Written by: Larry J. Pitman
Jim and I were sitting at one of the outdoor tables at Café Haiti in Miraflores. My friend had been in Peru a long time and usually was a very good companion. We differed in one major respect, however. He liked to come up with a simple phrase that would explain a very complex problem. Or, at least, what I think is a complex problem. That is just what happened today. We had been discussing the growing occurrence of crime in Lima. He took a sip of coffee and said to me:
“Poverty is the cause of crime. If there were no poverty, there would be no criminals.”
He then sat back and smiled; satisfied that he had provided an unassailable answer to the problem.
I was quiet for a while, appalled by the innocent simplicity of this statement. I was stunned by his one size fits all approach, reducing one of life`s mysteries, i.e. why there are criminals in our midst, to a simple formula. .
As he sat there waiting, I know that he was preparing himself for the pleasure of an argument. He knew that I didn`t like what he had said. Rather than hitting him head on, however, I decided to tell a story and see what he would say.
“Tell me if you think that this person became a criminal based on his background
His name is Luis.
Here are some facts about him:
He was born in a fishing village north of Lima in one of the poorest families in the town. Luis claims to have forty-five brothers and sisters. Rarely seeing his father, who had many women, he was raised by his mother. No financial or emotional support whatever came from his father. Therefore his mother, who was desperately poor, finally decided to move to Lima, where she barely supported the family by laundering clothes.
In Lima, Luis became a street-wise kid who sometimes got into trouble with the police. He was a smart ass who treated those in authority with contempt .In addition; he was in a gang that was actively stealing from houses and even from the church. Luis dropped out of school after the fourth grade. “
I turned to Jim, “What do you think? Is this person a potential criminal? “
“He fits the profile of a criminal in my mind. But I know you are going to tell me that he turned out to be a wonderful person. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.”
“OK, now I want to tell you the story of Victor Hugo.”
“His father was a lawyer and his mother had a successful business. Victor Hugo had a nanny who took care of him most of the time. He rarely saw his parents, but they treated him with warmth and gave him anything he wanted. He went to Markham, one of the most exclusive schools in Lima, where his grades were good. “
“Does he fit the profile of a criminal?
Jim said, “Obviously not, but I am sure you are going to tell me that he is a crook”.
“You are right; Victor Hugo is in prison serving a thirty year sentence for killing someone in a drug deal.
Meanwhile, Luis has worked hard all his life, supporting a beautiful family. His sons and daughters have excellent jobs because they received a good education and strong values. Luis is well known and respected in his community. “
“So what is the difference?
In my opinion, it has little to do with poverty. I believe that people choose to be good or bad. We all have the opportunity to do something wrong, but we choose not to take it if we are good. It has nothing to do with poverty in most cases.”
“Luis chose to do all this good with his life. He had no father to tell him what to do and his mother was busy just helping the family survive. Where Luis learned to do what he did, I do not know. Perhaps he was born with a good character. Meanwhile, Victor Hugo, with all his advantages, chose to do something wrong. I can cite you many similar cases.”
“Therefore, poverty does not cause criminals. I do not know exactly what does, but I suspect that there is no simple, easy explanation.”
I paused, waiting for Jim to slash back with his counterarguments.