Saturday, September 1, 2012

The moral economy of a floating crate of cash

I had dinner in Comayagüela with Ángela, two of her cousins from Ceiba, and a baby. The conversation ranged from national university policies to our various health issues to the drug war. There was a lot of doting over the infant and passing it around. At some point one of the cousins brought up the recent visit of Mario, the second eldest of Ángela's 9 siblings. "Have you called him? He's waiting for you to call him. He has money." "Yeah, he flew in to Tegus from Ceiba, stayed in a nice hotel for three nights, and flew back on an airplane." "He's giving money to everyone. You have to call him!" Ángela nodded and said her mother had also been on her case and agreed, she should call Mario. The conversation continued along its path.
A couple days later we met for coffee and I brought it up. "So," I said, "that money…?"
She chuckled. "Oh yeah, I was meaning to tell you about that."
"Drugs, right?" I asked.
"Yeah, it has to be drugs."
She explained to me how among fishermen like Mario and her other older brothers, floating boxes of cocaine are not entirely uncommon finds. As I wrote about earlier this year, people who find bags of drugs on the northern coasts or waters of Honduras all know whom to bring them to, and those capos amply compensate the act, usually to the tune of 50K, US dollars, cash. To not do so would to be to risk death, and in any case would be stupid. Why turn it in to the police when the police are involved in trafficking themselves, and when they're helping the DEA to kill people who are suspected of having any drug connections? And why forgo the reward when there's so little paying work?
Within Ángela's community, at least, such finds are necessarily redistributed in a way that strengthens, reaffirms, and creates kinship ties. In her poor extended family—ranging from extremely poor to middle-of-the-road, getting-by-fairly-well and university-educated poor like Ángela—a Limited Good model of wealth distribution seems to guide the discourses of the poorest family members, who see the relative wealth of their less-poor kin as having been accumulated at their expense. Meanwhile, the less-poor family members tend to employ a Protestant ethic/developmentalist logic, blaming the extreme poverty of their family members on poor choices, bad morals, a disdain for formal education, and excessively high fertility.
In Foster's Image of Limited Good theory, the only legitimate way for Tzintzuntzeños to become rich was out of nowhere: to win the lottery, or discover buried treasure. In a sense, that is true here too. Of all the money distributed among the family, Mario kept the largest share for himself, and with it bought a house. In so doing he not only shifted his position within the range of familial poverty from more- to less-poor; he also strengthened the networks of familial solidarity, and in particular dyadic ties between himself and each family member through their acceptance of and thus complicity in his dangerous gifts. To not have distributed the money would have been looked upon very harshly, and could easily have caused irreparable rifts within the family.
I asked Ángela how accepting this money fit within the seemingly strict, religious mores of her family. I had heard her parents speak disparagingly of drug users.
Read more here.

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