Last week I got a moving violation. A cop pulled me over as I was making a right hand turn onto a main drag in LA because I didn't wait for a woman who was on the complete opposite side of the crosswalk to finish crossing. It was the culmination of such a frazzled morning that I almost cried. Ok, I did cry.
As I railed to the heavens about the injustice of the Los Angeles Police Department, the wrong that was done me all because LA - nearly bankrupt - is looking to make a quick buck, I admitted to myself, in a brief moment of clarity, that at least I had broken the law.
Let me explain.
I just returned from an assignment to Caracas, Venezuela. Though I had been there just two years earlier, I was shocked at how much the city had changed. The country's flailing economy has turned the capitol city into a den of danger and crime. The walls of the public plazas were vandalized by graffiti. More homeless people than I had ever seen there before begged me for money. My Venezuelan friend warned me not to go out after dark, when just two years ago we would go out to late dinners and walk around freely afterwards. That friend had already had his cell phone stolen 3 times in one month - twice at gunpoint.
But according to the people I spoke to about the insecurity problem in Caracas, it is not just delinquents doing the crime.
I spoke to an administrative head of one of the large synagogues in Caracas who told me that she was just fed up with the police who are stationed outside the synagogue to protect it - the government's concession to those who say their anti-Israel rhetoric has crossed the line to an anti-Semitic policy [for more on this watch HDNet's World Report on April 20th]. When I asked her why she was so frustrated, she explained that those same police were routinely stopping cars driving past the synagogue and requesting a "tax" to continue down the road. If they refused, the police would brandish their weapons. In one case, the woman told me, an officer stopped a man driving, demanded payment and, when the man explained he had no money on him, tied him to a nearby pole. The officer then called the driver's father and demanded the money. Another source confirmed the account. I have not included their names in order to protect their anonymity.
Police corruption exists all over the world. But in my experience as a journalist covering many South American countries, I have never heard of such a blatant and consistent kind of abuse of power by law enforcement. These acts are done regularly, often in broad daylight, with complete impunity. And this synagogue is not the only location. Venezuelans do not know where or when they will be targets.
So yes, I got a moving violation, and yes, I will have to pay a fine and most likely get a point on my license because I have maxed out my driving school privileges for the year (I might not have mentioned that I am a native New Yorker and while I have lived in LA for nine years, I still have a deficiency in the driving department).
But at least I broke the law.
At least I know exactly what I did to receive a ticket, and I know exactly how to avoid it in the future. My city might be broke, but, at least in my case, the cops are fair.
I am sure most Venezuelans wish they could say the same.