Colombia: Cell-Phone Theft Epidemic the Latest Pretext for Less Freedom

EspañolLast week, I addressed the President Juan Manuel Santos and his recent decisions that signal a desperate attempt to win reelection. Today, I will focus on another example that has unfortunately not garnered much media attention, despite its serious implications.

Earlier this year, the National Police announced that mobile phone theft is on the rise throughout the country. It has, in fact, become one of the most common crimes in Colombia, as well as one of the major contributing factors toward the general sense of insecurity felt by citizens. In addition, General Rodolfo Palomino stated that cell phone theft increased primarily for two reasons: First, 98 percent of the victims do not report the crime to authorities. Second, when thieves are caught, there is a 90 percent chance they will be released within a few hours.

Despite these statistics, however, President Santos has announced yet another one of his “brilliant” ideas. On April 3, the president ordered a ban on the import and export of used mobile phones. Similarly, he signaled his plan to submit a bill that will toughen the penalties for buying or selling stolen cell phones.

Once again, the Colombian government has decided to waver in the fulfillment of its duties, in addition to further restricting the individual rights of citizens; this is another false solution to a basic societal problem. Instead of planning to strengthen the capacity of authorities to act against crimes such as theft, or enhance the effectiveness of the judiciary, the government has decided on a restrictive and useless course of action that will only lead to more problems.

This plan is restrictive because, rather than put the onus on their own performance, state officials have opted to instead place the burden on the public. Consumers will not only have to consider the quality and price of the phone they would like to purchase, they must now also question the source. The same will apply to commercial traders. The government prefers to limit international commerce than actually dedicate itself to doing what, in theory, it ought to do.

Further, the plan is useless because prohibition will never work. As acknowledged by the director of the National Police, people do not report theft because they know that, at the end of the day, thieves will not be punished. In other words, in Colombia, we have a problem of impunity, and an inability of police to perform their most basic functions.

Somehow, however, the president seems to think that the police can be effective in controlling each and every mobile phone sale made in the country. Those that fail to abide by the president’s “order” will then supposedly be punished by the courts. It’s obvious that if the Colombian government is unable to provide even the legitimate services of security and justice to its people, there is no chance it can track and trace all transactions related to the international cell phone market. Cell phone theft will, of course, continue.

Finally, if this “order” by the president is implemented, it will generate a host of new problems. People are bound to purchase used mobile phones. If they’re banned, that only opens the door to a larger black market. The same will occur at an international level with trade: the transactions that are made will simply not be reported.

Will this not have far worse consequences as observed in other black markets, such as the illegal trafficking of weapons? Won’t it adversely affect public finances, reducing the state’s ability to collect revenue through commercial transactions internationally?

There are two other aspects of the president’s proposal that are also worth considering. First, the president said that the ban on foreign trade in this instance is necessary, because, after all, it is a gang of thieves that engage in these sorts of transactions. If this is true, and they’ve identified the culprits, then why have they not been captured?

Further, as I pointed last week, this decision by the president can be explained by his desire to attract positive media attention, regardless of whether or not his policy will actually work. Santos makes these sort of announcements simply because he believes they will be received well by the public. Is it not alarming that most people consider it appropriate for the government to restrict their freedom to trade whatever they want with whomever they want, instead of demanding that the authorities fulfill the only legitimate functions they were elected to carry out?

The Colombian government needs to solve the problem of rampant mobile phone theft in the country. However, further burdening and repressing the people is definitely not the way to do it. In doing so, the state continues to default in its responsibilities that justify its existence while transforming them into deeper authoritarianism.

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

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