking at the headlights only to see the right one slightly dimmed): Oh. Yeah, it looks like it’s a little dimmed.
5-0: That’s right. It’s busted.
A few moments of silence are shared, as I look at the headlight, look at Magnus who has a face like he’s one word away from bashing someone’s brains in and the cop is looking at me, cars are passing by, it’s late, I’m sleepy and my tolerance is quickly running dry as the cop waits for me to say something. I look at him, smile and shrug my shoulders.
5-0: Do you know how much to the ticket is for a faulty headlight?
Rob (playing coy): I don’t, sir. Tell me.
5-0 (looking like he’s making this up, playing with my license with his hand): 60 bucks.
Rob: I see. Well, my light’s not busted; it’s dimmed.
5-0 (calling his partner over to take a look at my license and the headlight, most probably also looking for what else to pin me for): Your visibility is not clear when you have a busted headlight like that.
Rob: What? If you hadn’t stopped me I would’ve never noticed my headlight’s busted, man. And you notice your headlight’s busted when you can’t see a thing! Look, I’m just gonna drop off my friend who lives right around here (not true) and I’ll go home and changed the bulb tomorrow when it’s sunny, alright?
5-0: We can’t let you leave like this.
Both of the guys are looking at me, waiting for me to ask if there’s some other way to solve this problem. I’m taking too long, Magnus is getting increasingly worried and I knew that if he got out of the car and confronted them too all hell would break lose. I had to improvise. We’re all facing the car and all incoming traffic, as sporadic as it is… and there’s no way in hell I’m gonna bribe off 2 cops on a Saturday night for a dimmed headlight. And then… and then, I see my miracle driving down the street.
Rob (cocky): Well, I don’t see a problem with my headlight. I found out about it the same moment you did (not true) and now that you’ve pointed it out to me I’ll do what I have to so I can fix it. Tomorrow morning.
5-0 (getting impatient): Well, if you can’t fix the light now, then I’m going to have to write you a ticket.
Rob (pointing to a car coming down the street): Hey, at least my headlight’s not like that taxi cab coming down the street…
A cab, at 3:20 AM or so comes down the street blasting through the avenue, music blazin’ like it’s a concert and with a broken headlight. The car was driving with only one eye. I point at it and all three of us watch on as the vehicle breezes by us and none of the cops do a thing to stop him. I turn back and them and the look on their faces was priceless. If this had been a different night I would have been laughing at these jackasses as their chances for a free breakfast came tumbling down.
Rob (snickering): THAT car’s headlight is busted. Why don’t you stop him, too?
They look at me like they’ve ran out of ideas. Their faces are blank, nothing’s happening in there… they don’t know what to do. Realizing they’ve blown it, they hand me my license back. I swiftly take it off the guy’s hand and without a word I jump back in the car and passively drive the fuck off. I’ll have much more brushes with the law over stupid shit, and many other people have been taken for a ride because these assholes feel like playing around. The corruption runs deep: get out of a problem and avoid the ticket with 5 bucks discretely hidden under your license when you give it to the officer… want a driver’s license even though you haven’t driven a day in your life? Hell, don’t worry: stand outside the DMV office and you’ll have where to choose from in under 5 minutes… the best deal (so I’ve heard) is $60 bucks and that gives you a free pass straight to getting your picture taken and having your license in under 4 hours. Scribble some shit on the written test and flat out bypass the hands-on test. Of course, this is a lot more attractive than going the traditional way, where you have to study for an impossible written test and, if by some off-chance you actually pass it, do the practice test with the car you came with, even though you can’t drive it to the DMV because you don’t have a license to begin with. If you pass them both, you get a silly talk about what it means to have a license and THEN you get your picture taken. In there at 7AM, outta there by 4PM. Sounds shitty compared to the alternative. And that’s how it is with pretty much every other branch of the government… if you pay the right people, your papers are moved to the top of the pile. Things get done faster. It’s a secret everyone knows and nobody denounces and much less does something about it because, whether we like it or not, it’s a resource that has more advantages than cons when you’re dealing with power. It’s always good to have the power on your side… and for the right price, it will be.
Since this is such a small country, you find out about a lot more things than you would a big city: add to that the level of ignorance the biggest demographic the country has and the people in power have things tailor-made for them to do things as they see fit. The problem is that when the goverment tries to do something that’s actually good they’re dumped into the “cry wolf” syndrome in reverse! It’s pathetic; the same people they abuse are the same people that shoot themselves in the foot whenever power is being used for a good cause since it’s imprinted in their minds that every government and everyone associated with it is corrupt and always puts themselves first over the people that elected them. No wonder there’s so many shady businesses and deals in Panama: crime and Panamanian credo share the same ideology…
“What can you do for me?”
The cops are corrupt, the law is corrupt, the senate is corrupt, and the people surrounding the president, who I believe is the only clean gear in the govermental machine, are corrupt as well. There’s not much you can do when everything around you, every person and every tool you have at your disposal is rotten. In a country where young adult girls and media-friendly lawyers can run over and kill people and get away with it, where offshore companies can step all over the labor laws in order to save a few bucks and stick it to their employees, where you can get out of any legal troubles for the right price, have your visa, papers, rap sheet, legal case, driver’s license, commercial license, plates, stamps, bells and whistles faster and better for the right price it’s becoming harder and harder to be an upstanding citizen of this country. Favoritisms run amok in this country in all the right places… and sadly, having a friend or relative in the government branch you need help in is always the best resource you can have. The ideal state is dead; rectifying it, nearly impossible. And steering clear against it? A fairy tale.