Sinister and conspiratorial as it may sound, it seems I’m living in a police state. The folks around me acknowledge it, and the signs are everywhere. For instance, almost every day when I leave my apartment, there are armed military personnel out walking the street. And we’re talking really armed. And like I mentioned in my previous blog post on advertisements, there are very strong (using this term in the most neutral sense possible; meaning they attempt to be extremely persuasive, though who knows how effective they are in reality) advertisements for the military. But one of the most striking pieces of evidence (for me, at least) hit me while we were staying in Aguazul.
One night we went to a nearby city, the capital of that department (what they call states here), hoping that we could find something fun to do (rather unsuccessful, but we had a nice time on the drive). On the way there and back, we passed through a section of road that was marked off as a “Puesto de Control” – roughly “Point of Control”. I asked the coworker who was driving at the time (I was sitting in the front seat with him) what that was for. He responded that it’s a place where the military can stop vehicles to check to make sure the driver isn’t drunk, to make sure the vehicle isn’t carrying contraband, etc. But he also added that things like this aren’t uncommon in Colombia (and in Latin America in general) because, well, many Latin American states are, in fact police states. The basic definition, according to Wikipedia, is “a state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of the population.” Now, while it’s not quite as serious here as the totalitarian regimes that might come to mind when you hear the term “police state”, so don’t panic on my behalf…but there are still those “points of control” visible throughout the country.
I think even the language of how that checkpoint (for lack of better terminology) was named – “point of control” is an interesting word choice. Because realistically that is exactly what it is and what purpose it serves. Again, not to get all sinister and conspiratorial, but it truly is a place where the government can exercise control over the people. Using the military/police (I have a hard time distinguishing between the two here, especially in the dark), the government can keep a watchful eye on the people. I find it especially telling that this was situated in an area where there are, at times, conflicts that flare up between the guerrilla groups and paramilitaries and the military. So I’d bet that a fringe benefit of this checkpoint for the government is that it can keep a closer guard on the guerrilla groups (which, to the best of my understanding, are perceived to be more of a threat to the government than the paramilitaries, but that’s a whole other can of worms).
But then all of this got me thinking and reflecting on the US (which often happens as I find myself digging deeper and deeper into the Colombian reality), and it got me thinking about the hidden ways that the US, too, acts as a police state. For instance, in Chicago, there are functional traffic cameras everywhere. Sure, their purpose is to catch red light violations, and that’s just fine and dandy (unless you’re a driver who gets caught by one), but also the paranoid fear of getting a ticket because of being caught by one of them serves as a training mechanism for drivers, so they don’t commit the infraction in the first place. Or even more so, bringing in more justice-y issues, how about immigration law? In the past couple of years, there have been attempts by states to criminalize not carrying identification documents while looking like an immigrant (Arizona’s SB-1070), or renting to or driving undocumented individuals (Alabama’s recent controversial immigration law). How could the US not be a police state for, let’s face it, particularly Latin@s, if while out and about they can be pulled over in these states simply for having brown skin? Sounds a lot like a police state to me…
Anyway, I’m sure I could go on longer about other points of control in daily life, but I think I’ll stop here. It’s just something to chew on, reflect about, and maybe take action on, if you feel so led. I know that, as a person with a lot of privilege, I don’t want to see my rights stripped away, but as a Christian, as an advocate for social justice, and even as a human being, it pains me to the depths of my soul to see such unjust policies exercising control over our human family, making certain things in their lives (things which more privileged individuals daily take for granted) nearly impossible at times.