When I was volunteering at Maya Pedal in Guatemala there was a sign on the wall that said “Que Caro Es Ser Pobre”. It means “How expensive it is to be poor.” As I travel through many of the world’s “poor” countries, I am writing a series of articles about how expensive it is to be poor. I don’t think many people in “rich” countries understand how difficult it is to climb out of poverty. I am all about positivity and I am having the time of my life right now. But I would be doing a disservice to the amazing people I’ve met if I didn’t share their story of what life is like dealing with poverty.
When I was in Arequipa, Peru I realized something that I should have picked up on a long time ago.
Many countries have several different levels of police. Most have a national police force, then below that might be regional police departments. Other countries organize police by function, for example transit police, anti-narcotics police, etc.
The job of a transit policeman is to direct traffic. Traffic has universally been horrible throughout Latin America, both in terms of the amount and the propensity for drivers to do stupid things. These traffic policemen do their best to make things run as efficiently as possible.
I love the gloves the Peruvian traffic policemen wear – it’s their flag if you didn’t catch it.
But when you think about it, this is a huge waste of tax money. As you can see, often these traffic policemen are stationed at places with functioning traffic lights. But due to a combination of excessive traffic, inadequate infrastructure, and bad driving, these policemen are needed to maintain order and keep things moving – a total waste of public spending.
This is not a Peruvian phenomenon, by the way. I’ve seen it throughout Latin America.
In developed countries you could say that the police who catch speeders are performing the same function. That’s true to some extent. The traffic police here often set up roadblocks to check the documents of all the drivers to ensure they have a license. They also check to see if combi (shared taxi vans) drivers have the proper authorization to drive these vehicles, which essentially function as public transportation.
In the end, such checks cause delays and inconveniences – even on the highways. But more than the inconveniences and delays, it’s a use of public money in the form of the salaries and benefits of these policemen that could be better spent elsewhere to more directly benefit the people – whether in the form of money for education, health care, more regular policemen to combat crime, or better infrastructure to eliminate the need for police presence.