In some countries you pay taxes, in others you pay “taxes.”
A English friend and long term resident Dhaka told me a story about how he was riding with a Bangladeshi guy on a highway in the countryside when they were stopped by a couple of police officers pulling a rope across the road. A globally standard way of enacting a road block. The cop went through some BS rigamarole about lights or mirrors or speeding or something until the driver pulled out a little cash and handed it over.
“Doesn’t that make you mad?” my English friend asked as they drove off.
The Bangladeshi just shook his head and smiled.
“No, not really,” he said. “It costs a lot of money to become a police officer, you know.”
How do people become police officers in many countries of the world: they pay.
They pay for the job because that gives them the opportunity to collect bribes. This is how the police really make money — their official pay is often too low to warrant the kind of work they do.
The more money they pay the better position they get. By better position, I mean being stationed in a place where people are wealthier and can therefore afford to pay better bribes.
In some places, like in Central America, becoming a cop can be a community affair — a neighborhood will pool together the funds to buy one of their members into the police force, whereupon he will redistribute around a portion of his “earnings.”
Most often, this type of police-induced extortion is not really the practice of independent operators or rogue elements, but is a fundamental part of a much larger system. Street cops distribute a specified portion of their earnings to their superior, who will then distribute a portion of his earnings to his superior, all the way up the chain of command — which can stretch into the highest echelons of government.
Moving up in this profession means paying the required amount to get to the next rung. The higher up you can afford to get, the larger your take. It’s kind of like how spoils were once divided on pirate ships — everybody gets their appropriate cut of the booty.
We often view the police officers that we bribe as corrupt, we often view them as scumbags sucking out the essence of their societies. When cops do this in countries like the USA, that’s usually what they are. But in Asia, Africa, Latin America . . . it’s different. The cops themselves are caught in the middle. If they under-perform — i.e. don’t collect enough baksheesh to adequately pay it forward — they are moved to less desirable postings as punishment, where they will make far less money or, perhaps worse than that, actually have to work.
Corruption is a chain; with just one broken link it doesn’t hold together. Corrupt systems ensure that every link is solid.
When it comes down to it, baksheesh is what fuels the economies of many countries of this world. It’s liquid cash that keeps the economic wheels spinning. Black money can’t really be kept out in the open, it can’t be kept in a bank — it’s money that needs to be spent to make it white again.
In countries that are fueled by black money, where the cops are basically toll collectors, everybody knows how much to pay. It’s a socially ingrained practice that’s carried out as seamlessly as a handshake. You pay the toll and you’re free to pass. It’s just the price you sometimes have to pay to use public infrastructure. It’s akin to a social tax.
Although in Bangladesh most other desirable jobs are also acquired through payment, not just those in public security. It’s so institutionalized of a practice that a common question in an interview is, “How much are you willing to pay?”
“Bangladeshis aren’t shy. They are very upfront and say what they want,” my English friend explained. “So they will be like, so do you have 14,000 in your pocket? Or this is going to cost you 14,000 to be placed in this position.”
If something is normal can it still be corrupt?
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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